What Is Jamon Iberico and Why Is It So Expensive?

This rare ham has a big price tag — and for good reason.

There are many cuts of pork fit for a fine charcuterie board (or charcuterie house). There's soppressata or salami. Maybe some capocollo (better known to Sopranos fans as "gabagool") or prosciutto, depending on the mood. But if you're really trying to impress a pork aficionado with your spread, there's only one choice: Jamón Ibérico.

Hailed as the crème de la crème of ham, Jamón Ibérico draws rave reviews and commands high prices. But what makes it worthy of such a high price? Read on to understand where it comes from, how it's made, and how big of a loan you'll have to take out to buy some.

Where Does Jamon Iberico Come From?

As you might've gathered from this Spanish language phrase, Jamón Ibérico originates from the Iberian peninsula, which is really just a geographic shorthand for Spain and Portugal (where it's known as Presunto Ibérico in Portuguese).

The name doesn't just refer to a place, but a specific breed of pig as well. The black Iberian pig, which, unsurprisingly, is native to this region, is responsible for the tasty meat. For the most part, those pigs are found in western and southwestern Spain, as well as southern and central Portugal.

What Makes Jamon Iberico Unique?

In a word: acorns. The best Jamón Ibérico is graded as Jamón Ibérico de bellota, with bellota referring to the acorn-rich diets of free-range Iberian pigs, who wander hilly, bucolic fields of oak and cork trees (depending on where they are) known as dehesas. Though certain grades of Jamón Ibérico spend the whole year foraging on whatever foodstuffs they can find, the early October to early March acorn season is when they happily chomp away on their favorite fat-rich snack.

From the smell to taste, the acorns really are the defining quality of a top-grade Jamón Ibérico. In addition to lending the prized pork its unique aromatic combination of sweetness, nuttiness, and earthiness, the oleic acid in these acorns makes for the soft, melty fat that makes Jamón Ibérico so divine.

Just as important is the true free-range lifestyle that Iberian pigs enjoy on the dehesas. Getting to run around rooting for acorns and other ground-bound goodies allows the pigs to develop the perfect intramuscular fat structure that produces those distinct white marbling streaks. With pigs sometimes traveling up to eight miles a day in search of various foodstuffs, their legs stay skinny despite the delicious fat they're building up inside.

Are There Different Types of Jamón Ibérico?

Quality Spanish ham is certainly not a one-size-fits-all category. The existence of differing pig breeds and farming techniques used by porqueros has led to four discrete jamon designations dictated by Spanish law, which has used a four-tired, color-coded labelling system since 2014.

As mentioned, the best of the best is Jamón Ibérico de bellota. This refers to those free-range pigs that get to feast on acorns during their lifetime. Within this category, there are two distinctions: "black label" Jamón Ibérico de bellota is reserved for pure-bred Iberian pigs, which are, fittingly, black in color. This black-label designation is unofficially known as pata negra (literally: "black leg"), a long-running colloquialism for top-quality Jamón Ibérico. According to Serious Eats, only five percent of all Iberico pigs meet both the pure-bred and acorn-fed standards.

The next step down is "red label" Jamón Ibérico de bellota, which applies to free-range pigs fed on the acorn diet that are not pure-bred Iberians, though details about their percentage of Iberian ancestry must appear on the label.

Below that are two separate designations for pigs whose diets are less acorn-centric. "Green label" Jamón Ibérico refers to pastoral pigs whose diet includes grains in addition to the acorns. These pigs are also at least 50 percent Iberian by heritage. Finally, there's the "white label," conferred to pigs fed a diet of grain. These pigs also don't necessarily need to be free-range at this level, either.

How Is It Made?

After a happy one to two years of foraging, an Iberian pig is slaughtered (or "sacrificed" as local porqueros sometimes say). From there, the ham is skinned, salted, rinsed, and dried, so the curing process can begin. Depending on what producer is overseeing the ham, that could take anywhere from one to three years — and even longer in some cases.

First, the ham "rests" at low, humid temperatures (between 3 degrees Celsius and 6 degrees Celsius at 80 to 90 percent humidity) for a month or two so the salt can seep in and properly dehydrate the meat. Once that's done, it dries and matures in a well-ventilated area, with tried and true techniques like "opening a window" or "pouring water on the ground" sometimes deployed to regulate heat and humidity. Eventually, it's off to the cellar, where it ages further and the meat's signature flavors truly develop. All top-notch Jamón Ibérico is inspected individually, with specialists possessing a highly-trained sense of smell deciding when each ham is ready to advance to the next stage and, ultimately, make it to market.

What Is Iberico Ham's Price?

Given the specific production process and keen attention to detail that defines Jamón Ibérico production, the process has certain similarities with fine winemaking. That also extends to the price.

The labelling system more or less correlates to price, with pata negra fetching top dollar. Though no two Iberian hams are identical, the good stuff will run you north of $100 per kilogram.

For example, Cinco Jotas, one of the premier exporters of Jamón Ibérico, will sell you an 100 percent acorn-fed ham weighing between six and seven kilos for €635 (about $778). A little 40-gram taste, that can be had for under €15, but you can bet that it'll only leave you wanting more. Plus, there's the fact that the best stuff comes freshly sliced from the leg of ham itself.

So while you may not have the budget for a whole lot of Jamón Ibérico yourself, at least now you understand a little more about how special this stuff really is. At the very least, anyone who's been dreaming of traveling to Spain should make every effort to seek this stuff out, because it really may be the best pork you'll find anywhere on the planet.

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