The slice is right: Get a taste for Spanish ham

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

After a taste of Spanish ham in Madrid sent him into raptures, Ian Irvine was determined to learn more about this heavenly jamon – including how to carve his own.

The Spanish love their ham, though I didn't quite realise how much until I visited Madrid. Leaving my hotel and walking down the main drag to Plaza del Sol there seemed to be a jamoneria every 50 yards, all with dozens of huge hams hanging from their ceilings and one that seemed to have hundreds. I spotted what I eventually realised was a chain of them called Museo del Jamon.

For lunch I went to the Mercado San Miguel, a beautiful 19th-century wrought-iron and glass market by the Plaza Major, where you settle at a table in the central atrium and graze on the plates from the fabulous food stores and wine shops – paella, tortilla, seafood of all sorts – but the crowds were thickest around the jamoneria.

I bought 100 grams of Iberico Bellota for 18 euros, thinly sliced on a paper plate. Eighteen euros! What could be so special? The short slivers were a deep, dark chestnut red with flecks of livid white fat and a glossy caramel sheen on them. The smell was appetising – savoury, a bit nutty perhaps? Then tasting was a revelation – salty, meaty, sweet, almost toffee-like. It was a deep, rich flavour, with a long aftertaste of – yes, it really was – acorns. My wife and I bought another plate, nibbled some bread and drank some more rioja. It wasn't hard to credit that the Spanish consume more ham per head than anyone else in the world.

Soon after our return to London we received a belated but generous wedding present from a friend who had been unable to attend through commitments in Spain. It was an entire Bellota ham. As usual I googled "carving iberico ham" to find out what I should be doing with it and came across a short but brilliantly informative video www.brindisa.com/our-recipes/our-food/how-to-carve-iberico-ham/) produced by the Spanish food importer, Brindisa, which I knew well from visits to London's foodie mecca at Borough Market. It's been going now for a quarter of a century and has expanded its branches, then started a tapas bar and now runs three in London. It also ran a ham-carving course and I immediately signed up for the next one. It was held on a filthy February evening, wet and freezing cold, but in the restaurant of Brindisa Tramontana the joint was jumping. And at the back a dozen of us were learning what makes the varieties of Spanish ham so special.

Brindisa's head ham carver took us through a tutored tasting. As he made clear, it's all about the pig. The quality of the animal is the most important factor in the quality of the ham.

The first major distinction is between white pigs and Iberico pigs. The first are mostly of the white-footed Landrace breed and produce Serrano ham, from famous areas such as Teruel; the second, probably only eight per cent of all the pigs in the country, is the black-footed cross-bred descendant of the wild boar (the black foot gives it the name by which its ham is commonly known in Spain – pata negra).

After nature the other crucial aspect is nurture. White pigs grow up on farms and are fed on barley and maize, as are iberico pigs for their first two years. White breeds are fully grown and ready for slaughter at six to nine months, but ibericos are slower to mature, taking around two years to reach 100kg. Then comes the crucial element. They are allowed to roam freely on the dehesa, the high, rough pastures and holm oak forests of western Spain in the provinces of Salamanca, Extremadura and Andalucia.

During the period called montanera, between November and March, they graze on acorns (bellota) and wild grass, doubling in weight. It will take 600-700 kg of acorns to fatten one pig, so a massive amount of land and forest is required – which is the major reason why pata negra jamon is so expensive.

There can only be two pigs in every hectare of dehesa. In fact all aspects of the process are strictly regulated – only if all the condition are met can the Denomination of Origin label be granted.

After slaughter, the hams from the pigs are salted and left for two weeks, then rinsed and left to dry for another four to six weeks. The curing process then takes at least 12 months, although some producers cure their jamones for up to four years.

After this lecture on ham production Brindisa's carver demonstrated the correct method of carving these delicacies. Once the iberico ham is firmly fixed in its stand and trimmed of its fat, fine slivers are removed with an exceptionally sharp knife. Serrano hams are usually carved in the more familiar long whole slices, rather like Parma ham or San Daniele. With a small amount of practice it becomes very easy and consuming the results of our efforts with a tasting of various Spanish wines made for a very useful and pleasant evening.

Hamming it up

There are several different types and grades of pata negra. Here's a short guide...

Jamón ibérico de bellota

This is the top of the range, produced from pure iberico pigs fed on a diet of acorns during the Montanera and granted Denomination of Origin status. They are aged at least three years and often labelled "reserva" and "gran reserva".

Jamón ibérico de recebo

This is from iberico pigs who are fed on a mixed diet of cereals and acorns and aged for at least three years.

Jamón ibérico cebo de campo

This is from iberico pigs allowed to roam freely, but their diet is solely cereals.

Jamón ibérico de cebo

Farm-reared iberico pigs fed on a diet of cereals.

Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor