It's what gives the Serrano ham and Jamón Iberico its highly-regarded quality and flavour.
Like all meat foods, the quality of Serrano and Iberian hams depends purely on how it’s reared, what it’s fed on and how it’s cured.
This page will have a look at our lovely Serrano pigs in a bit more depth.
I have always liked pigs, I don’t know why but they just seem to have a bit of intelligence and character - and they taste good too!
As I said earlier, there are many producers and qualities of Serrano hams.
The main differences come down to the type of pig it comes from, the way that pig is fed, how it is cured and which of its legs you buy.
Far-and-away the best of the Spanish pigs is the Iberian hog. Only the hams that come from these pigs can be called Jamon Iberico.
These give us the highest quality hams and are descendents of the wild boar. They only account for about 5-10% of all Serrano hams because of their expensive rearing and feeding requirements.
Originating from, and still reared in, the south-west regions of Spain, Iberian hogs have longer legs and more pointed snouts. Their grey skin and almost black hoofs gives them their famous Serrano name of Pata Negra which, literally translated, means ‘black foot (or hoof)’.
This wonderful breed has the ability to store larger fatty deposits which creates the white fat that gives Iberian ham its beautifully marbled texture and distinctive aroma. Of the Iberian pigs, the finest quality comes from those that have been reared free-range in the mountains and fed exclusively on acorns (bellota).
These live a life of luxury rooting about in oak forests until the day of their demise and it is the acorns which gives them their unique flavour. From these pigs comes the highly-celebrated and most expensive Jamón Iberico de Bellota. (Also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera.)
Next in quality still comes from the Iberian pig but one that has been fed on a mixture of acorns, pasture and authorised commercial feeds. This ham is called Jamón Iberico de Recebo and is a good compromise for those who don’t want to break the bank on a Bellota ham but still want to experience the superb taste and texture.
Finally, we have the plain Jamón Iberico, also known as Jamón de Pata Negra. Let me assure you, though, that there is nothing ‘plain’ about this superb Serrano ham. It still comes from the Iberian pig, but one that has been fed and reared on commercial compound feeds. Nevertheless, it is still a delicious and special taste experience.
After the hams of the Iberian pig we have the hams of the ‘white pigs’.
The white pig can be a mixture of different breeds, such as Duroc, Landrace, Large White and Jersey. From these come the Serrano hams which are by far the commonest hams produced in Spain. They account for around 90% of all Spanish hams sold and are known by various names. The main ones being Jamón Serrano, Jamón Reserva, Jamón Curado and Jamón Extra.
No special feeding methods here, just authorized commercial compound feed. But, yet again, they are outstanding hams. It’s worth noting that the words Serrano, Reserva, Curado and Extra don’t really tell us much about the quality of the ham. This is down to individual brands and producers and can be hard to differentiate. But if you want a fair-ish indication as to the quality of Serrano ham, you can’t go far wrong by looking at the price tag!
That’s about covered our lovely porkers while they’re alive. See the page on curing and maturing to find out what happens after they’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.
By the way, the Spanish breeders of these noble animals do actually still refer to their demise as ‘sacrifice’. Seems like a much more respectful term than slaughter, don’t you think?