By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
There’s no dish more Spanish than ham – the country’s legendary fatty cured pork – and no ham more delicious than jamón ibérico, produced from the acorn-grazed, black-hoofed Iberian pigs found only in the mountainous southern and southwestern regions of that European nation.
But while most Mexicans are more than willing to savor the wonderfully air-cured pork of Spain, many do not really understand the difference between Serrano and Iberic, acorn-fed or farm-grown.
It was with that fact in mind — and, of course, an interest is expanding an already considerable market in Mexico — that the Jamones Ibéricos de España Association and the European Union decided to organize a Ham Passion Tour to both showcase and explain the marvelous delights of Iberian ham.
The tour, which kicked off in Mexico late last month, is, in fact, part of a larger three-year promotional road show campaign that will last include 24 European cities in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain, in addition to Mexico, which is the third-largest pork importer worldwide (with Europe being its Number One supplier).
And while Iberian ham may not suit the palate and budgets (particularly the latter) of all Mexicans, sales of the sweetly nutty flavored hams — whether in sliced form, made into sausages or as entire uncut legs — increased by more than 50 percent between 2011 and 2014 (the last year for which figures were available).
Spain has been producing jamón ibérico for centuries, and what sets this artisan craft apart is not only the exclusive use of black Iberian pigs, but the careful detail of the process, from the very birthing of the piglets to the meticulous curing of each individual ham.
The Iberian acorn ham is the result of a perfect combination of race, breeding, climate, knowledge and a natural curing, and the end product is a moist and tender meat with an exquisite blend of unique aromas and tastes that is, according to most culinary connoisseurs, the best ham in the world.
Generously swaddled in yellow fat, crusted with a thin film of protective mold and occasionally still sporting strands of wiry black pig hair, Iberian ham is usually sold only in upscale restaurants and exclusive gourmet shops.
According to Spanish government statistics, about 90,000 Iberian hams are produced each year, and a full 80 percent of those are consumed in Spain.
Here in Mexico, about 3,000 of the pork legs are sold each year, making the country the fourth-largest international market for Iberian ham, after Portugal, Italy and France.
The bulk of Mexican sales are earmarked for high-end restaurants in Mexico City, but some select stores like City Market and Palacio de Hierro also offer boneless Iberian ham in hermetically sealed packaging so that patrons can buy the delicacy by the gram.
The history of jamón ibérico is steeped in both mystery and romance, and the ancient oak pastures, the black Iberian pig (descended from the wild boars of Spain), and the crisp, cool mountain air that caresses the fertile valleys where the pigs graze all contribute to the hams’ singular quality.
The origin of the Iberian pig goes back millennia, to the time of the ancient cavemen who decorated the caves of Spain with their art.
Much larger in size than their commercial pink counterparts and with far more slender legs and longer snouts, Iberian swine are black, with very little hair.
They have black hooves as well, which is the source of the term “pata negra” that describes the black hoof that remains on the hams throughout the curing process and distinguishes them from Serrano hams.
They are also much fatter animals, with veins of fat running through their muscles.
This, along with the large amount of fat layering each ham, allows Iberian hams to be cured much longer, resulting in a much more complex, intense flavor, with an unparalleled note of sweetness.
But not all Iberian pigs win the jamón ibérico lottery and live free in the Spanish countryside.
For the ultimate quality ham, the hogs must be fed on bellota, or acorns.
Jamón ibérico de bellota – the best of the best – can cost twice as much as a normal Iberian ham.
How the ham is cured is also important.
A true Iberian ham must be soaked in sea salt for at least three weeks and then hung to hand cure for two to four years.
This extraordinarily long curing process is possible because of the huge amount of fat on each ham.
During the curing process, the hams can sweat off up to 45 percent of their weight in fat.
It is this unique curing process that helps keep Iberian ham low in cholesterols.
Because of the antioxidants in the acorns and the distinctive curing process, saturated fats are changed into healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid. The only fat higher in oleic acid is olive oil.
The ultimate result is long, thin leg of ham with a deep golden hue to its fat.
The meat is dark red and richly marbled with veins of fat.
Even the cutting and serving process of Iberian ham is strictly limited.
Iberian ham should always be sliced very thin, along the vein of the meat.
Just like there is an art to the production of jamón ibérico, there is an art to serving it.