If you've been underwhelmed after trying Spain's much-hyped Jamon Iberico, there's a reason: you probably weren't tasting the best. Banned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture until a decade ago, the luxury, free-range Iberian ham with the rich, nutty splendor was known here only by its reputation. What wasn't clear when the import floodgates opened was that it comes in several grades. Some are merely good. The utmost—those that exhibit a rare combination of breeding, feeding and curing—are exquisite and fetch prices of $190 a pound. To get the real deal you must learn to read the label or simply buy from brands like Cinco Jotas (aka 5J) that import only the top tier.
Spain designates the best as black label. It starts with a purebred Iberian pig, called pata negra for its black hooves. Lesser grades use crossbred pigs that are more prolific and earlier to develop. Another difference is diet. Optimally, the pig feeds exclusively on fallen acorns as it roams the Andalusian oak forests during the last three months of its life. This is how it gets its oily, nutty character. Such pigs will be stamped bellota (Spanish for acorn). However, red label pigs (crossbreeds) also share that designation. Green label indicates crossbred pigs fed with a mix of acorns and grain. White label hams are crossbred and never eat a single acorn.
Since 2010, the Spanish government has gotten much stricter with the labeling requirements of its Iberico hams. Manufacturers now have to specify the details of breeding and diet. Aging is also important. Ideally, these haughty hocks should spend three years in a curing facility.
To enjoy Iberico ham you can find a restaurant that serves Cinco Jotas Iberico. More involved is buying and cutting the whole leg, but you'll also need a ham holder, the right cutlery and lessons on the proper technique. Besides, that's a lot of ham for one household. Better to find a purveyor that sells it by the slice. Cinco Jotas hams are available in precut packets from such mail-order outfits as La Tienda and Hamlovers.com, which specialize in Spanish imports.
Served at room temperature, each glistening piece should pretty much melt in your mouth. That's not an opinion, it's actually scientific fact. Acorns are high in oleic acid, giving the pig fat not only a sublime taste, but a low melting point that results in a true porcine epiphany.