The result? The most delectable ham you'll ever consume.
It doesn’t just start with the curing process, though - the pigs have to meet exacting breeding and feeding standards before they can go through the remaining processes that earn them the PDO Guijuelo stamp. For starters, they must be 100% or 75% Iberian breed.
The stringent requirements that the ham must meet to earn the PDO certification continue after the salting period. Once the hams have been washed to remove the salt from its exterior, they’re left in climate-controlled conditions for two to three months to help draw the salt well into the flesh. They’re then hung for between 18 and 24 months, exposed to the unique conditions of the Guijuleo region to cure naturally, before being transferred to a cellar to age for at least 12 months or more often an average of 18 months.
There are around 70 family businesses (many of which are fourth and fifth generation producers) within the PDO region. Within this designated territory, which includes Castile Leon, Extremadura, Castile-La Mancha and Andalusia, the pigs snuffle about freely, munching on meadow grasses and, during the October-March season, enjoying flavourful, nutrient-rich acorns.
We’re all familiar with the importance of ‘free range’ and most of us probably also know that, even aside from animal welfare concerns, “free to roam” animals just taste better. In the case of these Iberian pigs, their wandering lifestyle means that their muscles develop and the fat from their diet works its way deep into their flesh, which is what gives the ham its ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ marbling, flavour and silkiness.
Next time you’re looking to buy an Iberian ham, look out for the different coloured labels, each of which gives further insights into the provenance and diet of the pig. Black and red labels both denote that the pigs have been acorn fed and that the hams are, respectively, 100% and 75% Iberian, while a green label means that the ham is no less than 75% Iberian and that it has been fed on “cebo de campo’ (cereal and legumes) and natural grasses.
The fat content in Iberian ham is undeniable - the meat glistens as it slides off the ham and on to the knife - but, since it has been demonstrated on more than one occasion that naturally occurring fats are beneficial to us, and that highly processed foods are exactly the opposite, that delectable unctuousness should be enjoyed! Besides that, Iberian ham has high levels of protein, minerals and vitamins, including the B vitamins, iron, selenium, potassium, zinc and iron.
Getting to grips with the anatomy of an Iberian ham
Not all parts of an Iberian ham are created equal, however, and different sections have subtly different taste qualities and different ideal uses. Closest to that well-recognisable black hoof is the cane, the toughest part, which is ideal for adding a full and rich flavour to soups.
Moving away from this, the hock, which has a stronger flavour and oilier texture. That rounded, tender looking area? The cushion - tasty, meaty and where the fatty marbling is most evident. Sloping away below this, the fore cushion, which contains little fat. From here, you come to the tip, where a large amount of oil and salt tends to gather; a little way up from this you find the knuckle, which is the area most cured and with the lowest fat content.
Whichever type or part of the ham is being cut, keep in mind when serving your ham that the temperature must be no lower than 24 degrees for that long, narrow blade to glide freely through it, helping to ensure a perfect cut.
Buon appetito y salud!