Editor’s note. We sent one of our most obsequious Junior Courtesy Clerks to Spain to report on the international frenzy over Spanish ham (and to get him out of the store). It’s huge in Paris, parts of Italy (where prosciutto was the king), and even down south in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here’s what he came up with.
Seville, Spain: While being towed on a tapeo (a tapa crawl) through the bars of this literally intoxicating city, I (Raul Espinosa, Junior Courtesy Clerk at Coaltrain) learned to watch my head for tawny, mold-mottled hams hanging from these establishments’ not-rigorously-hygienic ceilings. I enviously observed the trim and comely locals sensually munching thin slices of these hanging haunches, while sipping copitas (small wine glasses) of dry sherry. The people appeared happy and alive, as they well should have been, since they were enjoying one of the most satisfying food and wine couplings on earth.
Most all wine crazed people know a few things about sherry. They know the differences between finos, manzanillas, olorosos, amontillados and creams. And they know the names of some makers, which for the dry sherries are, among many, La Gitana, La Ina, Tio Pepe, Alvear Fino (Montilla), Lustau Jarana, etc. But, the ham is the mysterious part of the combo. Where does it come from? How is it made? Why is it so utterly rico y sabroso?
Those are significant questions. And there are fairly straightforward answers.
The life of an Iberico (Iberian pig), the distinctive pig whence the best ham comes, is certainly bucolic, almost sweet for a year before the slaughter house beckons. These porcines just wander about the dehesas, pastures wooded with cork and Holm oak trees. They munch on grass and, in the fall, glut themselves on acorns during a period called the montanera. There might be the occasional run-in with a bull or an errant hunting dog. But that is pretty much the maximum stress. In this way, they contentedly put on nearly 1000 pounds. And later they have the honor of providing one of mankind’s epic gustatory pleasures.
It is said that these pigs arrived on the Iberian Peninsula with the Phoenicians and interbred with the wild boars that abounded at that time. Today there are 90 recognized breeds and 200 varieties of the swine. These are unique beasts which represent 1000s of years of adaptation and centuries of careful selection and breeding aimed at producing the perfect pig.
So what is the perfect Iberian pig? In appearance it should have long, slim, strong legs. The snout is sharp. The hair is not wildly thick, but silken. The skin and hooves are black which is where the nickname pata negra (black paw or hoof) derives. Physiologically the pig has a peculiarity that allows it to store large amount of lipids in its muscles which creates the characteristic white streaks in the ham. This helps give the meat its incomparable smooth texture, oiliness and sweet aromas. Golly, it reminds me of a girl in the disco, near the Olympic Harbor of Barcelona.
It should be pointed that another type of pig flourishes in Spain. It is called the Celtic pig. Fresh pork often comes from these and, also, the air cured Serrano hams. Normally, these hams are not as esteemed as the hams from the Iberian pigs. But, some of these Serrano hams can be pretty delicious.
Getting back to the true Iberian pig and its hams (two per animal). The hams are classified according to the amount of acorns they eat. This gets a little tricky, but is of importance when buying or eating these hams. There are three categories. The top one is jamon Iberico de bellota. This comes from the semi-free pigs that spend the last four months of their lives consuming acorns on the dehesa. At least half their weight must come from acorns. The second category is jamon Iberico de recebo, meaning half acorn Iberian ham. These finish their growing period on acorns which half their weight should derive, the rest on fodder. The third category is the fodder pigs, for only 30 percent of their weight is supplied by acorns, the rest is by fodder. These will be sold in shops normally as jamon Iberico.
To further confuse the neophyte ham-phile, the jamones are also classified according to the region of Spain where they were raised. It’s much the same as with Spanish wine. In fact, it’s called Denominacion de Origen (DO) just like wine. Unlike wine, where there are scores of DOs, there are only five for ham. They are: Jamon de Teruel, Guijuelo, Dehesa de Extremadura, Jamon de Huelva and Los Pedroches. There is also a classification for quality Denominacion de Calidad, (DC) that applies to hams of high quality from other areas, such as Rioja. These classified hams will have differences in texture and flavor.
Interestingly, Spain’s most famous ham from the town of Jabugo, in the Huelva DO, is marketed more on its name, not the Denominacion de Origen. Fame changes things. Jabugo was Pavarotti’s favorite ham and the tenor was said to fortify himself with heaping platters before any performance in Spain, at the Liceu in Barcelona.
How the hams are cured is another curiosity in this whole swinish tale. One of the first known records of the curing process came from the Roman, Cato the Censor, who died in 149 B.C. After the pigs are slaughtered they rest for at least 24 hours before being butchered. The hams then are stacked in bins and packed in sea salt which separates each ham. They are kept this way for a period calculated as one day for each kilo of weight of the ham. The salt produces a progressive dehydration. It also propagates complex bio-chemical reactions that contribute to the suave, sweet flavors of the ham.
Days later, when the salt is washed off the hams, they are taken to a drying room to hang from the ceiling for six to nine months. This is normally in an attic during the warm months. Spanish call this the sudado (sweating). During this time the hams lose much of their liquid and the lipids are distributed into the meat fibers. Also, much of the ham’s aroma is developed in this period.
The last move is down to a cool bodega (cellar). There the violin shaped hams will hang for 10 to 12 months. Micro-flora will develop on the skins and this is vital. This micro-flora stabilizes the fat, allowing the hams to reach the perfect point of texture and juiciness. The development of the hams is carefully monitored and, at the point when the maker deems ideal, the hams are released on the market. Interestingly, like wine, some makers prefer to release their hams earlier or later.
Americans might find it difficult to grasp, but the slicing of the finished ham is key to its enjoyment. A Spanish friend once said, “Oh, you must be an expert to cut ham.” The ham is normally secured in a holder called a jamonero, though expert cutters will hold it by one hand and slice with a razor sharp knife in the other. Buena suerte for laymen like us. A trip to the emergency room awaits.
You must know the anatomy of a ham to slice it properly. There are three principal parts with different flavors. One is the maza (flank) which has the greatest amount of meat. Many ham Aficionados consider this the most delicious part of the ham. On the opposite side is the contramaza. It has less meat and far less fat, giving less robust flavors. The third main part is the punta which is at the opposite end from the hoof. Pieces from here can be full flavored, but at times too salty and a bit chewy. In Spanish markets, you can usually specify what part you want.
Watching an expert slice ham is both a rite and spectacle. The ham is cut lengthwise from hoof to the tip with a knife having a long, narrow flexible blade. The slices will be thin, almost transparent, with a bit of fat on each which contributes to the flavor. The slicing is done swiftly, forcefully, but with a gentle touch. The slices are then arrayed on a plate for your delectation. If you are standing at a tapa bar, you just dig in with a tooth pick and await the flavor sensations.
So those are some basics on Spanish ham. At least, as much as I can understand. If confusion remains, wash some slices down with a copita of cold, dry sherry and absolute clarity should follow.
WHERE TO TASTE OR PURCHASE SPANISH HAM
Barcelona: Though the Catalan people of Barcelona may not be as ham obsessed as people in other parts of Spain, the city has one of the nation’s most sophisticated ham shops. It is Jamonisimo. In this sleek shop, you purchase artisan ham coming from pigs selected by the proprietor. There is also a small dining room, where you can taste the different hams with glasses of cold sherry. Jamonisimo is located in downtown Barcelona at 85 Provenca. Telephone, 93 439 08 47.
Madrid: Here, in the Spanish capital, ham abounds. So you are almost able to find a ham merchant on every block. One restaurant/store, Meson Cinco Jotas, specializes in ham and had four outlets at this printing…Padre Damian 42 (phone 91 350 31 73), Paseo de San Francisco de Sales 27 (phone 91 544 01 89), Puigcerda (phone 91 575 41 25) and Serrano 118 (phone 91 563 27 10). A tapa bar that prides itself with superlative ham is Madrid Jabugo I at Capitan Haya 54 (phone 91 570 33 78). Jabugo, as mentioned above, is a village in southwest Spain where the most prized ham of the country is raised. Expect to pay about $100 a pound for this delight.
San Sebastian: The Basques are not orthodox fresh seafood and wild game eaters, as some might suppose. They adore ham too. In fact, the owner of the Spain’s first Michelin three star restaurant, Juan Mari Arzak, told me, “I couldn’t think of living without good ham.” And that item abounds in the Pintxo bars (Basque for tapa bars) in the Parte Vieja (Old Town) of San Sebastian. Try Casa Urbano, where hams hang over the bar, at Abutzueran 17 (phone 94 342 04 34). Perhaps the finest Pinzto bar in San Sebastian is Ganbara at San Jeronimo 21 (phone 94 342 25 75). Also, you can buy ham at the magnificently re-modeled La Brecha market in the Parte Vieja. A visit to this market is a must to view the colorful foodstuffs for sale in its stalls.
Seville: Madrid may be Spain’s governmental capital, but Seville is its capital of ham. It sits right in the midst of four of the five Spanish ham DOs. Thus the variety and quality of hams in this city are beyond description. Drop into any of the hundreds of tapa bars and you are certain to find top quality ham. Some personal favorites are: Modesto at Cano y Cueto 5 (phone 95 441 68 11), Las Golondrinas at Antillano Campos 26 (phone 95 433 16 26) and La Albariza at Betis 6 (95 433 20 16) across that lazy river.
United States: All is not lost in America. Today, almost every fine tuned gourmet food shop offers Spanish jams, at least Serrano, if not Iberico. Also, some of the fine food chain stores, such as Whole Foods, occasionally carry Spanish hams. Unfortunately, due to health codes, most of this ham comes pre-packaged in plastic, not from whole hams hanging in the open air. Also, the ham maker must be approved by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), before the products can be shipped to America. An online store in Williamsburg, Virginia has figured out this USDA nonsense. So that whole Iberico ham can be sent to this country. It is called La Tienda, at www.latienda.com. Have your credit card juiced…an Iberico ham can run close to $3,000.