El Jamón de Ramón: La Pata Negra
…As we finished our paella on the porch above the garden, we heard in the distance a chorus of squeals. The cacophony coming from the other side of the hill had an excited urgency toward it. “What is that?!” I asked. Martín explained that the pigs were being fed and encouraged us to eat up so that he could take us to see them.
We piled into an ancient Seat that had literally no padding of any kind on the ceiling, floor or doors; it was simply a metal shell with some worn out spring-less seats, and we drove for about 3 minutes to the adjacent pig farm that his parents own. Through a gate, we were met with hundreds of Patas Negras, the black-footed pigs raised for their superlative meat. Patas Negras of all ages—from piglets still nursing to “teenagers” who roamed freely but returned from the pasture at feeding time—gathered in pens and stalls to have their dinner.
With their furrowed brows and floppy ears, these pigs reminded me of Labradors, looking up from under a dining room table with baleful eyes, hoping for a hand out. Ramón, the swineherd, cast loving eyes across his flock. He grinned at us revealing two jagged gnashers, the exact same teeth as his pigs. He had come to resemble the creatures that he’d spent every waking day looking after. Martín told us that Ramón had never had a day off other than Christmas and that he had never seen the sea (only half an hour away). These piggies were quite simply his obra—his life’s work.
Interestingly the jamón that Ramón particularly cherished came from an unexpected hybrid. Jabalí, or wild boars, occasionally come down from the sierra and romance a few of the choicest sows. The resulting pigs contain both the pata negra (black trotters) and the stripes of the boar. The meat is apparently indescribable.
But I digress. After a few minutes, when the ungodly smell began to make our eyes water, we piled back into the Seat and Martín took us to the oak orchards where the older pigs roam freely and forage for their food. We walked amongst the oak, cork and ancient olive trees as the sun cast long shadows and Sebastian tried to run up a tree.
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Pata Negra is the colloquial name for Jamón Iberico, the highest quality ham produced in Spain. Jamón Iberico can be further divided into three subcategories, depending on the quality, which is based on purity of the pigs’ genealogy and their diet:
Jamón Iberico de Bellota*: Free-range Iberian pigs that eat only acorns during the last part of their lives. Their 100% acorn diet and the exercise sustained through foraging freely greatly effects the flavor of the meat. The meat is then cured for three years.
*bellota is the Spanish word for acorn
Jamón Iberico de Recebo: Pastured Iberian pigs that eat a combination of acorns and grain feed.
Jamón Iberico de Campo or de cebo: (Sometimes just Jamón Iberico in short) Iberian pigs that are fed grain. Their meat is cured for two years before being consumed.
Patas negra (literally black hoof) only account for about 5% of total ham production in Spain. Spanish ham can be referred to as Iberico only if it comes from a pig that is 75% Iberian. If meat comes from a pig that’s father and mother are both 100% Iberian, then the word puro or pure, can be added to the distinction, such as Jamón Iberico de Bellota Puro. The fat marbling the meat is what makes it so sumptuous: hearty and yet simultaneously subtle and delicate.
For many years Jamón Iberico was illegal in the United States; however, the ban was lifted in 2005 when the first Spanish slaughterhouse was approved by the United States Department of Agriculture to produce Iberian ham for export to America. In 2007 (after 24 months of curing), the first shipments of Jamón Iberico de Recebo were received in select few stores in the U.S. A year later, the prized Jamón Iberico de Bellota arrived after its thirty-six month maturation. For those New Yorkers who want to try it, they need look no farther than Despaña on Broome Street in Nolita. A pound of hand cut Recebo is $99, while the unparalleled Bellota is a whopping $169 per pound. The good news is that they have no minimum order, so you can go in and try a couple of slices and let the ham melt in your mouth.
Spain is also well known for its Serrano ham, which is produced in much greater quantities from grain compound-fed white pigs and hence is much more affordable. The meat is much paler in color—pinkish salmon, where as Iberian ham is purplish red. Jamón Serrano is often compared to Italian prosciutto; however the processes by which the two are made differ slightly. Serrano, which means mountain, is cured and hung at a high elevation, which is how it got its name.
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