In the ancient oak pastures of Southwestern Spain roams an interesting type of pig. Its skin is black, its snout is long and thin, and it scours the pastures looking for acorns to munch on. This isn’t your typical pig. Sure, it’s going to get eaten, but just a kilo of its cured meat will cost well over $200. Known as Jamon Ibérico in Spain, this very specific and lengthy process of curing a black pig into a delicious ham is known as one of, if not the, most expensive cured meats on the planet. So what is it about Jamon Ibérico that makes it so special? And is the cost really worth it?
The ibérico pig goes far back in Spanish history, further back than Spain itself. Ibérico pigs are quite a bit different than the pigs typically used as livestock. Their skin is dark and hairless and they walk around on spindly legs. Ibérico pigs are native to the region, but because of modern agricultural practices, they are used far less frequently than their bright pink counterparts in food production. The Ibérico pigs also have a very special physical characteristic to them; their meat has veins of fat that run through the muscle. While at first that might not seem like a big distinction, it makes all the difference in terms of curing the meat. Because of the additional fat content as well as how the fat is worked into the meat, the meat can be cured for much longer than with other types of pigs. In fact, a typical ham can cure for 18 to 24 months. Traditionally, the meat is cured with only salt and left to dry in a cool, dark cellar.
In order for a ham to be called Jamon Ibérico, the ham producer has to prove their pig’s genetic lineage to ensure it truly is made from a black pig. In order to label a ham Jamon Ibérico Bellota, a further step needs to be taken, and naturally, the cost increases. Bellota is Spanish for acorn, and as such, while the pigs are alive, they can eat nothing but acorns in order to be labelled Jamon Ibérico Bellota. This diet of pure acorns, which the pigs love to devour, infuses the fatty meat with a nutty taste that is both distinct and delicious.
So, is this time consuming, very specific, and expensive process to curing black pig really worth it? The short answer is, yes. Jamon Ibérico Bellota is a truly delicious meat and, frankly, puts every other cured ham to shame. It manages to be rich in pork taste, nutty, salty, and the marbled fat has a savoury, melt-in-your-mouth quality to it. However, in America, due to regulations regarding the importation of pork products, it is illegal to purchase or sell in the country. In other regions of the world, such as Canada, where the meat is perfectly legal, the cost of it Jamon Ibérico Bellota can swell to over $300 per pound. Black Pig Bistro in Calgary, Canada, has had a tremendous amount of success selling imported Jamon Ibérico Bellota to eager customers willing to spend a premium to taste this delicious and rare meat.