The history of Pata Negra
Heading north from western Andalusia on the road from Huelva to Salamanca in autumn, those with an eye for animals enjoying the natural surroundings will soon spot the occasional black Iberian pig. This ancient species of stocky, dark coloured and bristly swine likes to forage in the undergrowth and snuffle out acorns. The pedigree dates back more than a thousand years and in some cases as far as two millennia. As a finished meat product, connoisseurs consider the ham to be the most delicious in the world. In fact, such is the quality of Pata Negra that some purist devotees and ham experts - professional and amateur alike - tend to balk at such direct comparisons between it and other hams.
Pata Negra ham comes from the west of Spain and in particular, the oak tree-lined hills of the Extremadura region. The area is similar in appearance to some of the world's most scenic wine producing regions such as Burgundy in France, but with few if any vineyards. The remote, mountainous landscapes border Portugal and include the provinces of Badajoz and Cáceres, as well as Andalusia. These countrified surroundings are replete with forests, lakes and nature reserves and in particular, the Monfragüe and Cornalvo national parks that are also known for the diverse bird life that shelters there. The regional capital is Mérida, with Roman ruins from an ancient colony and which extend to aqueducts and a bridge over the Guadiana River.
Ancient legends - Pata Negra
According to ancient legend, hams were discovered when one day of old, shepherds found a dead pig that had fallen into a gully and drowned in the very salty water. After recovering the unfortunate animal's carcass, still relatively intact, they dried and roasted it. To their delight, they discovered that the meat had a delicious flavour - particularly the roasted ham from the hind leg area. Later, it was discovered that salting the hind leg meant that it would last considerably longer without losing the distinctive flavour. From then onwards, the curing method was perfected and preserved to the current day by artisans.
Species of Iberian pig - Pata Negra
The Iberian pig (or Sus Scrofa Mediterraneus to give this animal its full species name) is thought to have been brought to the western Iberian Peninsula by the ancient Phoenicians. Sailing from the eastern Mediterranean (now the Lebanon), these pigs may have interbred with wild boars to become the first Iberian breeds. Their origins can be traced formally to around 1000 B.C. Black pigs include the Entrepelado breed, the Lampiño, the Mamellado, the Silvela and Negro de los Pedroches variants. Other varieties include the reddish Retinto, the spotted Manchado de Jabugo and the Torbiscal. In addition to these distinct varieties, there is also a raza rubia (literally: blond breed) called the Dorado Gaditano. However, this type of pig has now almost reached extinction.
Though the different varieties have generally similar genetic characteristics, the spotted pig (Manchado de Jabugo) is probably the furthest removed from the original Iberian variety. it is thought to have originated in the early 1800s, relatively recently, due to interbreeding with pigs of English origin. This crossbreeding aimed to reduce growing periods and to increase carcass weight, thereby making pig farming more financially productive. However, the results were not particularly successful, principally because of the animals' rather limited ability to adapt to their new environment.
Crossbred pigs, varying results and limited success - Pata Negra
The Torbiscal pig is a combination of four ancestral breeds. Of the more modern crosses that have seen some success, the Large Black-Duroc and Duroc-Jersey varieties are considered good results. Some of the crossed breeds are accepted for quality control purposes by the Designations of Origin authorities within certain labelling categories, if the mixed genes comprise no more than one-quarter of the animal's family history. Conversely, the other three quarters of its genes must be pure Iberian.
When the Spanish Livestock Board imported the first consignment of Duroc-Jersey pigs from the USA in 1961, it was found that their reddish hide helped the animals to adapt well to the intense Extremadura sunlight. This variety has certain advantages - a lower percentage of body fat, a longer carcass and larger litters that develop earlier. However, the resulting hams are not as high in quality.
Today, the most prevalent pig varieties are Retinto and Lampiño. When grazing, pedigree Iberian pigs instinctively explore the terrain to select the best acorns while crossbreeds tend to be less selective and, therefore, not as active. They are consequently less muscular. In contrast, hams derived from Entrepelado and Lampiño animals are marbled with fat but have notably more flavour than other types.
Pata Negra ham quality
Pata Negra, also known as Ibérico de Bellota in Spanish, is often considered to be a jewel in the crown of Spanish gastronomy. This type of delicious ham contains more fat than its cousin Serrano ham, though the ivory white deposits help to preserve the texture. For many, this also provides an appetising contrast with the intense red colour of the muscular yet tender meat.
After weaning from the sow, the piglets are fed on a diet of maize and barley for a number of weeks until they have grown sufficiently. As the summer approaches, they are then set to roam in pasture and oak groves, where they can forage naturally and follow their instincts. Here, they feed on grass, herbs, acorns and roots. In these pastured woodlands, known locally as the dehesa, Iberian pigs most enjoy acorns from the holm oak due to their sweeter taste. Later, these well nourished animals return to forage for the remaining cork acorns that they initially left behind. This way, they can easily gain a pound and a half (around two thirds of a kilogramme) in weight per day. This means that to be able to feed and mature as required, each pig requires an area of approximately four to five acres of grazing land. These physical factors act to limit animal numbers and total rearing capacity, thereby limiting total ham production and maintaining price levels of the finished product.
Farmers, artisans and centuries of tradition - Pata Negra
Farmed by locals and produced by artisans with a lifetime of experience and a family history which dates back centuries within the region, the pigs have something of a privileged life in that they are allowed around six months a year to roam quite freely. This period is known as the montanera where the animals roam the woods. As well as gorging on acorns, some pigs also eat grass and the occasional snake.
It is this montanero or free pasture roaming period which distinguishes the breed so much. Long legs and athletic appearance mean that Iberian swine are able to tolerate summer drought with less difficulty, roam further and then eat up to twenty pounds (approximately nine kilogrammes) of acorns a day during the autumn and winter.
As slaughtering time approaches, the animals' diet may be limited to acorns or olives in the interests of producing the best quality Iberian ham. For lesser quality, commercial feed mix may also be introduced. Pigs are typically two years old when they partake of their final feast before their trip to the slaughterhouse.
Salting and curing - Pata Negra
The process of salting after slaughter and then curing or aging is done as it has been for centuries; hams are piled up in sea salt for up to two weeks. Producers maintain a close eye on this process, in order to minimise the salt required. Less salt is required in colder weather and for smaller hams. The salt is then washed off and left to permeate into the meat towards the bone. High summer temperatures means that the white ham fat turns yellow in colour as it cures. During the spring months, the ham adapts to the heat of summer. This means that the cuing process takes a minimum of nine months, although some hams are left for considerably longer.
Legs of ham lose approximately one third of their weight during the curing process. Larger hams need longer to age correctly and can spend up to twenty months in the drying room. The very largest can take between five and seven years, before there is any risk of them passing their prime.
Quality Iberian ham and particularly Pata Negra has a distinctive and sweet aroma, almost caramelised, while to the touch it is almost as soft as velvet. In terms of taste, there are undertones of dried fruit and nuts and when carved correctly it almost melts in the mouth - perhaps explaining its popularity. Considered a delicacy, even the fat can be used to add extra taste to cherries covered in chocolate due to the nutty, earthy flavour and exquisite aroma. The fat can be cut and trimmed, though Spanish connoisseurs love it.
Quality controls - Pata Negra
Hams from the towns of Guijuelo in Salamanca province and Jabugo in Huelva province have their own special label of quality, known as a Denominación de Origen. Almost the entire economy of the town of Jabugo is centred on ham production; the town's main square is called La Plaza del Jamón.
Pata Negra in world markets
Pure acorn-fed varieties and artisan-produced legs of Pata Negra tend to command substantial prices at market, not that this prevents its sale to a devoted clientele. As we have seen, pricing is affected by farming costs and the area needed for grazing, the limited supply and the time needed to cure the finished ham properly.
Serrano ham is a respectable cousin and considered superior to Italian Prosciutto. Nonetheless, Iberian Pata Negra is usually preferred by those who have tasted it and have been impressed by its subtle, multi-levelled taste and qualities. Pata Negra ham must be produced entirely in Spain.
Although the ham contains fat, studies carried out scientists and nutritionists at the University of Extremadura have shown that over fifty percent of the fat content is monounsaturated - the healthy type of fat which is founding olive oil, instead of the less healthy saturated fat often found in other animals. This is attributed to the natural acorn diet.
Until relatively recently, Spanish hams were not permitted for sale in the USA due to differing slaughterhouse regulations. However, approval was granted and the first hams were exported to the United States in 2007 and 2008.
Ham labelling - what to watch
There is occasional confusion regarding the exact origins of some hams on sale. Incidences have been reported of erroneous labelling - whether generically or deliberately misleadingly. Some hams are by no means the real Pata Negra; only a tenth of Iberian ham is classified as authentically black label (see below), which by definition derives from pigs that have foraged on acorns. Depending on annual rainfall, some years are classified as a vintage reserve.
Another Spanish description for Pata Negra is jamón ibérico de montanera; this reflects the free roaming period and benefits of good exercise and diet on the flavour and texture of the ham. Black label denotes ham from purebred Iberian pigs that have been fed on acorns, while red label indicates that the pigs were fed exclusively on acorns during the final period but were not pure bred. Additionally, food supply regulations introduced in 2014 require the proportion of Iberian ancestry to be indicated on labelling.
Other labelling colours represent differing animal food mixes. Green label ham (or jamón ibérico cebo de campo) is derived from pastured pigs that are fed on a combination of acorns and grain. Finally, white label ham refers to animals that were fed on cereal grain only.