Designation of Origin of the Iberian ham
The breeding and production area on the Route of the Iberian Ham is in the Autonomous Communities of Andalucía, Castilla y León and Extremadura. These areas are marked out by the Regulating Council of the Designation of Origin of the Iberian ham. Guijuelo, la Dehesa de Extremadura, Jamón de Huelva and Los Pedroches are the four areas with Designation of Origin at present.
In the provinces of Salamanca, Cáceres, Badajoz, Huelva and Córdoba there are 307 towns and villages that are authorised by the Regulating Council to establish drying sheds. These towns and villages make up the “areas of development and fattening” of the Iberian pigs.
The dehesa pastures
Without the dehesa grazing land Iberian ham would not exist. This ecosystem provides the special characteristics that only exist in this wooded pastureland cultivated by man and capable of harmonising human occupation with the conservation of the environment and its sustainable development with agricultural usage.
The colours, aromas and sensations immerse us in a nature area with a distinctive and suggestive beauty that invites us to walk through the countryside and enjoy its diverse flora and fauna. You can find 60 different bird species that nest here and over 20 varieties of mammals. The characteristics of the trees make it one of the zones with the greatest biodiversity on the Iberian Peninsula.
It is the ideal place for hiking and biking, on route you will come across an important cultural heritage of noteworthy buildings, farming traditions, castles, megalithic monuments, medieval bridges, Roman roads and many other attractive features.
Architecture in the dehesa pastureland
The civil, religious and folk architecture tells us about life in the dehesa, the beliefs of the people and their social administration. You can still see and visit remains of ancient castles and other defensive forts that date from Moorish times like the watch towers and border posts.
There are many civil buildings dating from the Middle Ages that tell us about the importance of the dehesa pastures in the transhumance of stock between the north and south of the Peninsula. The wool trade, with the fleeces of Merino sheep, required an infrastructure in the dehesa in the form of tracks, roads, paths, bridges and cattle grids.
On the other hand, many shrines were built and dedicated to different saints, to take care of the people and their belongings and where people could go to religious services.
There are many examples of folk architecture for livestock in the dehesa pastures like the “tinaos”, a kind of covered passage, pigsties, corrals, fenced and stone enclosures, huts, wells, waterwheels, etc. The pigsty, for example, protects the pigs from the inclemency of the weather and they are built of stone or clay. Farms, labourers’ cottages, hydraulic constructions and water mills are farm related buildings. In these areas you can see people carrying out traditional tasks like cork harvesting, making charcoal and farming the herds of Iberian pigs.
The Iberian pig
The leading role of this tourism product is an animal that has been symbolic in numerous ancient cultures. The Iberian pig breed dates back 3000 years to be precise, when pigs brought by the Phoenicians from the Middle East were used for cross breeding. The Iberian pig has three breeds: Black, red and the Jabugo pied (Huelva).
The feed is a key factor in Iberian pig farming. After they leave the sow, the piglets are fed on stubble from cereal crops and the sparse remains in the countryside, the most important time is when the pigs graze freely in the dehesa pastures when the acorns begin to fall from the oak trees. This system of traditional fattening is called mountain free range or montanera.
There are three different systems of fattening the pigs.
Grain. The pigs eat concentrated commercial feed or meal.
Free range fattening. The traditional fattening process consists of taking advantage of all the resources of the dehesa pastures.
Mixed feed or recebo. This term is applied to pigs that have grazed free range but the feed has been made up with grain because there has not been enough acorns.
The quality of the product is guaranteed thanks to the perfect combination between the acorn feed and the exercise the animal does. After the fattening period, three to five months, the pig can fatten up to 57.5 kilos.
Farrowing takes place in June and December and each litter ranges from six to eight piglets. Depending on the season, the pigs are classified in Spain as “yerbizos” (February to March), “agostones” (August) and “marceños” (April to May).
In the rearing period the bases are established for the definite make up of the animal. First of all, the pig with a weight of between 35 and 70 kilos subsequently develops into a fattened pig of between 70 and over 100 kilos.
The fruit of the oak, the holm oak and other trees of the quercus genus make up the staple food of the Iberian breed of pig raised in the dehesa pastures. The acorn is of great importance for feeding the adult pig because it is this that gives the best quality of acorn-cured ham.
The best acorns are the sweet fruits of the oak tree that have a brownish colour and are a delicacy for the Iberian pig that is continuously rooting for acorns in groups. On the other hand, the “not so sweet” acorns serve to put on pork fat and they also give a characteristic taste and aroma to the animal.
A pig fattened extensively in the dehesa pastures eating 10 kg of acorns a day can put on up to a kilo a day. An oak grove dedicated to pig farming can produce between 400 and 900 kg/hectare of acorns a year and an oak around 15 kg a year.
The combination of grass and acorns provides the taste, colour and aroma characteristic of Iberian ham. At the start of the period when the pigs graze freely is when the meat is being produced, this is when the fat begins to marble the meat.