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.