In the furious aisles and chaotic catacombs of Fairway in Paramus, where I’m the general manager, I am surrounded by every specialty food imaginable where all gather with a certain gusto of gladiatorial battle. And anyone would be ready to wage war over the tempting Jamon Iberico de Bellota from the Iberian pig of Spain. While this great ham has been around for over 1,000 years, it has only been available in the U.S. since 2008 — it was only then that it could secure USDA approval for import.
The Iberian pig — also the pata negra or, black hoof — lives out its 14-month life roaming free on an expansive combination of forest and pastureland called the Dehesa. In addition to the wild herbs and grasses, the Dehesa contains the holm oak trees that yield the all-important acorn or, the bellota. It is during the last four to five months of the pig’s life when it forages primarily on acorns; this period, from October through February, is called the montenera, and it is during this time where the pigs will gain 50% of their body weight and grow to the necessary slaughter weight of 350 to 375 pounds. The acorn, high in oleic fat content, is what gives this cured ham its special and unique marbling. As monounsaturated oleic fatty acids also comprise olives and olive oil, the pig is jokingly referred to by some in Spain as, olives with legs.
Care of the animal is taken not only through its life but in its death and throughout the requisite, three-year curing and re-creation of finished product — with an air of somber, Spanish religiosity in the midst of Roman aqueducts, the distant memory of the Moors, and the omnipresent Catholicism, the slaughter is called, the sacrifice. Only the hind legs are used for this ham, they are covered in Andalucian sea salt where they will remain one day for every kilo. Wiped clean, the legs are hung in special houses at 1,900 feet above sea level where their tomb is watched over carefully by a trained Jamonero who alternately closes and opens the shudders on ends of the building to allow the mountain air to circulate and micro-flora to grow on the exterior skins. It resurrects in three years, emerges, it is certified, and then shipped.
Specialty deli counters like ours (based on availability) will slice it thin, translucent. When served, allow it to lie on your tongue for a few seconds and melt into an almost-liquid of oil, of herbaceous nuttiness, and you will know one of the truly great foods on earth. Take a moment, then, and appreciate the sacrifice and the meditation. This is not a moment of gusto.
Have you tried the Jamon Iberico de Bellota? Share your experience.