To start, ham is called jamón in Spanish. Jamón generally refers to the processed hind legs of a pig, but usually it is more specifically the dry, salt-cured variety. Incidentally, the ham made from the front legs of the animal is called paleta or paletilla instead—even though it is made the same way. Many hams are in fact subjected to heat during processing. Spanish ham, however is never heated (or even smoked), so it is referred to as “nama”, or uncooked ham in Japan. I guess it’s a lot like how horse mackerel that is cleaned, salted, and simply allowed to air dry without heat processing is referred to as “Cut open and dried raw horse mackerel” in other countries.
So this dry-cured ham is made in various mountainous areas of the country, which have the right temperature and humidity for it, and is also called jamón serrano (mountain ham) or jamón curado (cured ham). The prices can range anywhere from a reasonable 2.9 euros per 100 grams for jamón like the ones in the picture at the neighborhood supermarket to premium varieties selling for up to 18.9 euros per 100 grams.
The ham department at my neighborhood supermarket. You can see roasted ham, bacon, and lots of other cooked and smoked items in the case.
You can also buy the whole leg, which they actually refer to as “logs”. I’m not sure why exactly, though the color and shape definitely have a wooden look to them. It’s not that rare for people to buy these—even if they don’t have a big family.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is an ultra-premium dry-cured ham that has been making a splash in Japan recently as well. It’s made from Iberian pork, which is raised on acorns.
There are three key things that make this ham different from others.
The first is the type of pork. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is made with Iberian pork raised on the Iberian peninsula. There are six different varieties, and they are definitely not all the well-publicized “Kurobuta” or “black pork” breeds. There are fine Iberian pork breeds that are brown with black spots, for example. They are grouped and labeled according to the purity of the breed—either 100% Iberian (both parents pure Iberian), 75% Iberian (pure Iberian mother with a partially Iberian father), or 50% Iberian (pure Iberian mother with a different breed of father).
The second is the environment in which they’re raised. The hilly pastureland dotted with acorn, oak, olive, and other trees where the pigs graze is known as the dehesa. The fact that they are allowed to roam freely through nature is a big reason that the meat is so good. Quality control institutions require at least one hectare of pastureland per animal under designation of origin regulations.
Pigs happily taking a siesta under the shade of an oak tree. Unlike Italian pigs, Spanish pigs each have their own unique ways of sleeping. You might see them on their bellies, or on their left or right sides.
Third is what they eat. Their staple food is the acorns that drop from the oak trees between October and December, but that’s not their only food source. They also eat olives, grass, roots—even earthworms that they dig up with their snouts. Of course the acorns are the key to their diets, as they’re packed with oleic acid and other healthy nutrients. Pigs that are allowed to live free-range in the acorn forests are allowed to be called bellota (acorn), while those that are given feed (cebo) when the acorns are scarce must be labeled cebo de campo and are priced a little bit cheaper.
There are four places in central and southwest Spain that meet the requirements needed to be eligible for the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota denomination of origin. They are: (1) Dehesa de Extremadura in the provinces of Badajoz and Cáceres, (2) Los Pedroches in the province of Córdoba, (3) Jamón de Helva in Huelva Province, and (4) Guijuelo in Salamanca Province.
There are countless variations of Iberian ham as mentioned before with different breed purities, types of feed, and so on. All of it is premium ham, but the ultimate (at least in terms of price) is a 100% pure Iberian breed raised in an ecological free-range acorn forest. This incredibly special dry-cured ham is so expensive that it’s listed in the Guinness World Records—4,100 euros per leg (7–9 kg), or around 500,000 yen. A leg includes the hoof, bones, skin, fat, and everything else, so the edible yield is terrible—only about half that weight or around 4 kilograms. With all that, the price ends up jumping to 13,000 yen per 100 grams.
Here’s a distributor website for reference.
Incidentally, although this type of ham is naturally from 100% Iberian pigs, they are not black (kurobuta) pork but a breed called Manchado de Jabugo, which is brown with black spots and comes from Huelva Province.
Pure Iberian pigs can be brown with black spots as well. I got this photo from the website of a company called Eiríz that operates out of Huelva Province as well.
The key to completely fully bringing out the flavor of finished Iberian ham, cured through a process that takes three long years of salting, drying, and aging, ultimately hand-tested by pinching to check the texture and color, smelling the aroma, setting on the tongue to feel whether the fats properly melt, and experiencing the taste flooding the palate, is the specialized ham curing knife and the exquisite skill of the artisan who wields it. That said, nearly every Spanish family has one of these knives, and the father takes pride in using it to carve up the hock.
Tools to secure the ham are as essential as artisan skills in a professional kitchen.
Lately you’ve been able to find Jamón Ibérico in the gourmet food section of high-end grocery stores in Japan, so be sure to give it a try if you see some. It’s most likely in a vacuum pack in a chilled area. To get the maximum flavor out if it, it’s best to let it sit for thirty minutes after being unsealed to get to room temperature before enjoying it, but if you can’t wait, you can dip the sealed pack in warm water for a bit to shorten the time.
It’s important to remember that all dry-cured hams have their own unique characteristics, and some of them are quite reasonably priced—meaning that in addition to eating them plain you can stir-fry them with vegetables, add them to soups, microwave them until they’re crispy and put them on salads… the list goes on. Enjoy the culinary possibilities!
A package of thinly-sliced dry-cured ham. You can get 80 grams for 2 euros (aged 12 months) or 50 grams for 1 euro (with 25% less salt). These are everyday brands that are great eaten as-is or cooked in hot dishes.