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The importance of the raw material in the quality of good Iberian ham

27 March 2013 By Maestro Gourmet In Articles
The importance of the raw material in the quality of good Iberian ham

We must consider, as an essential requirement for obtaining good ham or front-leg ham, that it is necessary to have optimum raw materials, a basic pillar for producing a quality Iberian ham leg. The three factors that determine this choice are: the pedigree of the pig, its diet, and the proper handling and curing of its legs. When speaking of ham and front-leg ham from the purebred Iberian pig, we must distinguish between the purebred Iberian pig and the ones that are a product of crossbreeding with the American Duroc-Jersey breed. For this reason, we must differentiate the three types of ham and front-leg ham based on the pedigree of the pig:

  • Ham and front-leg ham from the purebred Iberian pig (100%)
  • Ham and front-leg ham from the Iberian pig crossbred with the Duroc-Jersey breed (75%)
  • Ham and front-leg ham from the Iberian pig crossbred with the Duroc-Jersey breed (50%)

It is evident that by crossbreeding the Iberian pig with the Duroc-Jersey, what is being sought is a substantial increase in the yield of the carcass, as well as a greater proportion of lean meat compared to fat. Using the two large Iberian pig production areas (Guijuelo and Sierra de Huelva), it can be verified that Guijuelo prefers to use the Iberian pig crossbred with the Duroc-Jersey (both 75% and 50% pedigrees), unlike the industry in Huelva, which slaughters more Iberian pigs that are purebred or crossbred at 75%. One of the fundamental reasons for this preference on the part of the Guijuelo producers is that charcuterie production plays a fundamental role in their businesses. On the other hand, In Sierra de Aracena and the surrounding area, the more traditional products, such as hams, front-leg hams and pork loins, have always been the ones with the most added value.

The importance of the pedigree in the final quality of the products is reflected in the Standards for all of the Designations of Origin for Iberian ham that currently exist (Guijuelo, Jamón de Huelva, Dehesa de Extremadura, and Valle de los Pedroches), which regulate the degree of crossbreeding so that pigs and their products that do not have at least 75% Iberian blood cannot be used.

Diet is the most important factor for determining the level of quality of the ham and pork shoulder on the market, and there are three different types or qualities: acorn-fed, acorn- and fodder-fed, and only fodder-fed. There are currently an endless number of adjectives used to describe the different levels of quality, used in unique ways by each company to confuse the consumer when he or she is choosing which product to buy. Classifications such as "tres bellotas" ("three acorns"), "extra", "varias jotas", "bellota alta" ("tall acorn"), "bellota media" ("medium acorn"), "ibérico joven" ("young Iberian pig"), "reserva especial" ("special reserve"), etc. appear on the market. The reality is that Iberian ham suffers from classification done by each company, which exists in most food products, and has been historically affected by the guile and lack of scruples of some who try to sell their products, favoured by the lack of knowledge of the ham that most consumers suffer from. Until very recently, quality was only guaranteed by the degree of confidence the consumer had in his or her routine supplier. Now, the best method of assuring quality is ham with a Designation of Origin. In the specific area that we are discussing, the "Jamón de Huelva" Designation of Origin was created in 1995, in which livestock raisers and producers participate equally. Their geographical area of production is practically the same as the region that is the topic of this text: the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche.

In order to distinguish the quality of the raw material from the point of view of the diet of the Iberian pig, we must state that the final fattening-up phase is the one that will determine the quality classification. We can then define the following groups:

1. Fodder-fed Iberian ham and front-leg ham: These come from Iberian pigs that, throughout their production cycle, have only been fed fodder. We can differentiate two types:

  • Extensive feeding: Fed fodder and grass, without acorns, but has a considerable area of land to graze. Hams and front-leg hams obtained from Iberian pigs that are fed extensively will be of a better quality than those that are intensively fed, since the exercise favours this final quality.
  • Intensive feeding: Fed only fodder, the pigs are placed in very small pens. This production system is called "free stabling" intensive feeding and is more similar to the process used with white pigs.

2. Acorn- and fodder-fed Iberian ham and front-leg ham: These come from Iberian pigs that, during the fattening-up process, are first fed acorn, grass and natural products from the oak forests, but because of a shortage of acorns at the end of the period, do not reach their optimum slaughter weight (165 kg), and so they are fed (their last 20 or 30 kg of weight) with fodder.

3. Acorn-fed Iberian ham and front-leg ham: Obtained from Iberian pigs that are only fed acorns, grass and natural products from the oak forests during their final fattening-up period (from 90 to 165 kg).

There are other factors that determine the quality of the raw material that is obtained, some of which were mentioned earlier when talking about the slaughtering period (stress-free transport, muscle glycogen levels), as well as other physiochemical factors (pH level, temperature control, etc.) that must be taken into account by the producer. We cannot conclude this section without mentioning another determining factor of raw material quality, the age of the animal, which directly influences the fat levels, since over time the pig can easily deposit fat in streaks between its muscle fibres. The ideal age for the Iberian pig is between 14 and 20 months. In conclusion, we can establish that in order to obtain ham or front-leg ham of maximum quality, what is needed is a leg from a purebred Iberian pig that has been fed exclusively acorns, grass and natural products from the oak forests, properly slaughtered at an age of between 14 and 20 months, and properly cured.

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