Most connoisseurs know it to be one of the finest food products of any kind in the world, let alone the greatest of hams. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, as it is known, comes from southwestern Spain, primarily from the regions of Extremadura and Andalucia, but with a number of great jamónes made in Castilla y León, using Ibérico pigs raised in Andalucia. This winter, my son, L.J. Sconzo and I joined our good friend and Spanish culinary expert, Gerry Dawes, on a tour of these regions to see, sample and fully experience as much as we could about this fantastic product. In previous posts, I highlighted the special diet of these special pigs in the oaken dehesas of southwestern Spain and then the process by which they are slaughtered and butchered. Here, I will relay the process of how these extraordinary hams and embutidos are made.
The process begins when the freshly trimmed hind legs of the pig are placed on a bed of sea salt with a blanket of more salt on top. They are kept there for a day for each kilo of weight of the leg. At Lazo in Jabugo in the Andalucian area of Huelva, they use old salt as the bed and layer fresh salt on top. This process is useful to draw out excess moisture and to finish bleeding the meat. The term in Spain for this dry-rub of salt is salazón.
At Arturo Sanchez in the famous Ibérico curing town of Guijuelo in the Salamanca area of Castilla y Leøn, they get their pigs from the south and focus on those products useful for curing. In their curing cellars, they lay out the legs in rows with each row corresponding to a particular weight and length of time to lay in the salt beds. The salt they use comes from Murcia. While the Guijuelo area lacks the dehesas so important in raising and feeding the pigs, the climate is ideal for curing the meat.
The smaller, artisanal producers like Lazo and Arturo Sanchez don’t export to the USA and don’t need to worry about all the details that the FDA requires. COVAP, a large consortium in Los Pedroches near the Andalucian city of Córdoba, does export to the United States and by necessity, they take FDA regulations very, very seriously. In order to enter the site we had to don very specific gear and go through a rigorous disinfection process. At Lazo and Arturo Sanchez, the salt was laid directly on the floors and the hams directly atop the salt. At COVAP, the salt and hams were layered in large, mobile bins. All of the places were immaculate, however.
Once the legs have completed their allotted times in the salt cures with timed rotations on a a vertical plane and a 180º axis, they are dug out and collected.
The salt gets washed off of the surface, which also brings with it the unwanted remnants of blood and other detritus. The hams are now ready for the next step.
Prior to aging, they need to dry and will spend, like the hams in the photo at Arturo Sanchez, about three to four weeks in a drying room or secadero.
At COVAP, the hams dry in refrigerated rooms for a period of 60-90 days. It is there that they feel the remaining salt gets distributed equally throughout the meat.
Once out of the drying rooms, the paletas and jamónes will age from two to four years in special rooms hanging by the hoof. At Arturo Sanchez, the aging rooms have pine ceilings to help give their product a distinctive aroma.
In the hotter climate of Jabugo in Andalucia, they use wooden ceilings too in their aging rooms. At Lazo, the climate is all natural and they feel that the wood absorbs humidity and allows air circulation. The ropes that the hams hang from hang, themselves, from the wooden ceiling with six hams to a rope. In the often profound heat of the summer the jamónes “sweat.” With the need for air circulation, flies can be a problem, but the jamónes are protected with coatings of sunflower oil that prevent the surface from being disturbed by the insects.
At COVAP, the process is more modern and again, follows FDA regulations. They are one of only a few producers currently allowed to export to the United States (current list here). The aging rooms are temperature controlled and air flow is also tightly controlled. Natural wooden surfaces are eschewed for stainless steel and concrete, but ropes are still used to hang the aging jamónes in the traditional fashion.
While the most prized jamónes are those that come from 100% Ibérico Puro stock, the demand for these products is such that producers have introduced other breeds as well. The most common breed to have made inroads into the supremacy of the Ibérico Puro is the Duroc. At Extrem Puro in Montanchez, we learned to identify pure Iberian jamónes from those that cross the black footed Ibérico with breeds such as the Duroc. The Ibérico Puro has a slimmer foreleg than the stockier Duroc cross. Since 2013 it has been the law in Spain to indicate the percentage of Ibérico stock of the animals from which the jamónes are made. Only 100% Ibérico pigs are allowed in products labeled as Puro Ibérico, however, so long as the stock is at least 50% Ibérico, the label can read “Jamón Ibérico.” The label only reads “de Bellota” if the animal has spent the required amount of time in the montanera phase of feasting, free-range, on acorns in the dehesa.
Throughout the process, identifiers are placed on each jamón noting the origins, dates and the producers. Even the most artisanal of the producers utilize modern inventory identification and control techniques. The tags and identifiers are strictly regulated. We wanted to take some tags from Lazo as souvenirs, but that was prohibited and would have caused a few slightly major accounting anomalies. We didn’t. There are four denomiaciónes de origen in Spain for Cerdo Ibérico and we visited a producer in each of them. They are all more distinct than I could have imagined.
In Spain and throughout most of the world, Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is sold whole, that is to say, hoof-on. One place where that is not allowed is the United States (go figure!). In order to export to the US, companies like COVAP must de-hoof their jamónes prior to export. That means that in the United States, we are unable to identify a Jamón Ibérico by its pata negra or black foot. The production facility at COVAP has a special room to de-hoof the jamónes specifically for export to the United States.
Jamónes are not the only items cured in these bodegas. The rest of the animal other than cuts used for fresh consumption are used to make the various embutidos. Some, like chorizo and salchichón, are chopped up and mixed with select ingredients before being encased. Others, like lomo, are rubbed with salt, garlic and pimentón before they are stuffed into their casings, which may be natural or synthetic collagen.
In many cases the embutidos are smoked in special smoking areas. This one at Arturo Sanchez is used every other day. Our timing, unfortunately, was off, and we missed seeing it in action.
Once smoked, they, like the jamónes, are left to age. For much more detail, including recipes, please see the excellent new book, Charcutería: The Soul of Spain by Jeffrey Weiss.
Coming soon, the last installment in the series, which will take a closer look at the finished products.