Ham goes to hospital to find the perfect cure

HAM, for Spaniards, is an object of sublime beauty and meaning. Spanish ham - particularly the top-of-the-range cured jamon Iberico - is a precious luxury of the kind wealthy and grateful clients might give their lawyer in appreciation of a generous favour. Wafer-thin slivers are ceremoniously handed round on a silver platter at the smartest cocktail parties.

This helps to explain why some scientists in a hospital in Madrid are turning their high-tech scanning equipment upon ham. They hope to uncover the mysterious alchemy of its curing process, which can result in the dark, chewy, salty delicacy that sells for 6,000 pesetas (pounds 25) a kilo - or, if it fails, in noxious, slimy goo. The aim of the research, funded by ham producers, is to learn more about the curing process, help guarantee top quality and cut down the number of expensive failures.

Four hams have been treated as out-patients at Madrid's October 12 hospital for the past two years. They are subjected to examination by a CAT (computerised axial tomography) scanner that produces cross-sectional images without cutting into the flesh.

"To carry out this kind of study, with traditional physical-chemical methods, you would have to cut into the ham each time, so it would no longer serve for further analysis and you would consequently lose precision in the information obtained," says Juan Atanasio Carrasco, who pioneered the study.

Prof Carrasco has spent years studying ham in his home village of Guijelo near Salamanca, north-west of Madrid, the kind of rural outpost where the killing of the pig each winter is a major event. His hams, suspended from half a mile of warehouse roof, are monitored for changes in temperature, weight and humidity. With the aid of the CAT scanner - used only, the scientists stress, when the machine is not needed for medical purposes - they have produced a three-dimensional computer model that reveals exactly how the rock salt packed about the raw pork gradually diffuses through the ham.

Of the four hams under scrutiny by the scanner, three reached full term and one went off. The scientists say with pride that they earmarked the rotten ham months in advance, after detecting gas in the blood vessels of the meat when it was still fresh.

The Spanish Hollywood star, Antonio Banderas, won further acclaim in his homeland by championing the virtues of Iberian ham on American television. His fellow screen heart-throb, Javier Bardem, made his name some years back in Bigas Luna's hit film, Jamon Jamon, which popularised the expression "You are ham!" - in other words, hot stuff. Either actor would be proud to be called a ham.