December 2, 2011

Jamón, Jamón

I have come to associate the Christmas season with Spanish ham, or "jamón". This is because it is quite common for Spaniards to gift each other "un jamón" (i.e. the leg or "pata" of ham) for Xmas, particularly as a professional holiday gift. For example, in many schools it is common for the parents of students to pitch in together and buy the teacher a food gift basket that includes a jamón. My mother-in-law, herself an elementary school teacher, usually gets one each year, making it part of the household tradition to be slicing "fresh" cuts of jamón for the weeks around and after Xmas. (We also start pulling out all the recipes which use jamón as a garnish, like habas beans sauté with garlic and ham, or panini-style jamón y queso sandwiches.) For this reason, you will probably be seeing more and more legs of ham hanging in your markets and supermarkets in the weeks to come as vendors anticipate this holiday demand.

A typical Christmas thank you package from my mother-in-law's elementary school students.

One of the many seasonal joys of the Christmas holiday in Spain, slices of jamón at the in-law's

Just ask Penelope Cruz, what
is more Spanish than tortilla de
patatas con cebolla
and jamón?
Most Americans and Brits who come to Spain are aware that Spanish jamón is highly prized here and quite reputed. I'll add my voice to the chorus call that it is delicious and well worth trying, whatever your feelings are about pork. If Spaniards are a bit crazed about pork, Americans are oddly sheepish (pardon the pun) about it. For Americans, pork tends to be sausages, bacon, pepperoni, sliced ham for sandwiches… and occasionally "the other white meat" (i.e. pork chops). It's thought of as a fatty or salty meat. The health conscious therefore often avoid it, and many who would gladly down a burger or fried chicken might have a peculiar policy of steering clear of it...

Which reminds me of a personal story. I had an American friend stay with me in Spain ten years ago, who joined us and our friends on a night out clubbing. Predictably the night started with a tapas dinner, and a friend of a friend at the dinner table, eager and proud to share his culture with this foreign guest, encouraged him to try the jamón serrano, and was startled when my friend resisted…
Spaniard: Try the jamón, it's delicious!
American Friend: Oh, no thank you. I don't eat pork.
Spaniard: Why? Are you vegetarian?
American Friend: No, I'm not a vegetarian.
Sp: Are you jewish?
AF: No, it's not that.
Sp [Now shoving the plate in his face]: Then why not try it? It really is good.
Me (intervening): Yeah, [AF], you really should try it. It's nothing like the pork from back home.
AF: I just don't eat pork. I don't like it.
Sp [now really confused and insistent]: No, it's really good. It won't hurt you. You should try it!
AF [awkwardly tries to change the subject]: So what is that dish...
Me [grinning at the whole experience]
So I'll repeat it, jamón really is nothing like any of the pork products we find back in the States. For Spaniards, pork might be cochinillo asado, sausages ("longanizas", "chorizo" or other "embutido"), or pork chops ("chuletas"), and cuts or sliced ham ("fiambre"), but first and foremost it is jamón, the cured, dried ham, usually encountered in thin slices. In 2009 alone, Spaniards consumed almost 21 million kilos of jamón ibérico, and one culinary blogger convincingly argues that "hay un jamón ibérico a tu medida" (there is a ham that fits each person's taste).

And it has reached such a mystique that certain quality cuts are even popularly considered to be health-promoting. My mother-in-law claims her doctor once said that "the good jamón" (i.e. the jamón de Jabugo, discussed below) shouldn't be a concern for raising her blood pressure or cholesterol… and would even lower it! A reputed Spanish nutritionist, Francisco Grande Covián, was known to say that the Iberian pig was "un olivo con cuatro patas" [an olive tree with four legs], as if to say it was as healthy to consume as olive oil.

You'll find jamón served in sandwiches ("bocadillos"), used as a flavor garnish ("guarnición") in dishes or tapas (like croquetas de jamón, yum!), or, most commonly, served in slices to be eaten on its own or with bread or cheese. (Warning Note: A "bocadillo de jamón (y queso)" _always_ refers to jamón ibérico or serrano on a baguette-style bread; however, "un mixto" has "jamón York", which is Spanish for the kind of uncured soft ham more commonly encountered in the US and UK, and is served on "pan de molde", i.e. sliced soft bread.)

Different kinds of ibérico Spanish hams, in this case all from Guijuelo in Salamanca

While everyone talks about Spanish ham, often in fairly general terms, it's important to realize that there are some important categories and distinctions to jamón. Here I'll try and sketch out the different kinds of jamón products, in case so far they've all just blurred together as 'sliced, cured ham on a platter' to you.

There is a major division drawn between jamón ibérico (the superior) versus jamón serrano (still good, but for more routine consumption). When Grande Covián or my mother-in-law talk about the magically healthful jamón, they are talking about "jamón ibérico", and more specifically about the "jamón ibérico de bellota". The pigs destined for this market are fed exclusively acorns ("bellotas"), left to roam wild, are predominantly the cerdo ibérico breed known as "pata negra", called such because of the breed's characteristic "black legs". Looser (and lesser) production grades of jamón ibérico are the "jamón ibérico de recebo" (acorns and pasture fed) and then the "jamón ibérico de cebo" (grain fed). This last one is what people are usually referring to when they say "jamón ibérico" unless they specify otherwise. In all cases the ham is dried and cured for anywhere between 8 to 36 months. For these superior hams, there are several denominaciones de origen (D.O.) regional labels: the "Jamón de Jabugo", which is produced around the town Jabugo in the sierra de Huelva, and Jamón Ibérico Guijuelo produced around Guijuelo in Salamanca are the two most famous ones; and then there are also D.O. for some hams produced in Los Pedroches in the province of Córdoba and for "Dehesa de Extremadura" in the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz.

This image highlights the four categories or labels for jamón ibérico, based on looser to stricter
degrees of controls on feed types (grain, field grain, grain and acorn, and acorn)

The famous "pata negra" cerdo ibérico, visibly black.

The cerdo ibérico left to graze for acorns (bellota) and possibly grains (recebo, cebo de campo) in Extremadura

Jamón serrano (which literally means "mountain ham," and is because the drying sheds, secadores, are usually built at higher elevation; this ham is also sometimes referred to simply as "jamón curado") is still pretty darn good, but is less the gourmet's jamón, and more the gourmand's, what one consumes day-to-day or at their local bar. This jamón is made from the Landrace white pig breeds, rather than the pata negra, and it is not usually cured for as long. (Though like wine there are three degrees or denominaciones of how cured it can be: "bodega" (9-12 months), "reserva" (12-15 months), and "gran reserva" (more than 15 months). The most famous of these that I've heard people talk of is the "Jamón de Teruel," the best of which some people say rivals jamón ibérico (it was the first Spanish ham to receive a D.O.), but there is also "Jamón de Huelva" and "Jamón de Trevélez" (in Granada).

And it's obviously not just the kind of ham, but also the cut. As one Spanish blogger explains,
different cuts along the leg will have different consistencies, meatier or fattier, more and less tough.

Given this deep pride and technical elaboration, I strongly encourage you to try jamón at least once, whatever your opinion of pork might be. (Though I, of course, will understand if vegetarians, Jews, and Muslims opt not to.) Pork is excellent in Spain, and jamón king, so any opportunity you have to try it is worth taking! Particularly since, until recently (around 2008-2009), the United States didn't allow Spanish jamón to be imported, and it is still the case that you can't bring it through customs for personal consumption. (Indeed, if my in-laws accounts of U.S. Customs are typical, it seems to be a running joke among border agents at international airports to tease entering Spaniards about whether they've brought in with them illegally any jamón... which would have to be surrendered on the spot and added to the agents' personal stash.)

Interesting footnote: I know a food anthropologist in the States who's been studying a farm in North Carolina (or is it Virginia?) that raises the Spanish pata negra breed there, but with few of the intense D.O. quality controls that occur in Spain. They are sold as "heritage breed pigs".


Will - My Spanish Adventure said...

Ah no!

Why would you add to the pain of a vegetarian trapped in Extremadura who has to listen to the overtunes of the jamon stuffer all day long?

I know I'm missing out but beliefs are beliefs!

Anonymous said...

I am glad I run into this blog about my lovely country and all the awesome gourmet...I get authentic Spanish Gourmet at Best prices and excellent services..they are also in with 99% satisfaction

Mr Grumply Mumply where are my Pork Fagotts said...

It has take me 8 years of living in Spain to arrive at the conclusion that Ham/Jamon/Spam or any other pig derivative is NOT a food group.
It is a religion.

An Expat in Spain said...

Will, fortitude! I actually quite sympathize with vegetarians... but in practice, particularly here in Spain, I find I can't resist. Mmm, jamón!

To the anonymous reader, thanks for mentioning Raposos Gourmet. It sounds like a nice alternative to is always amazing... hopefully all this online competition will drive down the crazy prices on tapas in the US.

Mr. Grumpy, it is kind of striking how pork, of all meats, is so religiously contentious. I've learned to never cross a Spam fanatic.

Sorokin said...

Good post. In the first place, your mother-in-law iss lucky to get such very good Christmas gifts. Secondly, I agree absolutely with your appreciation of Spanish jamón de pata negra. To me, it is something which equals the beluga caviar... at least. Here in Brussels is beginning to be appreciated. Until recently, the most valued jamones were the Italians Parma and San Daniele. But, frankly I wonder if we are interested in that three hundred million people in Europe suddenly decide to eat Jabugo. Shouldn't we keep it for ourselves? Shouldn't we let them eat Parma, Bayonne, Ardennes, Schwartzwald hams and keep the Jabugo for the glory of our stomachs!


An Expat in Spain said...

Sorokin, I agree that we have been spoiled by the students of my mother-in-law. These Xmas packages are quite a treat!

There is something to what you say about not "letting the cat out of the bag" on Spanish jamón. Dilemma: do we hoard the best, or do we share with others? In this economic crisis, I'm inclined to do whatever possible to boost Spain's profile for exports... Though then the challenge is to ensure that we eat the best and export the rest! :-)

Thanks for reading!

Mr Grumpy said...

I'm also confused with the Spanish fetish for raising the status of a leg of Jamon to being an acceptable wall covering in many Tapas bars.
(That, and I also promise never to post comments when drunk again)

An Expat in Spain said...

Yeah, it took me a while to get used to having even just one jamón leg sitting around, much less the wall-to-wall jamones that some bars feature. It's a little too honest.

Kaley [Y Mucho Más] said...

I'm going to direct my family to this post from now on. I like jamón, but I prefer my suegros' homemade salchichón for my pork consumption.

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Kaley! Jamón is great, especially ibérico or de Teruel, but there are actually many other forms of pork here in Spain that I prefer to it. I'm glad you enjoyed the entry, and am grateful for any mentions you can give it to others.

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