With ninety races and more than two-hundred hog varieties, it is important to distinguish the two main races that are used in the production of Spanish hams.
The highest quality hams come from the Iberian blood line, which are descendents of the wild boar. They are produced in the southwestern region of Spain, where they are free to roam the abundant mountain forests, known as ¨dehesas¨ in Spanish. They live off of the acorns (bellota) provided by the cork-oak trees.
Iberian hogs have long legs, pointy snouts, and dark skin and hoofs (giving them the Spanish name ¨Pata Negra¨). This race is defined by its genetic ability to store large fatty deposits that become part of the muscular mass and create the white fat that gives Iberian ham its uncomparable marbalized texture and aroma. It´s worth pointing out that only 5% of the ham produced in Spain is native Iberian ham due to expensive and inconvenient production and feeding methods. Within the Iberian race, there are three categories to be aware of, each of which is based on the feeding practices utilized:
1) Acorn-fed Ham (Jamón Ibérico de Bellota): Hogs are semi-free to roam for the last four months before being sacrificed. They are fed mostly acorns, which make up up 50% of their total weight.
2) Cereal and Acorn-fed Ham (Jamón Ibérico de Recebo o Media Bellota): Hogs are released in the mountain ranges weighing between 85 and 115 kg., where they are fed acorns and proceed to complete the fattening-up period (the maximum weight for all three categories is 185 kg) living off of authorized cereals.
3) Cereal-fed Ham (Jamón Ibérico de Pienso): More than 30% of their final weight is made up of authorized cereals. Not acord fed.
The second type of Spanish ham, known as White Ham (¨Cerdo Blanco¨), is created with crosses between the Landrade, Duroc, Large White, and White Belgium strains. White pigs are raised in sheds found in the mountains of northwestern Spain, allowed almost no exercise, and are fed natural cereals (¨piensos¨), not the natural acorn-based diet fed to Iberian pigs. They are sacrificed earlier than Iberian pigs, at five or six months. The drying and curing processes occur at high altitudes, producing what is known as Serrano ham (¨serrano¨= from the mountains). These hogs produce hams that are generally leaner and larger than Iberian hams. pink to purplish in color, aromatic, with yellowish-white, glossy fat. Despite higher production rates due to cost effectiveness and other differences that exist between Iberian and Serrano hams, they is also considered a high quality ham with excellent culinary and nutritional value.
Spanish ham should be stored in a cool, dry place. Cover with a towel so that it does not dry out. Refrigerate only if absolutely necessary, and when done, be sure to let ham acclimate for several hours before serving. For optimal aroma and flavor, store and serve at room temperature. You won´t catch a Spaniard eating ham with a fork. When served as an appetizer, it is most commonly served on a plate in slices that are as thinly cut as possible, accompanied by French bread. Encourage guests to help themselves with their fingers. Cooking with Spanish ham provides a chef with endless possibilities. When diced and sauteéd, its rich aroma and flavor make unbeatable additions to soups, salads, omelettes, pasta, and vegetable dishes. Let your creativity run wild!