Thursday, March 14, 2019

Spanish Ham for Gourmets

"Maladúa" is the world's most expensive ham and costs 4,100 € the thigh. Spanish brand "Dehesa Maladúa" was recently appreciated at Europe's leading organic food fair declared this unique dry ham as the best product. The excellence of the product has already been confirmed by Córdoba's Food Science and Technology Department. 

The award-winning ham comes from a rare breed of pigs called "Manchado de Jabugo", whose name refers to the dark spots on the animal skin.  Dehesa Maladúa's creator and owner, Eduardo Donato, managed to protect this breed from extinction 25 years ago when he settled in the province of Huelva in southwest Spain.

"Manchado de Jabugo" ham gets its amazing delicious taste due to the fact that pigs do not eat animal feed, but only natural fruits and herbs from the pastures.  They wander freely over Donato's woodland adjacent to Picos de Aroche UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  The ham’s color is dark red and glossy; its fat is white and fine.

Donato owns 80 hectares of "dehesa" with acorns and green fodder in the forests of Huelva.  A Manchado de Jabugo pigs need up to three years to reach the optimal weight, while others can be processed into ham when they are from 14 to 18 months.  Then another six years are needed before the ham is cured.

Maladúa, NW of Sevilla, Close to the Portugal Border
Donato decided to purchase an old farm in Maladúa, a small village near Cortegana, in this area in 1990, which had been forgotten by God and the people. So he started intensively with a sustainable pig breeding and ham maturation. Now he runs an almost one-man business, supported only by his family.

Donato offers the international market with less than 100 hams per year, while they are now sold all over the world. For the "famine" of high-quality Iberian hams like Maladúa and the high production costs, customers have to pay the price. They not only buy a unique product and help to save a rare breed. Manchado de Jabugo ham tastes wonderful, but it is also good for your health. The ham is high in unsaturated fatty acids, rich in protein, vitamins B1 and B6 and healthy minerals. A portion of 100 grams of naturopathy against anemia costs about € 50.

The history of La Alberca, today a popular tourist town not far from the Portuguese border, has always been connected with the rearing of pigs. Here, in the midst of huge "dehesas", Mediterranean pastures full of cork and holm oaks, the black bristly Iberian pigs thrive.  From them comes the Jamón Ibérico, highly appreciated by gourmets, now an integral part of the international avant-garde cuisine.  It's also a million-dollar business that benefits a poor region.

Star Chef as Ambassador
Embutidos Fermín is the flagship company for this specialty in La Alberca, and with a hundred employees it is also the largest employer in the town. The family business, which emerged from a small butcher's shop in 1959, is now one of Spain's most important exporters of fine ham.  Spanish star chef José Andrés, who runs seven Tapa restaurants in Washington and now no longer has to worry about supplies.

Only one in ten of the 40 million hams produced every year can be called Iberian. The pig that goes with it has complicated rearing conditions thrives only in the complex ecosystem of the Dehesas and, since it is free-range, takes up an enormous amount of space.  "Sometimes we can hardly keep up with demand," admits Martín in La Alberca's flagship company.

For the Japanese, the meat of the Ibérico pig is just as high-quality as that of the Kobe cattle, the most expensive and exclusive slaughter animal in the world, because of its high content of unsaturated fatty acids.  They are easily prepared to pay the high price. The health-conscious Asians not only order hams and shoulder hams, but also other pieces of meat such as loins.

What is so special about Spanish ham?

The Taste
The meat of the semi-wild Ibérico breed has an unmistakable intense taste. The secret lies in the ability of the pigs to form intermuscular fat. The meat is then covered with fine fat strips, which makes it extremely aromatic and juicy. The free-range Ibérico pigs gain a large part of their weight from acorns, which leads to a unique nutty taste.  The more acorns on the diet of an Ibérico pig, the higher the Omega 3 content of the fat.

The Ibérico Breed
Ibèrico ham comes 100% from the Ibérico breed or a cross between the Ibérico and Duroc breeds.  The proportion of the Ibérico breed must be at least 50% for a ham to be sold as Ibérico ham.  But why the cross at all? The Ibérico breed grows less quickly than the Duroc and the meat, fat content is lower. And we all know that fat is a flavor carrier.

The true secret of Ibérico is the Dehesa de Extremadura. Dehesa is the Spanish name for grazed oak groves. Dehesa in Extremadura now covers 1 million hectares. A unique environment in which Ibérico pigs grow up free-range and with lots of exercises. A luxury that, due to the high demand, only accounts for 3% of all Ibérico pigs.

Tradition, Craft, and Microclimate
Hams have a long tradition in Spain. It is the knowledge of the craft, as well as the microclimate that ultimately makes up the taste of ham.

The variety of factors that all influence the price and quality of ham make it difficult even for professionals to keep an overview. In order to help customers with their purchases, the Spanish Royal Family has revised the classification of Ibérico ham in 2014 and issued a Royal Decree:

Black (negro, de bellota 100% ibérico)
Red (rojo, de bellota ibérico)
Green (verde, de cebo de campo ibérico)
White (blanco, de cebo ibérico)

Beautiful Tradition
In the small Spanish village of La Alberca, the inhabitants have paid homage to the pig since time immemorial.  And since the Middle Ages, there has been a beautiful tradition: all year round a cheerful specimen roams freely through the streets of the village, the so-called "Cerdo de San Antón".  It is fed by all inhabitants and given to a needy family after successful fattening.




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