Tell a proud Italian, or even a Virginian for that matter, that the most noble dry-cured hams in the world actually come from Spain, and heated disputes are sure to follow. It won't matter that each Spanish Iberico pig is allotted four acres to leisurely forage on acorns in a protected Andalusian oak tree forest. Nor would it make any difference to discuss the ancient lineage of the black Iberian pig. The most convincing argument, of course, would be to eat it. Because of the acorn diet, Iberico ham is high in olenic acid, which is the same healthy fat found in olive oil. Not only do the acorns give the meat an uncommonly resonant nuttiness, but the marbled fat within the shoulder ends up with a relatively low melting point, so the sublime ham melts in your mouth the way no other ham will.
Up until 2005, however, Iberico ham was an embargoed commodity, as illegal as Cuban cigars. None of Spain's slaughterhouses met USDA standards so Iberico ham was either smuggled in, or you ate it elsewhere. Then Spanish concern Fermin rose to the challenge of building a facility that passed American muster and Uncle Sam eventually approved.
Being a dry-cured product, Iberico ham is aged up to three years, so the U.S.-approved 2005 debut slaughter meant that no hams would be ready until 2008. And when these holy hocks finally started coming in with the traditional black hooves still attached, the USDA deemed the trotters to be unsanitary, so a law now requires Spain to cut off the hooves before exportation-a centuries-old tradition put to an end.
Nevertheless, it's still very expensive. The highest grade Iberico ham, known as Jamón Iberico de Bellota (Spanish for acorn) can cost up to $140 per pound. Bellota level pigs spend their final feeding stage blissfully gorging themselves on nothing but fallen acorns and woodland grasses. After slaughter, the shoulder cures for 36 months. The less expensive Recebo level Iberico ham comes from pigs whose final diets are 85 percent acorns, 15 percent commercial feed. Recebo ham cures for 24 months and runs about $90 per pound. Lower grades of Iberico exist as well. Keep in mind that Iberico ham is not the more common Serrano ham. Beware of restaurants and purveyors trying to pass one off for the other. This pitfall can be easily avoided if you stick to trusted distributors. La Tienda, in Virginia (tienda.com) will sell a whole shoulder or slice it by the pound. It is the only retail outlet approved by the USDA to ship sliced Iberico. Despaña of New York City (despananyc.com) will also slice and sell it fractionally, but you'll have to pick it up in person. A word of caution: don't try slicing the stuff yourself. The leg requires not only a ham holder, but special cutlery and even more specialized training. Ideally, the ham should be sliced into diaphanous ribbons, not hacked into jerky. Cutting it improperly and consuming it in thick pieces would be a culinary travesty and a waste of money.