Wednesday, 21 December 2011

How to choose your jamón this Christmas

One of the most expensive jamones
in the world
We choose to use the Spanish word for ham to avoid any possible confusion. Not that there can be much confusion about the taste. For the most part, foreigners use the words jamón serrano to mean what amounts to a large variety of, literally, 'mountain ham'. This is the variety one usually gets in a tapa in a bar. But there are three factors that determine not only the quality, but also the taste and, especially, the price. Finding the right one, or one that is best value for money, is about as easy as winning El Gordo lottery. In this item we will be using some denominations that even the Spaniards are confused about, but since prices can vary from €18 a kilo to €750 (paid in Japan in October), it's probably a good idea to get some knowledge on the subject. But, as we said in another item on this delicious subject (Let's Ham it Up, JimenaPulse, June 2007), it all starts with the pig.>>>

If the Iberian pig - hence the name ibérico for a whole lot of pork products including jamón - is fed in the wild, the result is immeasurably better; the cheaper types are not. The expression pata negra (black foot, or trotter) comes from the colour of, yes, the trotter. If it is black, the breed is pure, if not, it has been 'domesticated' with other breeds. But then, you could come across the picaresca española (Spanish picaresque, or guile) whereby the trotter is painted black, or boot polished. At this time of year, beware of someone coming to your door selling a pata negra at a ridiculously low price: it is either stolen, or polished.

In essence, the look, texture, taste, aroma and even the nutrients in a jamón, depend on three basic factors: its feed, its breed and the environment in which it is bred.

The feed factor: bellota or cebo
The major differentiating factor that distinguishes the Iberian jamón, and for which it is so highly prized (according 90% of consumers), is its taste. And herein lies the crux.

Although there are four different categories of feed - Bellota, Cebo, Recebo and Cebo de Campo - the reality is that the latter two apply to only 3% of the total production of Iberian jamón in 2010. Which is why at the retail end, we will probably only see the first two.

Bellota means acorn. A pig fed on acorns and grasses in a dehesa (pasture) at the fattening stage, will be called de Bellota. The other kind is called de Cebo because it has been fed all along on composite feeds made up mainly of grain and legumes.

The type of fat on Iberian jamón depends in good measure on what the pig has been fed on. Acorns are rich in oleic acid, the same as is contained in olive oil and will thus help in increasing 'good cholesterol' (HDL) and reduce the 'bad' kind (LDL). But acorns also give Iberian jamón its intense taste, as well as its texture and aroma. The fat from a plate of good acorn-fed jamón will almost melt in the mouth - one way of measuring its worth, except you will have to have bought it by then. But why? Because a pig that has been free to roam on a dehesa all its life is pretty well stress free. That plus the exercise in finding its own food give it the colour of its meat and the texture that is so characteristic of this delicacy.

The breed factor: the difference between Iberian and Pure Iberian
According to the Quality Regulations (approved by Royal Decree in 2007), the Pure Iberian jamón can come only from Pure Iberian pigs, male and female, that are inscribed in the genealogical register for that breed. Like a Thoroughbred horse, or a Crufts Champion, in other words.

A pig that comes from crossing a female Pure Iberian with a male Duroc (the most common 'other' breed) or a mixture of both, will get its jamón called Iberian, but nothing else. Both, or either, categories must be clearly indicated on the labels, at the retail establishment and at the restaurant or bar table.

The breeding environment
There is little similarity in a jamón that comes from a pig that has been free-range bred, compared to that of one coming from an animal in captivity, even though both are submitted to rigorous controls, not only of the place they are bred, but also in the manner it is slaughtered and processes thereafter.

An Pure Iberian pig fattened out in a pasture is absolutely coherent with its environment - which makes the breeding of Iberian pigs a very sustainable agricultural pursuit. Each pig must have at least one hectare of dehesa for its proper acorn feeding, and it must be there for a minimum of 60 days before slaughter. This, coupled with the time allotted to its growth (14 months, as opposed to the 10 demanded of simple Iberians). Which is one reason why the price for an Ibérico Puro de Bellota or an Ibérico de Bellota is that much higher. The same rule of thumb applies to free-range eggs or chickens, for instance.

Your choice
In the end it is your choice, which is made easier with enough information to recognize the difference in breeds (Puro Ibérico and Ibérico) and the feed (Bellota or Cebo). Also, this basic information will be enough to make an educated choice when standing in front of a counter full of hanging hams you can't tell the difference - and then we make the decision according to our tastes and pockets.

Why, you may ask, is this brought up now, a couple of days away from Christmas? Because every Spanish home that is able to, will have a jamón ready to carve in the thinnest possible slivers to offer guests as they come by with seasonal greetings. ¡Feliz Navidad!

© 2011 Alberto Bullrich

No comments: