Cutting a slice of Ibérico ham with a hamknife. Juan Manuel Sanz/©ICEX
Pork have always enjoyed pride of place in Spanish gastronomy. There is evidence of the presence of pigs on the Iberian Peninsula in pre-Roman times, as in the Celtiberian sculptures known as verracos (wild boars), to be found in several provinces in inland Spain. But it was during the Roman domination that pig breeding was widely adopted in the territory then known as Iberia.
Although pig farming and pork processing are also very relevant in many other countries, in Spain, the existence and conservation of a native pig species with unusual characteristics, the Ibérico pig, makes the Spanish pork tradition an exceptional one. The Ibérico pig is the last of the grazing species in Europe. Its natural environment, the dehesa, the breeding method which allows the pigs to roam freely and the artisan methods for preparing the pork products are relics of ancient traditions.
The word dehesa is used to describe the sparsely wooded pasturelands of holm and cork oaks that survive over large areas of central and south-west Spain , in the provinces of Salamanca (Castile-León), Cáceres and Badajoz (Extremadura), Huelva and Córdoba (Andalusia), and Toledo and Ciudad Real (Castile-La Mancha). The dehesa is a complex, well-balanced ecosystem used for grazing pigs, cattle and sheep and for other purposes such as grain cultivation, cork production and hunting. The preservation of this unique ecosystem is vital to prevent erosion and preserve the landscape, fauna and flora in a territory covering about 2,300,000 hectares (5,683 million acres).
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The characteristics of the Ibérico pig, with its long legs and strong, pointed snout, and its dark skin and hoofs are the result of its perfect integration into its environment. The pigs use all the food offered by the dehesa, from grass and stubble to wild legumes but, above all, acorns.
This balanced, natural food is largely the reason for the excellent organoleptic qualities of the pork. These animals are able to store fatty deposits infiltrated into their muscles, making the meat especially moist and tender.
The production cycle of these pigs is longer than that of white pigs, and as a breed they are less prolific. For these reasons, together with the fact that the Ibérico pig produces less food than other pig breeds, the Ibérico pig headcount is low. In spite of the excellent quality of Ibérico pork meat and pork products, the Ibérico pig still accounts for a relatively small proportion of the total pig population in Spain.
While searching for acorns on the dehesa towards the end of the production cycle, the pigs are constantly exercising, and this exercise, along with the infiltrated fat, gives the meat its moistness and firm texture. The period during which the pigs graze freely towards the end of the summer and early autumn is known as the montanera. The pigs that gain at least fifty per cent of their initial weight during the montanera are described as acorn-fed (de bellota). Those that still need to be finished are called recebo indicating that they have received mixed feed. If they eat only grain, they are described as cebo, and if this is supplied in the open air, as cebo de campo. Finally, the labels on Ibérico hams, shoulders and loin sausages must state whether the product is pure Ibérico (when both parents, the boar and the sow, were pure Ibérico pigs) or just Ibérico (if at least 50% is of the Ibérico breed).
A great variety of products are made from the succulent, aromatic meat of Ibérico hams, shoulders, and a range of cured charcuterie products, using recipes that are often hundreds of years old
Production is also carried out today in mixed and industrial drying chambers where optimum conditions are replicated, but the skill, experience and care of the artisan producers are still essential. The minimum curing period for an Ibérico ham is about 18 months, but it may exceed 24 months for larger hams.
Acorn-fed Ibérico ham is considered a gourmet food, one that seduces the taste buds of anyone trying for the first time. It should be eaten in wafer-thin slices to appreciate the fragrant, delicate flesh, colored between pink and purple, and flecked with fat generated by the pigs’ acorn diet. Rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, the fat melts in the mouth, flooding the palate with its intense, long-lasting flavor.
Alongside hams and shoulders, whole loin sausages are made. First the meat is dressed with salt, pimentón (a Spanish type of paprika), garlic, oregano and other seasonings. It is then stuffed into a natural casing and cured for at least four months. Ibérico chorizos are also famed for their exquisite aroma, made by seasoning lean meat with garlic, pimentón and other seasonings, following one of the many traditional recipes. Other products are Ibérico salchichón (made in a similar way to chorizo but with more spices and no pimentón), morcilla (blood sausage) and morcón (a sausage made from lean pork with salt, garlic, sweet pimentón and pepper).
Ibérico pork is also excellent as fresh meat. Until recently, it was only available in the pig-farming areas but today it figures on the menus of leading chefs in Spain and elsewhere, especially in Japan. Altogether, Ibérico pork can be considered one of Spain';s most appetizing contributions to the world’s genetic and gastronomic heritage.
List of food stores in Spain
List of food stores around the world
- Dehesa de Extremadura PDO
- Guijuelo PDO
- Jamón de Huelva PDO
- Los Pedroches PDO
- Ibérico black sausage
- Ibérico chorizo
- Ibérico loin
- Ibérico morcón sausage
- Ibérico pâté
- Ibérico salchichón
Ibérico products are produced only in Spain
|Year||Volume (millions of pieces) (*)|
10% (estimated figure. Source: Mercasa)
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