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Cured Meat – The Spanish Jamon Iberico

Wondering what’s in Spanish pigs that costs an arm and leg? Check out all there is to know about the secrets of Jamon Iberico ham!

Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Puro, acorn-fed purebred Iberian ham, is produced under the Cinco Jotas (5J) brand, one of the most established and respected names in Spain. This variety is known for its intense sweetness, with floral, earthy, and nutty notes reminiscent of high-quality Parmesan cheese. The fat content is remarkably soft, offering a melt-in-mouth texture. Connoisseurs often regard it as the pinnacle of cured ham, though it comes at a premium price.

What’s The Secret of Jamon Iberico?

The production process begins with free-range, purebred Iberian pigs raised on vast, verdant pastures. These idyllic landscapes, characterized by gnarled trees and cooled by refreshing Iberian breezes, are scattered across Spain and Portugal. The pigs are owned by Sánchez Romero Carvajal, the company behind 5J ham. Eventually, all the pigs are transported to a small town named Jabugo, where they become part of a long-standing tradition. Here, their meat undergoes a curing process within a specialized cellar that has been in operation for over 130 years.

On a basic level, the production of this prized ham is straightforward: high-quality pigs are allowed to roam freely and indulge in a natural diet. Their meat is then cured using minimal intervention, primarily relying on salt and air for preservation. For most consumers, this explanation suffices. However, the journey from farm to table is more intricate, blending time-tested methods with contemporary advancements to create this coveted delicacy.

What Is Jamon Iberico

Jamón Ibérico falls under two premium classifications:

  • Derived from Iberian pigs
  • Fed on a diet of acorns (bellota).

The breed

Unlike Serrano ham, typically made from white pig breeds, Iberian pigs are distinguished by their black hooves, earning them the nickname “pata negra” (black foot). These animals, descended from the Mediterranean wild boar, possess an athletic build and are known for their foraging behavior. This unique combination contributes to the exceptional flavor, juiciness, and character of their meat, attributed in part to the well-distributed intramuscular fat content.

The production of Iberian ham comes at a premium cost. These pigs have smaller litters, produce less meat per animal, and require extended maturation periods. These factors incentivized some Spanish producers to crossbreed Iberian pigs with other varieties. Previously, hams derived from pigs with as little as 50% Iberian ancestry could be labeled as “jamón Ibérico.” However, recent legislation mandates the labeling of Iberian ham according to the precise percentage of the pigs’ Iberian heritage. The 5J brand stands out for its commitment to using exclusively purebred Iberian pigs.

A key element in the production of premium ham is the pigs’ diet. From early October to early March, acorn (bellota) season graces the farms where these pigs are raised. These acorns, rich in oleic fatty acids (a type of unsaturated fat), contribute significantly to the exceptionally soft and creamy texture of the cured meat, known for its melt-in-mouth quality at room temperature. Furthermore, acorns play a crucial role in imparting the distinctive nutty flavor and aroma that defines this delicacy. It’s noteworthy that only 5% of commercially raised Iberian pigs qualify as both purebred and acorn-fed, highlighting the exclusivity of this product.

The diet

Spanish cured ham boasts a unique terminology. Shepherds are referred to as “porqueros,” the act of slaughter is euphemistically termed “sacrifice,” and the pigs’ rearing grounds are designated as “dehesas.”

These dehesas, encompassing vast tracts of forest partially converted to pasture, represent a national treasure in Spain. Spanning hundreds of years and reaching sizes of one to two thousand acres, they feature rolling grassy hills interspersed with crops of acorn-producing oak and cork trees. Just as acorns play an essential role in the flavor profile of the cured ham, so too do the dehesas. For optimal muscle development and to achieve the distinctive taste, these pigs require the freedom to roam extensively across the hills and through the woodlands.

Over a period of 18 to 24 months, the pigs are allowed to forage freely within the dehesa, consuming a diet of grass, mushrooms, insects, herbs, and various other available elements. The arrival of October ushers in the “montanera” season, a period characterized by the abundant falling of acorns. During this time, spanning from October to March, the pigs actively seek out these acorns, their preferred food source. Regulations mandate a minimum of five acres of dehesa per pig, ensuring ample space for foraging. By the pigs’ second “montanera” season, they typically reach their target slaughter weight of approximately 360 pounds after consuming a sufficient quantity of acorns.

The pigs’ well-being and diet are not left solely to chance. Inspectors conduct anonymous visits every two to three weeks to monitor the pigs’ treatment and dietary intake. Additionally, they collect fat samples to analyze the oleic acid content. Insufficient levels disqualify the pigs from meeting quality standards, while excessive levels hinder the curing process for ham production.

The curing

The curing process takes place within a facility located in Jabugo, boasting over a century of history. This unique space blends modern office areas with elements reminiscent of a traditional farmhouse. One courtyard still showcases hundreds of ceiling hooks, remnants of a time when hams were cured outdoors. In the present day, the curing process is conducted within a vast, brick-walled cellar.

Prior to entering the curing facility, the pigs undergo a humane slaughter process. They are rendered unconscious using CO2, and a veterinarian verifies this state before a worker carefully severs an artery in their throat, allowing for complete bloodletting. The legs, loins, and shoulders are then designated for special products, while the remaining fresh meat is distributed to Spanish restaurants. The legs destined for ham production are skinned, salted, rinsed, and dried before being transferred to the curing cellar for a period of approximately one and a half years.

Carvajal’s 130-year-old cellar resembles a subterranean city dedicated to ham. Upon descending the stairs, visitors are greeted by an intense aroma reminiscent of freshly baked bread, aged cheese, and a well-stocked cured meat section in a delicatessen – all amplified by the presence of over 40,000 hams within the space.

The primary factors contributing to the meat’s transformation into cured ham include thick brick walls, a naturally cool and breezy climate, and a population of microorganisms ideally suited to the curing process. Skilled specialists continuously monitor the cellars, taking note of temperature and humidity fluctuations. Their interventions, however, are remarkably low-tech. Temperature adjustments involve opening or closing windows, while excessively dry air is addressed by strategically spilling water on the floor.

The curing process extends beyond these basic measures. Hams positioned too close to windows may be relocated to prevent excessive drying, and the legs are periodically rubbed with oil to deter insect infestation. However, the most crucial and final assessment relies on human expertise.

Quality check

Prior to exiting the cellar, each ham undergoes a rigorous olfactory evaluation. A trained professional can reportedly discern over 100 distinct aromas within a premium ham, encompassing sweet, meaty, and nutty notes. The terroir of various Spanish regions influences the ham’s aroma profile, and even different cuts from the same leg exhibit unique olfactory characteristics.

A select group of only eight individuals holds the responsibility of inspecting all the hams. The role demands such high levels of specialization that a third-generation Carvajal employee, while qualified to assess hams using his sense of smell, lacks the necessary expertise to evaluate cured loin (another 5J product) due to the significant variations in aroma. (This specific task falls under his father’s purview.)

Employing a short, blunt needle known as a “cala,” the ham inspector inserts it into the meat, reaching the bone. A brief inhalation follows, and the resulting opening is then sealed with a fat plug. This rapid evaluation window (a mere one or two seconds) serves to detect the optimal balance of sweet, earthy, fermented, and floral aromas indicative of a properly cured ham. Only hams that successfully pass the olfactory test at four designated inspection points are deemed suitable for distribution. The human nose, therefore, remains the ultimate arbiter of quality.

Even for Spaniards known for their love of ham, 5J represents a luxury item. To address affordability concerns, Carvajal offers a more accessible ham under the brand name “Sanchez Romero Carvajal,” available only within Spain. While derived from the same pigs and cured within the same cellar, these hams are subjected to slightly less rigorous quality control standards. The decision regarding which hams receive the prestigious 5J label is made solely by quality control experts upon arrival at the cellar.

Final destination

Following the curing process, the ham embarks on its journey to appreciative consumers. A significant portion of whole hams are pre-allocated to bars, restaurants, and large-scale clients who reserve them during the aging stage. Jamón Ibérico necessitates manual slicing due to its soft fat content, which would be compromised by machine slicing. Additionally, the lean and bony structure of the legs poses a challenge for horizontal slicing. In response, Carvajal equips new restaurant and store clients purchasing whole hams with training in proper hand-slicing techniques.

The company also employs a team of approximately 60 expert carvers responsible for preparing all pre-sliced packaged hams. Similar to the artistry involved in slicing fish for Japanese sushi, carving Spanish ham is a specialized skill in itself. The ideal slice boasts near-transparency, a size suitable for single bites, and is cut at an optimal angle for maximizing consistency and efficiency in extracting slices from the ham.

As previously mentioned, expert ham sniffers can distinguish four distinct aromatic profiles within the same ham. While consumers might not be able to discern all the subtleties, visual and tactile differences are readily apparent across various ham cuts. The maza showcases clean striations of fat, while the punta exhibits marbling akin to a ribeye steak. The cana, a coveted “butcher’s cut” located near the hoof, offers a chewy texture and intense flavor, posing a challenge in terms of accessibility. Skilled carvers possess the knowledge to optimize the use of each cut, presenting a plate adorned with a variety of slices for a contrasting flavor experience.


  • Jamón Ibérico is the cured leg of Iberian “pata negra” pig.
  • Acorn fed pig’s meat is referred to as “Bellota” simply meaning acorn.
  • Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’s price boils down to expensive pigs, extensive farmland, and acorn-rich diet that requires labor-intensive processes.
  • The most premium 5J Jamón Ibérico’s price tag is further elevated by the rigorous quality control by highly trained specialists.

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