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To iberico fans, hog heaven

October 07, 2010|Janet Mendel

JABUGO, ANDALUSIA, SPAIN — Walking into the central plaza of the small town of Jabugo, you breathe in the aroma of iberico ham, a sweet-nutty smell so intense it's as if it emanates from the very walls of the houses. This is the source -- where iberico pigs roam through forests of wild oak and scrabble for acorns and where their meat is converted into what many have declared the best ham in the world.

Jabugo, nestled in the Sierra de Aracena in southwestern Andalusia, is a name with almost mythic meaning, far out of proportion to the town's size. That's because Jabugo is synonymous with great ham. In a region where every little town seems to have a few butcher shops selling iberico ham, those from Jabugo stand out. And for the first time, that ham will be available in the United States before the end of the year.

The town is famous for its hams primarily because of the Sanchez Romero Carvajal company, established there in 1879 and now owned by the multinational Osborne Group, makers of fine sherry. The company's hams with the 5J or "Cinco Jotas" label will be available in the United States. The first to arrive probably will be paletas, or shoulder hams from the front legs, because they require a shorter curing period than hams from the rear legs. Regular hams will follow, and the anticipation is growing already.

Iberico pigs from outside Jabugo were first imported into the United States in 2008, all from the slaughterhouse and curing sheds of Fermin, still the only Spanish company to meet U.S. regulations for meat slaughtering. Now Sanchez Romero Carvajal is partnering with Fermin so that the prestigious Jabugo hams with the 5J brand can be processed through that plant.

Ham lovers quickly snatched up those first ibericos despite starting prices of more than $1,400 for a 16-pound whole, bone-in ham. The first Jabugo hams will go even higher. One website already advertises a pre-order special of $1,795 for a 5J ham.

Breeds and acorns

Iberico designates a breed of pig -- more about that later. The next important bit of label lingo is bellota, which means "acorn," and it is applied only to hams made from free-range iberico pigs that have been fattened on acorns. Iberico bellota hams are the creme de la creme, and those from Jabugo are the most treasured of all.

Iberico-breed pigs, descended from the wild boar that once roamed Mediterranean lands, are the color of the dark stones that are stacked into low walls dividing up pastures. Many -- but not all -- have black hoofs, thus the popular name pata negra, or "black foot." They are built like barrels on slim legs. Big ears tip forward like a baseball cap to shade their eyes from fierce sun. They have long snouts, the better for rooting, and slim legs and ankles, the better for foraging over distances.

What distinguishes this breed from regular porkers (such as Large White, Landrace and Duroc) is that they are very slow to mature, never reaching the size of hogs destined to be pork chops. The iberico breed, adapted to its habitat, has the unusual characteristic of storing fat marbled within the muscle, rather than wrapped around the outside. This makes it less profitable as a meat producer but makes for superior ham, as the fat is essential to its flavor. The breed might have disappeared had it not been so well adapted to its rustic habitat, providing the people of the region a sustainable rural culture based around the pig.

The dehesa, where the iberico originates , is a unique ecosystem of rolling meadowland interspersed with stands of wild holm and cork oak that exists in the western reaches of Spain. From October to February -- the fattening period called the montanera -- the pigs range freely through the dehesa, feeding on fallen acorns, grass, roots, bulbs, herbs. Each hog eats about 18 pounds of acorns every day, doubling its weight during the three- to four-month period before slaughter. A pig needs 15 pounds of acorns to gain 1 pound of weight.

The pigs are able to crack the acorns, discarding the shells, to get at the kernel. The acorns are rich in oleic acid, the same found in olive oil, which makes the hams high in monounsaturated fat. That's why acorn-fattened iberico pigs are sometimes called an "olive tree on four legs."

At the end of the montanera, when the pigs reach optimum weight of 350 to 400 pounds at 12 to 18 months of age, they are trucked to a matadero, or slaughterhouse and processing plant.

Butchers carve off the hams (hind legs) and paletas (front legs), both of which are cured. They separate enormous slabs of fat, which will be melted down to lard. The belly bacon, panceta, is salted down for keeping. Workers separate other parts to be sold as fresh meat or be ground up for sausage. ( Iberico sausages also are available in the U.S.)

Ham sculpting

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