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You like ham? Then try pata negra. You don't like ham? You have obviously never tried pata negra. Your religion prohibits the eating of ham? Never mind: you get paradise instead. Which probably isn't as good, but is said to last longer.

Pata negra is to ham what the Shakyamuni Buddha is to the Great Apes: theoretically the same thing, but so far beyond the others of its kind that the similarities become irrelevant in practice. (And indeed, one of the imponderables of Buddhist teaching is the question of whether Siddhartha would have attained nibbhana if his last meal had been pata negra instead of pork.)

"But hold!", I hear you cry, "tell me, O James, how may I obtain this pata negra of which you speak? What is its provenance and what must I do that I might be worthy to consume it?"

There are two ways to come legally into the possession of this most noble of cured meats. The first is to make it yourself. To do this you will need:

  1. A forest in Spain. But not just any old forest: it has to be a particular kind of ecosystem, known as a 'dehesa', characterised by relatively sparse growth of holm oak and cork oak trees with grass gowing beneath and between them. The Spanish ministry of Agriculture will be happy to give you an exhaustive list of the localities recognised as blessed with such forests. They are to be found in various provinces of Andalucía, Extremadura, Castilla La Mancha and Castilla y León.
  2. A pig. Once again, not just any old pig. This is an Iberian pig, said to be descended from the mingling of the pigs brought to Spain three thousand years ago by the Phoenicians with the native wild boar they found there. They tend to be dark-skinned, hence the name 'pata negra', meaning 'black foot' (not to be confused with blackfoot). There are various breeds, and you can even use a cross between them and a limited number of recognised foreign breeds, as long as your pig has at least 75% Iberian ancestry.
  3. Time. Something over five years if you're going to do everything properly.

After weaning your pig, feed it on barley and maize for a while. When it weighs about 100 kilogrammes take it out into the forest and leave it there. This is in no way an act of cruelty: your pig will spend the next two years or so in paradise. Its favourite food is acorns. I mentioned the oak trees, did I not? Your pig eats large quantities of delicious acorns, along with healthy fresh grass, and gets a lot of fresh air and exercise. This last is good for your pig's health and yours, since it results in a high level of monounsaturates in its fat. It also gives the meat of the animal a close texture, with the fat tending to be distributed throughout the muscle tisue rather than in lumps around it.

As the time draws near for your pig to meet its destiny, you may feed it exclusively on acorns for six weeks or so. This improves the flavour of your future ham still further. Then you chop its leg off. (It is generally considered courteous to slaughter the animal first.)

The rest of the process is familiar in principle from the production of normal ham: the leg is cooled, salted and left to absorb the salt for two weeks. Then the salt is rinsed off, and the ham is left for another six weeks or so to dry and to let the salt that it has absorbed diffuse throughout it naturally. It is then hung under controlled conditions of temperature and humidity for at least nine months; if you're going to do it properly make that two years; if you've done everything else right so far then go the extra mile and make it three.

If making it yourself is impractical for reasons of time or geography, you will have to buy your pata negra from a reputable supplier. (A disreputable supplier will sell you something inferior at an inflated price and make a huge profit.) In Berlin it costs around € 80 a kilo, which doesn't just sound expensive. On the other hand, it's only € 4 for 50 grams, which is more than enough for breakfast for three, given that it is sliced paper-thin. Get cheaper champagne, don't drink your beer in fern bars, it's all a matter of setting priorities.

Pedantic details

'Pata negra' is an informal term for 'jamón ibérico'. What I described above strictly only applies to the very finest grade: 'jamón ibérico de bellota.' To qualify as 'jamón ibérico' it is sufficient for the pig to be of an Iberian breed. Appealingly, the distinctions between the different grades are partly expressed in terms of the percentage of the pig that is made of acorns. Bellota is at least 60% acorn.

Pity the oppressed

Until recently, jamón ibérico was the Cuban Cigar of ham, being deemed too good for Americans by the US authorities. Since the end of 2007 one producer has had USDA approval, and one company is importing it. You have to buy a whole 15lb ham, and it will set you back over $50 a pound for the normal stuff and nearly $100 a pound for bellota grade.

Shock! Horror!

The designation 'Pata Negra' does not appear to be protected. I recently saw inferior jamón serrano being sold under a trade name including it. Make sure your jamón really is ibérico and de bellota to avoid disappointment!

Sources: Butter Lindner in the Friedrichstrasse | Ibergour (no, really) | 20 Minutos | saveurespagnole.com | Wikipedia | La Tienda (US importer)

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