Natives to Spain often return to their homelands with tales of aromatic paella and unlimited supplies of sangria. But real travellers to Spain only care about jamon.
Spanish ham is the best in the world due to a special process not adopted in countries like France and Italy. Celebrity chefs including Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver and Antony Worrall-Thompson have raved about the sweet tasting meat.
Traditionally the hams hang in attics where the clean mountain air blows through over time. It is forbidden to add anything to this ham other than salt which is surprising considering its sweet taste. Pigs legs complete with hooves usually hang from rafters in quaint side street bars.
Spaniards are extremely proud of their jamon, even hosting ‘best ham cutting’ competitions. It has historical and religious connotations. Pork was used to expose muslims and jews who maintained old religious beliefs despite conforming to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. Eating ham, lomo or chorizio proved you were a true Christian.
Today, in traditional villages they still celebrate the slaughter of the pig. Families gather round and partake of the tender pork. Nothing is wasted. The ears and trotters are used in tapas and stews and the blood is used to make sausages.
There are many types of cured ham with different quality, origin and price. Pigs are fed on different foods and hung for different amounts of time. Jamon Iberico de bellota is the most superior ham from the Iberian pig. Only 10 per cent of Spanish ham comes from this race. The pig is fed on a diet of acorns or bellota and herbs to provide the distinguished nutty taste.
Jamon Iberico de recebo is also from an Iberian pig but is fed with compound feed and only acorns in the last stages. This makes its produce cheaper although the taste is still divine.
Jamon Serrano is the most popular ham from white pigs. They are fed basic compound. Quality depends on brand and price.
Cutting the ham is almost an art form. It can be quite firm and chewy so paper thin slices create the most palatable ham. If you have been given a ham as a present, the whole affair can be quite daunting. You may be forgiven for thinking it has ‘gone off’ when it appears with a thick layer of mould. This is quite normal and just needs to be washed and dried.
The second hurdle is working out how to cut it. Once you have tackled a ham you will never find cutting a Christmas turkey a chore again! The outer part of the meat is covered in a hard, dense coat of fat. This actually protects the meat. Many people argue the fatter the ham, the better the quality.
Follow our step by step guide to cutting ham below:
Second only to the ham is lomo embuchado. This is derived from the loin. Herbs are added to it and then it is put into a skin. It is has an exceptionally sweet taste and is my personal favourite.
For the perfect tapas party add a little olive oil to your lomo slices and place next to a basket of bread. Serve some olives, soft white cheese and of course several slices of jamon Iberico and voila bon appetite or as the Spanish would say que aproveche.