Without a doubt one of Spain's genuine world leading gourmet delights is Cerdo Iberico - the pork from the black Iberian Pig.
What makes this meat so incredibly special is that for the last few months of each pig's life, they are allowed to graze free-range in acorn forests (dehesas), munching their way though literally tons of acorns (bellotas), which have fallen from both holm and cork oak trees.
It is these acorns which gives the fat of the pigs its unique, sweet flavour, whether you are eating the ham or cooked pork. Take a look at the pork in its raw state and you will notice how the meat is shot through with streaks of creamy white fat. Best of all this fat dissolves during the cooking process, flavouring the meat and making it perfectly tender.
The happy Iberican pig can only be bred in a few parts of Spain and nowhere else in the world does it get its unique flavour. In Spain this region stretches from as far south as the Aracena region, around Jabugo - the jamon capital of Spain - and then up into the far north of the Salamanca region. With oak forests becoming increasingly endangered and shrinking each year, it is a finite production becoming more in demand each year, particularly since the US finally allowed its import in 2007. Now priced in the US at around 100 dollars a pound, these hams are often described as the most expensive in the world.
The acorns are the key to the quality of the meat, not just in the way they sweeten the fat. The acorns make the pigs thirsty, forcing them to run around looking for water and making them more athletic, developing fine bones which are evident in a leg of jamon Iberico.
Breeding these pigs is no easy task - it is literally at the opposite end of the spectrum of normal intensive pig farming. This is obviously reflected in the price. The most expensive and best quality is called jamon iberica de bellota. This ham comes from pigs, who have lived free-range all their lives, dining almost entirely on acorns. The more exercise these pigs get, the more the fat blends into their muscles and the tastier the meat becomes. It is considered the 5J (cinco jotas) is the King of jamon bellota.
The next grade is called jamon iberico de recebo. This ham is from pigs that are both pasture and compound fed a combination of acorns and grain. The third type is called jamon iberico de pienso, or simply, jamon iberico. This ham is from Iberian pigs that are solely compound fed on grain and some acorns.
The term pata negra is also used to refer to jamon iberico in general and may refer to any one of the three above types.
Jamon serrano comes from cerdo blanco, the more common white pig, that is solely grain fed. The white pig comprises about 90 percent of the pork and ham production in Spain.
Another important thing to understand in terms of price and quality is which leg you are buying. A jamon iberico is normally the hind leg of the pig. A patetilla is the front leg. Nevertheless, a patetilla can have an excellent taste and undergoes the same processes of ham making. the difference is that a patetilla is smaller and has more fat. Therefore it is cheaper. A Patetilla Iberico de Bellota is usually less then half the price of a Jamon Iberico de Bellota.
The saturated animal fat from the jamon iberico is actually good for you as not only is it the best quality fat - it also leaves you feeling more satisfied. Animal fats give us energy and boost the immune system and can actually lower bad cholesterol.