Story and photos by Manos Angelakis

Extremadura Jamón Iberico de Bellota

Spanish Jamón

In the Iberian Peninsula, there are two varieties of dry-cured, uncooked  artisanal ham: Jamón Serrano and Jamón Iberico. There are regional and  even local variations with subtle changes in the ham’s taste, mostly due to the breed used for the ham -- either white Danish-breed pigs or  commercially grown stock of mixed heritage or Iberico pigs that have  black hoofs.

Serrano is actually at the bottom of the range of Spanish artisanal hams; of better quality  and more savory is the Jamón Iberico. At the top of the range is Jamón  Iberico de Bellota i.e. ham from free-range Iberico pigs that have been  fed mostly acorns for much of their life.

Extremadura Jamones on Drying Rack

Additional taste variations occur from the way the hams are processed and the  amount of residual fat remaining in the meat at the end of the  processing. The general processing method is as follows: The fresh hams  are covered with a liberal amount of salt and left in it for two to  three weeks to draw out excess moisture. Then the salt is washed off and the hams are hung to air-dry in a temperature and humidity controlled  space for at least 6 months and as long as three years, depending on the size of the ham and the requirements of their PDO or TSG status. Some  producers hand-massage the hams as they hang to distribute the fat  evenly throughout the flesh. 

There  are numerous regional variations on the theme and regions that produce  hams use various designations. The best hams that I’ve tasted during my  Iberian peregrinations have been: Dehesa de Extremadura, during my  trip to Extremadura; Jamón de Teruel where the ham is  produced near the town of Teruel, Aragon; Jamón Ibérico Fermín€ from  Salamanca, and Jamón de Huelva. In Portugal, I’ve loved the dry-cured  ham from the Iberico pigs but also a cold-smoked version that is dryer and has a smoky and much saltier taste.

Extremadura Iberico Pigs

When I visited Dehesa de Solana, a producer five kilometers from the border with Portugal, the first  thing we did was to go see the “oak forest” where two or three hundred  saws live together with a single hog! In reality, it is not really an oak forest; it is a large savannah kind of hillside with a number of oak trees growing here and there, but also has lots of grass and a couple waterholes where the animals drink and bathe. The pigs were, I think,  interested in us as much as we were interested in them. When they saw us, the entire group came over and surrounded us.

Extremadura Dehesa de Solana Facility

We then went to see the facility. It is a very large warehouse where the  ham processing takes place and has both wholesale and retail operations. What we saw was about 20,000 bone-in hams, starting from the initial  salt-curing and then hung in frames from the rafters, at different  stages of readiness. When the hams are considered ready, they have lost  about 35% of their weight, and have gained the incredible taste that a true Iberico jamón has.

Extremadura Carving Iberico on Stand

When carving takes place, the bone-in Jamones are held on a frame and the meat is carved with flat, flexible knives.

Each “Jamón Maestro” that I met has his personal collection of blades that are hand-honed daily on an oil-stone. Jamón carving is an art and the  better carvers are very much in demand. Actually, the very best are considered “Product Ambassadors” and are flown around the world to carve jamón during exhibitions and events.




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