The Production of Spanish Ham
As you’d expect from such a gourmet delicacy, the production of Spanish hams is strictly regulated by the Producers Association in order to maintain the highest standards, even as demand for the finest Spanish ham soars, now that the rest of the world has discovered Spain’s best kept secret.
The Pigs’ Diet
The first stage in production is of course the rearing and feeding of the pigs themselves. The most expensive and exclusive Spanish ham, Jamon Iberico Bellota, is made from the black Iberian pig, which, after being reared on a careful diet of maize as a piglet, is set loose to roam among the cork oaks and holm oaks of the dehesa pastureland.
The flavour of the meat is largely determined by the pig’s diet and so there are separate labels and names for pigs who have fed exclusively on this wild foraging diet and those whose diet has been supplemented by compound feed. Jamon Serrano, or mountain ham, is made from white pigs fed on compound feed and is also subject to strict regulations though with a shorter curing time. Still delicious, it is considered a less exclusive though more affordable ham.
The slaughter of the pigs is also overseen by the Producers Association and each hind leg and shoulder ham is given an indelible numbered tag, so that the whole maturation process can be supervised.
Salting and Resting
Now the curing of the hams begins with immersion in sal gordo - sea salt - for ten to fourteen days according to their weight. They are kept very cool,1-5 degrees C, at this point. They are removed from the salt and washed down in lukewarm water, then hung in a cool room to rest for 4-6 weeks. This period allows the salt to penetrate the hams to preserve them and gives the ham a denser consistency.
The next stage of curing takes 6-9 months, as the hams are hung in the traditional well-ventilated secadero, drying area. The temperature is more variable here, allowing for the natural climate of the area where the dry mountain air is relied on to cure the hams over the winter and early summer. The hams lose more moisture and the fat ‘sweats’ into the muscle, developing flavour and aroma
The last phase is the maturation in bodegas or cellars for between 6 and 30 months for the flavours to continue to develop and mature. The hams are finally tested for maturity by puncturing with a long thin bone so that the can assess the maturity by its aroma.