Short history of cured and air-dried meats

Short history of cured and air-dried meats

When meat is cured or air-dried, the leg or muscle is preserved. It is covered in salt and left for two to seven days, then washed and hung up to cure over months or years, depending on the weight and the region. Typically, a pig would be slaughtered in the autumn and then hung until the following winter. It is not only the rear legs (called jamón in Spain and jambon in France) that are cured/air-dried. You can also find cured shoulder (front legs) called paleta in Spain and also loin (lomo in Spain) or bresaola from the top side of beef.

In our view the best cured or air-dried meats are:

  • From Spain: Ibérico de bellota made from free-range, Black Iberian pigs, which feed naturally on acorns, and matured for three years. Also, Teruel, which has a robust flavour and is from a bigger breed white pig such as a Duroc.
  • From Italy: Parma ham, sweet and flavorsome, but beware not all Parma hams are equal! And bresaola, a cured beef from the north.


Why the price varies

Price depends on the pork, production technique and expertise of the producer.


In the US, the biggest selling lines are bacon and ham, so pigs are selected to best suit these products. This means that they are often smaller and bread quicker than charcuterie pigs, which need to be much larger to create the optimum combination of meat and fat that is required within the long production process. To reach the required maturity, a charcuterie pig must be fattened well past the size of a traditional US breed and has to eat twice as much in order to achieve the right weight and size. 

Ibérico, from Spain, is ideal for making cured meats. There are different qualities of raw material based on age, feed and conditions of space/life. While they are all called Ibérico some are intensively bred and some are free-range (cebo) with a natural diet of cereals. 

The highest quality is bellota. To be called Ibérico de bellota, the pigs have to be free range and to have grazed in the dehesa of western Spain with a minimum space of six hectares each. They will be double the size of the intensively reared Ibérico pig and for the final months before slaughter they live off foraged acorns (bellota), of which they will consume 6kg per day. The legs are then hung for over two years (which takes the total age to over three years). 

Ibérico pigs are expensive. They have smaller litters, yield less meat per head and take time to mature, which is why many ham producers around Spain cross-bred them with other varieties. Up until recently, ham made from pigs that were as little as half-ibérico, could be sold as jamón ibérico, but legislation introduced by the Spanish government in January 2014 requires ibérico ham to be labelled according to the percentage of the pigs’ Iberian ancestry and a number of other factors.

The biggest factors to affect the quality of pigs used for charcuterie products are better farming standards, which are more expensive; whether there is a higher/lower fat content; and if fresh or frozen meat has been used. Artisanal small-scale production versus mass production also has a significant bearing on price. The former allows greater attention to detail and for skills to be passed through generations. 

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