A visit to Spain simply won’t be complete without trying some local ham. If you are in Barcelona, most likely you will stumble upon one of specialised jamón shops with cured pork legs hanging in the window or come across dedicated ham stalls in Mercat de Boqueria. It took me 3 trips to Spain until I figured out what is worth the space in the luggage to take back home.
You can get cured ham from anywhere in the world, so what makes Spanish ham so special, you may ask? In comparison to hams processed in other countries, Spanish jamón has more intense flavour, firmer texture, some marbling depending on type and usually contains less moisture due to longer curing process. Salt level in it is relatively low and the ham contains high percentage of healthy mono unsaturated fat.
The main factors that influence the superior quality of jamón are the breed of pigs, their diet and the climate during curing process.
There are two types of pigs that are used for producing Spanish ham – white pigs and black Iberian pigs. The type of the pig determines the way the fat is distributed in the ham. Just like with beef, marbling denotes the highest quality of jamón.
The food that pigs eat influences the flavour properties of the ham. In the infancy all the pigs are raised on cereal grains and mothers milk. White pigs usually continue with cereal diet after weaning, but black Iberian pigs can be raised on a different diets, depending on what grade of ham the producers want to achieve.
The finest jamón comes from the most elevated areas in Spain. Mountain air, warm and dry summers and cool winters are ideal conditions for preserving ham naturally for the periods up to 48 months, while the fat slowly melts away.
Some of the ham processing is automated these days, but the best hams are still treated manually, giving them personalised attention: ensuring that the amount of salt is right for each ham based on individual size and the salt is distributed evenly. The manual ham treatment usually reflects in the price, making it higher.
Jamón Serrano comprises about 90% of annual ham production in Spain. It is made from several different breeds of white pigs: Duroc, Landrace, Pietrain or some others, that were raised on farms and fed with cereal grains. The meat is cured from 7 to 16 months.
Serrano ham is leaner than Iberico. The colour varies from pink to purple tones with white or slightly yellowish fat. The fat is mostly on the outside, rather than marbled within the muscles. The meat is slightly salty with rather mild flavour and aroma. The texture is homogeneous and slightly fibrous, softer than that of Iberian ham.
The production of Serrano ham is not limited to any particular geographic area, but if you want finer hams, go for the ones produced in higher altitudes. These mountain hams must be aged for at least 12 months after curing before going for sale.
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Jamón Ibérico is made from black Iberian pigs. It is long and slender with black hoof – pata negra, which distinguishes it from Serrano ham. The black pigs live primarily in western and southwestern Spain. It takes about four and a half years from the birth of a piglet until the ham is ready to eat.
The curing process is the same as for Serrano ham, but the length for which the ham is aged differs. It lasts from 14 months up to four years for the highest grade hams.
The obvious difference from Serrano ham you will surely notice is the price which is much higher even for the grain fed pork.
Iberico ham accounts for only 10% of cured ham production in Spain, therefore it is not widely available outside the country.
The color of Iberico ranges from pink to a deep purplish red, depending on the length of ageing. The younger hams have a lighter pink colour and older hams are deep, ruby red. The texture of the ham is oily, with fat streaks in muscle tissue, which allows the hams to be cured much longer, resulting in intense aroma. In terms of flavour it is much richer than that of Serrano due to the higher fat content.
Cebo ham is made from farm-raised pigs fed with cereal. They may be allowed limited free range time where herbs supplement their diet. The ham is cured for 24 months.
Campo denotes that the pigs are free range and feeds on grass and natural compound feed – legumes and cereals.
Recebo ham is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain. During a free range acorn grazing period they add less that half of the fat desired and then subsequently fattened with cereal feed. The ham is aged for at least three years.
Bellota is a superior grade ham prized both for their smooth texture and rich, savoury taste. The pigs are raised free in the pastures and spend up to four months feasting on nutritious acorns with no compound feed added to their diets. The acorns are rich in oleic acid – the same element that can be found in olives. The flavour sinks into the meat of the animal, so the locals refer to the pigs as “olives with legs”. The ham is aged for at least three years before being released.
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The possible presentations of ham may be whole with the hoof, whole without the hoof, boneless or sliced. Both front legs – paletas, and rear legs – jamónes – are used for curing, but there are some differences between them.
Whole back leg ham is bigger and heavier. It takes from 15 to 36 months curing time, which is longer than for shoulder ham and the price is higher. It is easier to cut and you can get bigger slices out of it.
Shoulder ham is smaller and the ratio of ham to bone and fat is lower than the one of the back leg. Curing time takes from 12 to 24 months and it is cheaper.
Just like with wine, the longer the ham matures, the more developed the flavour gets. Labels “Reserva” or “Gran Reserva” indicate that ham was cured for longer periods.
The quality seal for Serano ham is letter “S” branded on the skin of it, which means that the ham has undergone the inspection and passed the rigorous standards of Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español.
Jamón Ibérico Denominación de Origen (protected designation of origin) seal with the name of the area would guarantee the quality and the expertise that went into making Iberico ham. Pay attention at the dietary grade on the label and do try acorn-fed bellota ham, even if it’s a small sampler cone.
Only mere 10% of Jamón Ibérico get exported. I usually stock up on a few different kinds of sliced pata negra, due to it being scarcely available outside of Spain. The packages are nicely sealed and are light weight to carry, so there is no better edible souvenir to take back home.
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