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.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Sport
Husain Abdullah returns an interception off Tom Brady for a touchdown
nflLeague has rules against 'sliding to ground on knees'
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
Arts and Entertainment
film
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

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style