Here is what Wikipedia says:
The black Iberian pig lives primarily in the south and southwest parts of Spain, including the provinces of Salamanca, Ciudad Real, Cáceres, Badajoz, Seville, Córdoba and Huelva. It also lives in the southeast parts of Portugal (Barrancos), where it is referred to as porco de raça alentejana.
Immediately after weaning, the piglets are fattened on barley and maize for several weeks. The pigs are then allowed to roam in pasture and oak groves to feed naturally on grass, herbs, acorns, and roots, until the slaughtering time approaches. At that point, the diet may be strictly limited to acorns for the best quality jamón ibérico, or may be a mix of acorns and commercial feed for lesser qualities.
The hams from the slaughtered pigs are salted and left to begin drying for two weeks, after which they are rinsed and left to dry for another four to six weeks. The curing process then takes at least twelve months, although some producers cure their jamones ibéricos for up to 48 months.
In particular, the ibérico hams from the towns of Guijuelo in the Salamanca province and Jabugo in the Huelva province are known for their consistently high quality and both have their own Denominación de origen. Almost the entire town of Jabugo is devoted to the production of jamón ibérico; the biggest producer is 5J Sánchez Romero Carvajal. The town's main square is called La plaza del Jamón.
The hams are labeled according to the pigs' diet, with an acorn diet being most desirable:
- The finest is called jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn). This ham is from free-range pigs that roam oak forests (called la dehesa) along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this last period. It is also known as jamón ibérico de Montanera. The exercise and diet have a significant impact on the flavor of the meat; the ham is cured for 36 months.
- The next grade is called jamón ibérico de recebo. This ham is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain.
- The third type is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico. This ham is from pigs that are fed only grain. The ham is cured for 24 months.
The term pata negra is also used to refer to jamón ibérico in general, and may refer to any one of the above three types. The term refers to the color of the pigs' nails, which are white in most traditional pork (Sus domesticus) breeds, but black for the Black Iberian breed. While as a general rule, a black nail should indicate an Ibérico ham, there are cases of counterfeits, with the nails being manually painted.
Bellota jamones are prized both for their smooth texture and rich, savory taste. A good ibérico ham has regular flecks of intramuscular fat (marbling). Because of the pig's diet of acorns, much of the fat is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.
The fat content is relatively high compared to jamón serrano, thus giving a rich taste.
Okay...so there is a little background on this treat that Spain is so famous for. Now that the holidays are upon us this commodity is a hot one. This is a common gift given during the holidays or common just to have ready for guests. We noticed these legs of ham hanging on the walls of the supermarkets when we arrived this summer. We were a bit awestruck at the bizarreness, the smell and the number of these hanging on the walls. Depending on the category these "jamon's" fall into depends on the price. These things run from about $40 per kilogram to about $170 per kilogram. This is crazy. This all brings us to today. We had to run to the Carrefour (similar to Walmart) and they have tons of salespeople roaming around with their "product" they are trying to sell...just like Costco, because it is the holidays. Well their was a representative there today from 5J, which is the biggest producer of these glorious hams. The sales rep shaved off a little slice of the leg and it literally melted in your mouth. This was so incredibly delicious that we had to bring some home. So...of course...just like everything else there are a gazillion choices. We, obviously, took a packet of the one we just tasted and decided we wanted to see if price "really" did make a difference or were they selling a name. So the packet we knew we would love was 129 euros per kilo...we only bought a .9 gram packet which was around 12 euro. We had to pick another kind so we could conduct our test...so we also bought a packet that was 99 euro per kilogram. I think we got about the same size packet for around 9 euro. Trying to make our choice was very difficult because of how many types there are. We decided to stick with the jamon iberico de bellota category.
We got home super excited to conduct our own taste test. Hands down the pricier jamon took the cake. The other one was good, but you really can tell a difference. We like to eat our jamon with queso (particularly manchego...which is another thing Spain is famous for). The pricier jamon we discovered, that we didn't want to eat it with anything, but itself for fear of masking the awesomeness that it was all alone. Tanner even had his conclusions. He loved the expensive one by itself, but admitted that he liked the second one with manchego versus all by itself. I love that they are starting to understand and distinguish some of these cultural differences.
Now, this is mostly a Spain and Portugal treat, but for those of you in the United States I believe you can order this at latienda.com or maybe you may get lucky in a local Spanish or international type marketplace. The price truly reflects the quality and is just amazing. I hope that you get a chance or opportunity to try this lucious appetizer and it would be worth a trip to Spain just for the jamon alone. Some jamon iberico, manchego, baguette and a glass of red wine...now that is a spanish slice of heaven.
The jamon's line the walls. There is actually the equivalent to an entire Walmart size aisle dedicated to all of the jamon's.
You can sort of see the "goo" on the outside of these legs. This is basically a greasy mold type substance. You obviously cut that off, but they smell terrible. They have special canvas bags that they place these in when purchased. They are bags shaped like a ham leg with a handle.
Here are a few legs that have been partially carved. After speaking with some Spaniards these really don't go bad. Because of the curing process they can last for months in this state. The Spaniards say that it really isn't a problem, becuase they don't last long. Once you start cutting on the leg you just cover it with plastic wrap so that it doesn't dry out. The key is to shave off the meat in paper thin slices. This is a true art form and is just amazing to watch.