A Brief History of Jamón Ibérico
A food with a cherished past and a bright future.
Jamón ibérico is a culinary masterpiece from my native Spain (península ibérica), made exclusively from the meat of black-hoofed Iberian pigs. The finest of all jamón ibérico — the classification of which is regulated by stringent Real Decreto del Reino de España guidelines — is made from a special breed of Iberian pigs that are fed at the last winter of their lives with only acorns, or bellotas, and free range pasture. These animals are raised according to strict regulations, in turn rendering an end product that is some of the purest, most delicious food there is. This “jamón ibérico de bellota” accounts for just 5–6% of the total jamón ibérico output. The history of this delicacy — and the pigs that create it — is as richly textured as the product itself. My partner and I are passionately pursuing the next step in this history, creating legitimate jamón ibérico de bellota on American soil.
As we ready ourselves for the future of this savory jewel, let us reflect on its past.
700,000 years ago: Pigs bones found in Sierra de Atapuerca, shows that modern pigs (sus scrofa), were in Europe then. By that time, the Atapuercans in their prehistoric Spanish caves were starting the great Iberian tradition.
9th Century BCE: The first ancestors of black-hoofed Iberian pigs are (thankfully) brought into existence by the interbreeding of pigs and Mediterranean wild boars.
77AD: Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History about the pigs from the Iberian Peninsula (Hispania):
“There’s no animal that affords a greater variety to the plate, all the others have their own peculiar flavor, but the flesh of these hogs has nearly fifty different flavors.”
Around the same time, 4,000 hams were cured for export to Rome.
711 AD: The Moors — a group whose Islamic tenets forbade the consumption of pork — invade the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa. Eating jamón becomes an act of rebelión política!
1492: The Moors’ rule over the Iberian Peninsula ends after the fall of Granada, and Spain emerges as a world power. Jamón, in turn, resurfaces as an integral part of the country’s identity and culture.
Meanwhile, this same year, Christopher Columbus reached America with the help of the cured meat from Iberian pigs — a healthy, energetic and long lasting food for such a journey.
1493: Iberian pigs prove themselves seaworthy once again when they sail with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas.
1539: Hernando De Soto stepped ashore in Tampa with six hundred soldiers, two hundred horses and thirteen pigs. When he died at the Mississippi River in 1542 his property consisted of three horses and seven hundred pigs.
1554: Jerez de los Caballeros — a community in the Extremedura region of Spain — claims to be fattening up to 100,000 pigs on acorns. We call such an oak-heavy ecosystem la dehesa.
1846: Richard Ford — an English traveler known for detailing his excursions throughout Spain — writes:
“The pork of Spain has always been, and is, unequalled in flavour; the bacon is fat and flavoured, the sausages delicious, and the hams transcendentally superlative…”
I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Ford.
1970: The story goes that during the Apollo 13 crisis, the crew used glazed ham in the construction of a makeshift CO2 filter. While not jamón ibérico, it proves that sometimes pork products aren’t only delectable, but downright lifesaving!
2005: The first Spanish facility is approved by the United States Department of Agriculture, paving the way for the importation of jamón ibérico into the U.S. A big step.
2007 : The first jamón ibérico is imported for sale in the U.S. Americans everywhere rejoice! However, still no plans for it be produced there.
2014: 150 Iberian black-hoofed pigs set foot onto American soil for the first time since Columbus’ voyages over half a millennium ago.
After landing in New York City, myself, my partner Manuel, and the pigs set out on a multi-day road trip to our final destination in Flatonia, Texas.
Present Day: The Acornseekers pigs roam free through our now established home in the beautiful Texas. They spend their days feasting on nature’s own ingredients, and living an exemplary life for the future of food practices and quality in this great nation.
¡El futuro de los alimentos es brillante!
Sergio Marsal Colom, President & CEO, Acornseekers
Peter Kaminsky: Pig Perfect: Encounters With Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them (2005)
Richard Ford: Gatherings From Spain (1846)
Mark Essig: Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig (2015)