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.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
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

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game