Jamon is talked about with passion and reverence in Spain.It is purchased at Christmas with the same serious decision making as one would give to a vintage port. It is looked at, prodded and then a small bore hole is made deep into the flesh to smell and taste it’s essence. This is an expensive purchase so deserves some thought. Although eaten all year round the Christmas jamon will be special and probably, if you can afford it, a pata negra (black footed pig). This comes in different grades which ii will explain later.
I was lucky to live in Granada region for some years in Las Alpujarras, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The air at the top of the mountains is cold, dry and clear and perfect for curing jamon. The highest inhabited village in Spain, Trevelez (1500 metres high) is here and is the centre of production. A tour around a drying plant is amazing. The jamons hang everywhere at different stages of their curing process. Little cups hang below them to catch any drips of fat as they cure. The stock is worth millions and is the mainstay of the village economy along with tourism. It is definitely worth a visit.
Jamón is the Spanish word for ham. In English it refers to certain types of dry-cured hams from Spain. There are two primary types of jamón: jamon serrano (meaning ham from the sierra or mountains) and jamon Iberico (ham from the Black Iberian pig). It is similar to Portuguese presunto and Italian prosciutto but it is cured longer (max.: 18 months) and tastes slightly different. Some areas smoke the hams and this has a much stronger flavour. It is all about personal taste.
I recommend trying it as a tapa. It is a love or hate experience., as are olives. Quality can vary considerably. In most bars you will see the jamon on it’s jamonera. This is the stand necessary to cut the meat wafer thin with a knife sharp enough to slice an enemy’s throat! It is an art and experience is required to get it just right. Once the outside skin and fat are removed the glistening flesh is revealed and once cut into it is protected with a linen cloth to keep it moist. It doesn’t last long so no danger of contamination. Since it is air dried anyway it is cooked by Mother Nature herself.
The four major quality categories of dry-cured uncooked ham are as follows, from highest to lowest quality:
- Jamón ibérico de bellota (also known as jamón ibérico de Montanera): Free-range, acorn-fed Iberian pigs
- Jamón ibérico de recebo: Acorn, pasture and compound-fed Iberian pigs
- Jamón ibérico: (was also known as jamón de pata negra, but use of this name was prohibited on April 15, 2006 in order to avoid confusion). Compound-fed Iberian pigs.
- Jamón serrano: (also known as jamón reserva, jamón curado and jamón extra): “ordinary cured ham” from white pigs, fed with a mixed diet of authorized commercial compound feed.The words serrano, curado, reserva and extra are just marketing terms and do not reliably indicate quality, which can differ markedly between different brands and is not easy to recognize. Price may be a good indication of quality.