On a recent trip to Spain, I discovered jamon iberico.
Of course, jamon iberico has been around forever, and it’s been well known even in the United States for a long time (though I believe only one company currently imports it). I’d even heard about it before myself; something distantly like prosciutto, it’s cured meat from a pig’s leg.
But I’d never experienced it before, and if I had, I wouldn’t have understood what makes it so different from the meat we eat in the United States–or even the other types of meat eaten in Spain.
Also, I discovered it before I went vegan, though given my understanding of how it’s made I would eat it despite my current vegan practices. (Please see my earlier posts about my reasons for going vegan and why I would eat jamon iberico even today.)
The beauty of jamon iberico is in how the pigs are raised. They roam free–truly free, not merely in a pen that lets them walk a few feet in either direction–and eat nothing but acorns. This is not only sanitary, humane and natural (these are the same acorns the pigs’ ancestors ate long before the advent of animal agriculture) but just fabulous for the quality of the meat they make. The taste is better, the consistency is better and the nutritional profile is better (a far better omega-3 to omega-6 balance that eliminates the inflammatory tendencies of modern ham, less saturated fat) than in pigs raised on corn and soybeans (as most American pigs are raised today–not their natural diets and not ones their bodies are ideally suited to consume).
And a recent article on Atlantic.com had me thinking that the stress-free nature of jamon iberico’s pigs’ upbringing brought further benefits for taste and nutrition. (“Spain’s stress-free, acorn-eating Iberico pigs produce taster, healthier ham–and modern food science explains why,” the article’s subtitle reads.) Alas, it appears from reading the article itself, the only taste and health benefits that accrue from iberico pigs’ stress free lifestyle accrue from their stress-free slaughter method, and not necessarily from the stress-free duration of the rest of their lives. While this offers a great incentive for today’s practitioners to revamp their slaughter practices, it doesn’t necessarily offer an additional benefit to letting pigs run free and eat their natural diets.
Then again, we didn’t need another reason. The taste alone should convince any of us that this meat is something entirely different from the vast bulk of what we eat today. And the health benefits add a meaningful kicker (that had me cutting back on my consumption of factory farm-produced animal products even before I decided to completely cut it off on moral grounds.)
Have you ever tried jamon iberico? Is there anything else like it?