When we speak of pata negra ham, we're talking about the best ham in the world, drawn from 100% acorn-fed Iberico pigs. But not all Iberico hams are acorn-fed. Only a few, specially selected pigs are lucky enough to roam through the extensive Iberian pastures and enjoy all the resources they provide. Let's learn about the meadowland pastures where some of Spain's most fantastic ham originates!
The pastures may be the secret of Iberico ham, but it's a secret that's less well-kept every day. Now modern landscape science is brought to bear to ensure the survival of this delicacy. Meadow ecosystems characterized by mixed forests and grasslands, with oak trees predominating, are a feature of huge areas of the Iberian peninsula; the name in Spanish, "dehesa," refers to a large area of land set aside for farming purposes by new settlers in the Tenth Century. Typically these areas were in border areas abutting the former Taifa kingdoms of Andalusia, which were lands valued for their defensive properties and treated as a buffer zone.
Leaving aside the historical and etymological elements, the simple facts are that a t that time, the pastures were fairly bare, sparsely populated areas with a lot of oak trees. Gradually these were modified by the hand of man, introducing broad grasslands intended to support a larger population of farmers. Over time, these regions have become the only silvopastoral regions in the world, where large herds of Iberico pigs are fed and fattened in a totally unique environment to create a totally unique product: the authentic raw material for pata negra ham.
Certainly, one of the most important elements of this balance is the trees. Cork oaks and oaks grow on the fertile lands and contribute leaf fall to the richness of the soil and shade to a unique microclimate, as well as the acorns on which the pigs feed until they are ready for slaughter. This system is called "montanera," and occurs between September and February, when the acorns are ripening.
The rest of the year, the meadows are where the pigs roam freely, eating some acorns but also roots, grasses and leaves, shrubs and even small rodents. Commonly, pigs will go through a process of pre-fattening during which they develop the muscle mass that makes pata negra ham such a speciality product. Between the pasture and the pigs, a symbiotic relationship has sprung up, whereby both help each other. The pigs take the best resources but they also manure the forest and clear undergrowth and weeds, helping to keep the pastures in good condition. The whole delicate balance is preserved by men and women who keep, use and transmit traditional local knowledge.
But why are acorns so precious? What is it about them that makes them such an important factor in the process of breeding and development? It's simple: like other tree nuts, acorns are very high in fat, sometimes as high as 93%. This fat is largely oleic acid, with some good cholesterol. The result is that the ham is very healthy from a nutritional standpoint with many health benefits if consumed regularly.
The primary reason, though, is that when we think of ham we don't think of health food. We think of a delicacy, and the acorns the pigs are fed during the months before slaughter give both the lean meat and the fat of pata negra ham a taste and aroma unlike any other. It's the montanera diet in traditional pastures that give pata negra ham the taste, aroma and appearance that guarantee it the crown as the king of hams!
Therefore it's very important to preserve the traditional pastureland system intact. Without it, there would be no leisurely fattening period in open grassland and shady forests, only stressful, unhealthy intensive farming. Without the acorns to feed them on, there could be no true Iberico pigs - and no true pata negra ham.
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