The dehesa is a landscape of beautiful harmony. Holm oak and cork trees, grasses, and aromatic plants thrive in an ecosystem maintained by humans for many centuries as a foraging ground for cattle, sheep, fighting bulls and Ibérico pigs. It is also an especially important reserve for aromatic plants such as thyme or rosemary and a wide variety of wild mushrooms. This exceptional habitat provides a natural and balanced diet to the Ibérico pig, key to achieving the sensory quality of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.
In ancient times a huge Mediterranean forest once stretched over vast portions of Spain. Over the millennia much of the forest was cleared, but a large portion still survives called the dehesa. This ancient rangeland coveres 20,000 square kilometers of southwestern Spain.
This pastureland dotted with holm oak and cork trees forms a unique bio-diverse ecosystem, which covers almost five million acres of western Spain and Portugal. Each tree takes between 30 and 40 years to grow to maturity and can live for hundreds of years.
This dehesa system plays an essential role for birds from Northern and Central Europe that winter in Southwestern Spain. In addition, the dehesa is vital to the survival of many native Spanish birds, such as the nearly extinct Spanish imperial eagle.
Inadvertently you may have first seen the dehesa when as a child your parents read you “Ferdinand the Bull.” Laid-back Ferdinand loved lounging under cork trees! But a word of caution: should you encounter a bull in the dehesa today, he probably will not be as mellow.
The dehesa constitutes an extraordinary ecosystem of which the Ibérico pig is an essential component. It is their favorite terrain, as well as home to Retinta cows, Merino sheep and fighting bulls. The livestock preserve the ancient ecosystem by clearing out saplings and other plants that might take over the land and create a dense, brush filled habitat. The livestock play the role that in prehistoric times was filled by deer, wild pigs and even bison.
The combination of holm oak with evergreen cork trees is fortuitous. The cork tree produces acorns after the holm oak thereby extending the seasonal feast for the animals. The flavor of Ibérico de Bellota ham is profoundly influenced by the mix of acorn bearing trees because some types of acorns are sweeter or have higher levels of antioxidants than others. Because acorns are such a huge part of the Ibérico pigs’ diet, you can literally taste the difference in hams from different regions.
Due to the popularity of the Ibérico ham, this special ecosystem continues to thrive. Acorns, fruit of both the holm oak and cork tree, are an essential part of the Ibérico pig's diet, although the animals also feeds on grasses, saplings and wild legumes, making a decisive contribution to the ecological balance of its natural habitat.
Fortunately, due to the popularity of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, the commercial value of the dehesa is helping to spare it from the danger of overdevelopment.