Alvaro Rivas Couto. Technical Director
Extremadura has a unique ecosystem, the dehesa (woodlands), where man co-exists with wild and domestic species such as the Ibérico pig, and a technical team of dedicated experts, which enable it to bring DO Dehesa de Extremadura hams and shoulders to market each year which meet the needs of all consumers—from the most discerning to the least experienced.
This is achieved with strict quality control by the technical inspectors, which begins with individually identifying and weighing each Ibérico pig and monitoring their eating on the dehesas. Once the pigs have been identified, their feeding is rigorously monitored and verified during periodic visits, during which time it is confirmed that the pigs controlled by the DO Dehesa de Extremadura are grazing freely and exclusively eating acorns and herbage during the montanera (or fattening) period, which generally runs from October to March (depending on annual acorn production) and is when pigs increase their weight from around 105 to 170 kilos.
Audits allow for traceability, which cover 100% of production in the case of the DO Dehesa de Extremadura. Our auditors check every piece to ensure that seals have been correctly placed on the hams at the slaughterhouse. The ham is then prepared using artisan methods, which are also subject to audits to ensure correct production and curing in drying rooms and bodegas.
The maturation period can vary from 22 months in the case of acorn-fed Ibérico shoulder to 30 to 40 months for acorn-fed Ibérico ham, after which time an audit is conducted to evaluate the final product. The auditors confirm that each ham and shoulder has been prepared correctly, and the Council's numbered back label is applied to the product.
During any of the control phases—when the pig is in the dehesa through to production audits—pigs may be disqualified or certification may be withdrawn from producers or product batches. As a result, only those pieces with the identifying seal from the slaughterhouse and the label applied at the end of the production process are certified with the DO Dehesa de Extremadura label. The Council's seals and labels must coincide in terms of color and according to quality: acorn-fed is red, and cebo (i.e. grain fed) is green.
Our DO certifies the quality of two products:
a) Acorn-fed Ibérico ham: Ham from pigs which are slaughtered immediately after the end of the montanera period, having eaten acorns and herbage in the holm oak and cork oak woodlands. During this phase, the pig increases its weight by 60%. This type accounts for more than 90% of DO Dehesa de Extremadura's total production.
b) Cebo Ibérico ham: Ham from pigs which eat compound feed authorized by the Regulatory Board, mainly cereals, legumes and pasture. These are free-range pigs.
The montanera phase during the last season was outstanding, as the Extremaduran dehesa had an abundance of acorns from holm and cork oaks. The latter play a vital role in the duration and quality of the montanera, as the pigs are able to fatten up for an extended period of time, until the beginning of March, yielding excellent quality hams. Many locals with extensive experience in montaneras in various parts of Extremadura couldn't recall a time of such abundance of cork oak acorns.
Weather conditions were also optimal, with the result that the grass was very good quality in most of the dehesas. Considering also that the number of pigs on each farm has declined, we can conclude that the montanera period has been exceptional.
Every pig certified by the DO Dehesa de Extremadura required its own 3.89 hectares of dehesa, and there are many external factors that influence the state of the woodlands. Bearing in mind that it was an exceptional year, it's possible to imagine the hard work required of each stockbreeder, who sets aside almost four hectares of farmland in very good years, and considerably more in years without good acorn and herbage production.
An Ibérico ham needs to be cured for 3-4 years before being brought to market, as the artisan production process—which involves only salt and time to cure—requires that they spend extended periods in natural drying rooms and cellars.
A total of 24,000 pigs were slaughtered this season, and at most 48,000 hams and 48,000 shoulders of the very best quality will reach the market. The Council's policy has never changed and remains focused on starting with a outstanding product, where quality takes precedence over quantity, allowing us to be sustained by the EXTREMADURAN DEHESA's natural production without exploiting our resources.
This limited production allows us to audit 100% of products, to verify the identification of each ham and shoulder in the slaughterhouse, and to ensure the correct placement of the Council's back label prior to sale.
PROMOTION AND AWARENESS-RAISING
In addition to controlling quality, the Regulatory Council's main mission is to inform and raise awareness about the qualities of our hams and to promote companies in the sector. We participate in countless promotional events; collaborate on competitions, conferences and popular activities; attend the industry's main specialized fairs (Gourmet, Alimentaria, London Wine & Food, etc.); and organize tastings with distributors at embassies, leading markets and charity events. We also collaborate with ham carving contests and presentations which provide consumers with accurate information about the Ibérico pig and the organoleptic qualities a top-notch ham should have. (training, awareness-raising presentations in malls, schools, etc.)
The sector in Extremadura is gradually selling its stock of hams, due to the slow (but hopeful) economic recovery, eliminating from the market the selection of lesser quality and expired products which flooded Spain in the last three years and, together with the crisis, drove prices down to a level not seen in many, many years. Another aspect favoring the improvement is Extremaduran companies' reputation for skill and prestige as part of their commitment to quality. This has driven growth in exports of top-quality products which, although they are very closely linked to Spanish culture and domestic consumption, are increasingly well known and more in demand by well-informed consumers in other countries.
The DO Dehesa de Extremadura will remain focused on quality and producing the unique, limited and unbeatable product that is acorn-fed Ibérico ham with DO certification.