What It Takes to Make the Best Ham in the World

A herd of black pigs roams the dusty hillsides of southwestern Spain, their flat black noses twitching and snuffling through the dirt as they feast on just-fallen acorns. These are ibérico pigs, and their haunches are destined to become the greatest hams in the world.

You never forget your first ración of Iberian ham. It is a sight to behold, translucent and shimmering like shards of red stained glass, a shade darker than prosciutto and twice as fragrant. You can often smell it before it hits the table, and when you reach for a slice, it melts between your fingers and tastes musky, meaty, and rich all at once.

 

Great jamón starts with great pigs, and in Spain, the best stuff comes from the endemic Iberian breed. These black-footed animals, genetically between domestic pigs and wild boars, have roamed the Iberian peninsula since the time of the Phoenicians, which has made them ideally suited to dehesas, the rugged Mediterranean forests that they inhabit. But when it comes to the final product, pigs are only half of the equation: Generations of artisans—from butchers to salters to bodega masters—have perfected the recipe for jamón ibérico over several centuries.

Of course, perfection comes at a price—in this case, around $200 a pound. To understand how one of the most luxurious hams on the market is made and what makes it so expensive, we traveled to Jabugo, a whitewashed village in the heart of jamón country. There, we met the experts at Cinco Jotas, Spain’s most prestigious jamón ibérico producer. We wanted to know the tricks of the trade—the keys to creating one-of-a-kind ham, from pig to plate.

100% Purebred Ibérico Pigs

Jamón ibérico’s gets its complex, nutty flavor and velvety mouthfeel from the fine streaks of intramuscular fat that permeate the meat— a signature of the Iberian breed. It may come as a surprise, then, that a mere 5% of hams labeled “Ibérico” are made from purebred hogs. That’s because purebreds require a much larger investment than conventional pig breeds: They mature at a slower rate, slaughtered at 22 months (as opposed to six, the pork industry standard) and require an enormous amount of space to roam (at Cinco Jotas, each animal is allotted five acres).

To Cinco Jotas, it’s a labor of love that pays off: “The diet and lifestyle of our 100% purebred Iberian hogs make for not only exquisite flavor, but also for a healthier product,” María Castro Bermúdez-Coronel, Cinco Jotas’s director of communications, told Fodor’s. “Our hams are particularly high in polyunsaturated ‘good’ fats like omega-9 and oleic fatty acids.”

Acorn-Carpeted Forest Floors

During the autumn feeding season called la montanera, Iberian pigs range over nine miles a day through the scrubby dehesas. A herd of oinking vacuum cleaners, they root along the forest floor, sucking up the acorns that fall from the oak and cork trees overhead. Each animal consumes a staggering 1,200 pounds of acorns during this two-month period. The pigs have an ancient symbiotic relationship with the dehesas: They supply fertilizer and nutrients to the very plants that provide them with necessary food and shade.

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Scrupulous Artisanship

It takes an army of experts to achieve top-grade jamón ibérico. There are the porqueros, swineherds who spend months in the dehesas presiding over the unruly pigs. Then there are the perfiladores, specially trained butchers who trim the hams, ensuring balance of muscle and fat. Next come the salazón experts, who know precisely how much salt to use in the dry-curing stage. Finally, the maestro bodeguero keeps the aging chambers at the optimal temperature and humidity level, a crucial responsibility as the hams will hang from the rafters for at least three years before heading to market.

Expert Knife Skills

After the maestro bodeguero has deemed a jamón ready to eat, it’s either sold whole or set aside for carving. The hams destined to go under the knife at Cinco Jotas are always sliced by hand, a necessary step, as machine cuts can lead to rubbery slices. There’s often wonderful showmanship in Spain when it comes to slicing ham for guests, and watching an experienced jamón cutter break down a ham is one of the more entrancing gastronomic spectacles one can witness in the country.

Black-Label Certification

Until 2013, meat from crossbred pigs that had never seen a dehesa, let alone an acorn, could be sold as acorn-fed ham. Luckily a color-coded labeling system has since been put in place by the Ministry of Agriculture to help consumers know what’s what. A black tag—which you’ll find on all Cinco Jotas products—means you’re getting 100% pure-breed, acorn-fed ibérico; a red tag, on the other hand, means the pork is acorn-fed and mixed-breed. Green means wild or natural feeding, but not necessarily on acorns, while white means the pig was fattened on industrial grain.

All of this painstaking care, from the pampering of the animals to the precision of the curing process, makes for an unequaled final product that reflects its distinctive terroir— not unlike Champagne or Alba truffles. Just keep an eye on your wallet, because your first slice of Iberian ham certainly won’t be your last.

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