Spanish ham is greatly prized as a gourmet food both in Spain and around the world. It is eaten regularly in most Spanish households. In fact, not only is Spain the largest producer of air-dried-cured ham, Spaniards are the number one consumers in the world! Every Spaniard eats about 5 kilograms of cured ham per year. That is double what the Italians eat.
There are various types of cured ham in Spain, ranging in price from economical to very expensive. Grocery stores, sausage shops and supermarkets all sell various types of ham and many will not be of a Denomination of Origin. That does not mean it does not great tasting, but it simply did not pass the strict quality control standards.
Ham is historically important food, dried and cured with salt for centuries. The people of the Iberian Peninsula ate pork and ham in their diet, even in the Roman era. However, when the Moors conquered the Peninsula, because of their religious beliefs, eating pork was prohibited. After the Christians regained control and forced the Muslims and Jews to either convert or go into exile, pork regained its popularity.
Types of Cured Spanish Ham
There are basically two different types of cured hams in Spain, jamón serrano or “mountain ham,” and jamón ibérico or “Iberian ham.”
There are almost 2,000 producers of Serrano ham in Spain. Eighteen of these producers formed the Consorcio de Jamón Serrano Español in 1990. The name Jamón Serrano is now controlled by the European Union since the year 2000 and it protects the processing of this product, although it does not apply to a specific region. Look for the label that has an “S” in the shape of a ham, and says SERRANO ESPAÑOL if you want to buy Jamón Serrano from the consortium. The mountain or Serrano ham is made from several different breeds of white pigs, such as Duroc, Landrace or Large White. They are fed mainly cereals and cured from 7 to 16 months.
This ham is made only from the Iberian pig. The breeding of the Iberian pig is restricted to an area in Southwestern Spain and Southeastern Portugal. Although fed some cereals, these pigs also roam countryside and feed on acorns. The curing process lasts from 14 to 36 months.
Denominations of Origin and Quality Control
Ham is such a treasured food that not only are there several Denominations of Origin, but there is even a chain of Museos de Jamón or “Ham Museums” around Spain! The Denomination of Origin of Teruel (in Aragon) was the first granted by Spain’s Department of Agriculture in 1984. Since then, other Denominations of Origin for ham have been granted. As with all Denominations of Origin, there is strict control of the quality of the product. For example, in order to carry the name jamón de Teruel, the regulations of the Denomination of Origin of Teruel cover every stage of the process, including the following: The pigs must be of a certain breed, be fed only cereals and grains of the local region, be of a certain weight when slaughtered, and spend 14 months curing in Teruel. While curing, they must pass a number of quality control checks, as well.
Besides Teruel, other areas are well-known for their excellent ham:
- Trevelez (a small village in the Sierra Nevada) which is located in the highest peak in Spain
- Girona province in the region of Cataluña
- Soria province in the region of Castilla-Leon
Cutting the Jamón
A ham stand (Jamonero) should always be used for supporting ham on the bone whilst slicing with a flexible sharp ham knife. There is a special cutting technique, which comes with practise, to produce fine, wafer thin, slices of meat. (You should be able to see the knife through the ham.) Please ensure that your ham knife is very sharp and take great care when cutting. Do be careful!
- With the hoof of the ham pointing away from you and the ham secured in the jamonero, remove any hard skin and fat according to how much ham you wish to cut. Keep the fat for protecting the meat later. This can be used to cover any exposed ham when not in use, in order to keep the ham moist.
- Cut slices along the top of the ham, parallel with the base of the jamonero, with short sawing motions. Try and achieve wafer thin slices for best results, as thicker slices can be chewy.
- When finished, place any excess fat on the exposed meat or cover with olive oil and cling flim to seal the meat from the air and keep fresh for the next slice.
- When you have eventually sliced down to the bone, swivel the ham around on the jamonero and start slicing again. Finally, trim down to the bone which can now be cut up into small pieces for stews or for making a rich flavoured stock.
Video – How to cut Spanish cure ham
Boneless hams can be sliced with either a sharp knife or with the new slicing machines that are now available. For best results try to slice the ham as thinly as possible.
Spanish Ham in Australia
In July 2006 the Australian Government lifted the ban on selected imported cured meats. Since then Spanish producers of jamon have exported more than a dozen types of jamons and paletas (cured fore leg) to Australia. They range in price from about $80 a kilogram for serrano jamon to more than $600 a kilogram for the famous top-of-the-range jamón Iberico de bellota, ham made from Spain’s acorn-fed indigenous pigs. The only difference between what the Spanish eat and what is sold in Australia is that our imported jamons are sold with the bone removed.