One of the fascinating things about the world’s great food is the way they are a product of environment, geography and history combined into one mouthwatering gastronomic experience. The western provinces of Spain are a good example. About eight hundred years ago, it was decreed that every village would be responsible for maintaining a mixture of grass, for grazing; cork trees, for firewood; and holm oaks, for shade, building materials and acorns. This woodland prairie, in effect a man-made ecosystem, once covered 90% of the region and while it is now much smaller, the dehesa, as it is called, still provides one of the world’s greatest hams: jamon iberico de bellota.
Bellota means ‘acorn’, and it so happens that the native black-hoofed pigs are remarkably fond of the vast piles of nuts that fall each autumn from the branches of the holm oaks. At this time of year, the cattle and sheep are shut away, and the pigs are turned loose to roam, snuffle and above all eat to their heart’s content. After two months of devouring up to ten kilograms of acorns a day, they roughly double their body weight. They get so fat that they have to be neutered because the females are too overweight to be able to run away from the wild boars who would otherwise come down from the mountains to shag them and in the process compromising the purity of the breed.
In winter the pigs are slaughtered and the legs cured with sea salt. Remarkably, though, the fattest animals are not yet even halfway through their journey from sty to plate. The acorns on which they have been feeding are rich in oleic acid, the same fatty acid found in olives and iberico pigs are sometimes called “four-legged olive trees”.
This in turn means that their meat can cure for far longer than ordinary hams, from eighteen months to two years or even more and during this time, a kind of reverse fattening process happens and the leg loses up to half its original weight, but acquires a depth of flavour unmatched by any other ham.
It is sold with its black hoof still attached, as an indication of its origins, it is kept on a special stand and carved into the thinnest of slices, to be served with a couple of eggs for breakfast, as evening tapas with a glass of salty fino sherry, or as a light lunch with crusty country bread and a little manchego cheese. The colour is a deep ruby red, the texture is dense and chewy quite unlike a silky, sticky slice of, say, prosciutto di Parma and the taste is characterised by a rich, nutty sweetness that gives way to a lingering finish, like old wine.
Not all jamon is de bellota however and there are various grades and the hams are labeled according to the pigs’ diet.
Only the finest jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de bellota and this ham is from the free-range pigs that roam the oak forests along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this lastfew weeks of their lives. It is also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera and the ham is cured for a minimum of three years. The next grade of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de recebo, which is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain. The third type of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico, which is ham is from pigs that are fed only grain and is cured for twenty-four months.