My kids examining a wall of jamon in the supermarket | 2009
I rounded the corner in search of orange juice and yogurt. First I was overcome by an aroma that I had never smelled before. Immediately, my children pinched their noses and "ewwwwwed" loudly. "Mommy, What is that weird smell?" We walked a bit more. "Mommy, are those animal legs hanging on the wall?" Why, yes, that distinctive smell was Spanish jamon sold as close to its original form as I have ever seen. I could add this to the list of things I'd never see in my local Safeway in California. Entire legs, hoof and all, of a cured pig's leg. And darn, is it tasty!
An entire book could be written about the subject of jamon. Here are the basics that I learned by asking lots of questions at my local jamon shop. Jamon is a widely popular Spanish cured ham. Actually, widely popular is an understatement. It is a daily ritual for many in Spain. The whole pig's leg is cured by a layer of sea salt and hanged in a factory with windows open to catch the mountain breeze for one to four years. When jamon is served at room temperature and thinly-sliced, it nearly melts in your mouth.
Fortunately, for those of us addicted to jamon iberico, it contains a high percentage of oleic acid with low levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, depending on acorn consumption, pig's exercise and curing length. During the curing process, the leg of jamon loses 20 to 40 percent of its weight. In bellota jamon, the remaining fat is converted into mono-unsaturated fat, thanks to the acorns and pig's free range lifestyle.
Perhaps you have heard of Pata Negra or Jamon Serrano. Pata Negra is the same as Jamon Iberico. Interestingly, in the United States, foodies talk about the exclusivity of Pata Negra, which wasn't allowed to be imported until 2009 and then faced "hoof" problems. Here however, I have yet to hear a local mention Pata Negra opting to use Iberico instead.
Jamon Iberico de Bellota / Pata Negra Bellota
- The holy grail of jamon.
- Only made from Iberico pigs, which are black (hence the black hoof) and fatter than the pink pig stereotype. Genetically, these pigs have an ability to store fat in their muscles, giving excellent marbling and flavor.
- At about 10 months, pigs destined to be Jamon Iberico de Bellota are raised free-range in an area called the dehesa near the Spanish - Portuguese border. During this period, montanera, the pigs gain about half of their body weight.
- In the dehesa, the pigs feast on acorns (bellotas) and wild planets. Each pig can eat around ten kilos of acorns a day!
- More fat allows the meat to be cured longer than other jamon types. Jamon Iberico de Bellota is cured for more than two years, typically three and less than four years.
- Bellota jamon costs at least twice as much as jamon iberico.
- Very high in mono-unsaturated fat.
Jamon Iberico / Pata Negra
- Made from Iberico pigs, which are black and fatter than the standard pink pig.
- Mono-unsaturated fat is not as high as bellota jamon because of the smaller acorn diet.
- Different grades depending on the pigs' exercise and diet. Recebo grade pigs spend less time in their montanera, gaining less than half of their body weight. Recebo pigs are then fattened before market using cereal feed. Cebo grade is Iberico pigs raised on cereal feed. Iberico grade pigs are usually cereal fed and completely raised on farms without the lovely montanera holiday.
- Jamon Serrano translates in English as "mountain ham." Historically, jamon was cured in mountain areas with hot, dry summers and cold winters.
- Nowdays, Jamon Serrano is produced throughout Spain, using climate-controlled factories. Although some is still made in mountain towns.
- Jamon Serranno comes from the leaner white pigs, who store fat outside the muscle unlike Iberico pigs.
- Jamon Serrano is typically cured for one year.
- Serrano has a more salty flavor.
- Jamon Serrano is much cheaper than Jamon Iberico, usually half the price.
A whole jamon leg can be quite an investment. I have seen prices range from 50 euros to 850 euros. Many Spanish companies give a leg of jamon as an employee Christmas gift. Asking around, it seems one leg lasts about three months. The leg is stored on a jamonera and covered with a cloth. I know if we had a jamon leg in our kitchen, our amount of midnight snacking would drastically increase. A little slice of iberico here and there would be too much to resist.
Most restaurants that sell plates of jamon have a professional jamon cutter, a cortador. Cutting jamon properly is serious business, usually done with a long, extremely sharp knife. One of the cortadores in my local shop gave me a very thorough explanation on the subetlies of machine versus knife cutting. If you didn't know he was talking jamon, you'd think he was reading poetry or perhaps he was dreaming about playing a jamon violin?
You can get your jamon fix from my affiliate partner (I will get a commission if you do) La Tienda, a gourmet Spanish importer with a fabulous online shop.
This blog on food around the world is part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa's blog carnival hosted by Tie Dye Travels, which will go live on 8 October 2010. The previous carnival was hosted by Sophie's World on the Lonely Planet blogger's favorite places. Look forward to the next "spooky story" carnival hosted by Hello, Pineapple? on 22 October 2010.