El mejor amigo del hombre no es el perro. Es el jamón. (Man’s best friend isn’t the dog. It’s the pig.)

Manuel Benitez

Ok. So this is a big one. If paella is the country’s most indicative dish, then this, jamón, is undoubtedly the most famous product. It is a religion unto itself. Football, jamón, Catholic Church; in descending order – they’d rather save a pig than a priest, but perhaps rather Ronaldo than a pig.

This most simple of foodstuffs has inspired a nation, has created poetry and sayings, prompted homesickness to the n’th degree, angered vegetarians, given Spain its own version of Russia’s outlandishly priced caviar and, in the the opposite way, has historically kept alive the poorest of the poor.

But when all the guidebooks and TV programs, stereotype-laden ideas and presumptions talk of Spanish ham, what does that really mean? A lot of countries have ham. Italy has its prosciutto, Portugal its presunto, Britain has ham, America, Canada, Japan. It’s ham for heaven’s sake; so why all the fuss over the Spanish stuff?

The origins:

Now, as often is the case with things that are old – be it foodstuffs, traditions, songs – there is often a fun or silly story behind it as well as a more boring, probably real one. This is the case with the humble cured pig too.

The likely absurd legend says that one day a fat little piggy, quite possibly on his way to market, was strolling through the countryside and tumbled into a stream that, for some odd reason, had a usefully high salt content. Piggy drowned and then dried out. Some local farmers found the beastie and tried the meat, finding it delicious – especially the legs. From then on jamón was born.

The truth really resides with the Romans probably. Salting food was not original to pigs, it dates back to at least Ancient Egypt as a food preservation method. As the Empire was spreading itself throughout Europe – Spain, France, Great Britain – it was necessary to be able to preserve food for troops and new towns. Spain was pig country. So they killed them, salted them and dried them out. The meat then lasted months.

They even found a two-thousand year old fossilised jamón in Tarragona. This is old, basic food.

Centuries later, jamón became the reserve of the higher classes and elites. You had to own or buy a pig. Pigs weren’t cheap. It was a luxury to kill a whole one just for food. In the 60s, the industry changed and mass produced hams – these days usually the serrano hams – sidled alongside the Spanish free-range breeds: the ibérico pigs.

The idea of curing pork products isn’t only a Spanish practice. As stated, there are others. Portugal has a lot of it, all over the country; presunto for example, but also ibérico. Italy, where the Romans came from, is home to the famous prosciutto and Parma hams. Hungary has Mangalica ham, Germany has Black Forest ham, there’s Bayonne ham in the south of France, Prague cures ham, the US cures ham. It’s not rocket science. It’s about as simple as food gets.

But Iberia has its secret weapon. Its unique piggy that can’t leave the country. The Iberian black-hoofed pig. That’s where the poetry comes from, that’s where the prices skyrocket and the world must doff its cap.

For the jamón ibérico there are four denominaciones de origen (DO): Huelva, Los Pedroches, Dehesa de Extremadura, Guijuelo. These stretch out in a long squat arm from the hilly southern part of western Castilla y León down through Extremadura to the Andalusian coastline. The cheaper hams – the serranos – are smaller white pigs that live on farms all over Spain. With the exception of Teruel and Trevelez, there are few outstanding serranos when compared to their fat black-footed (pata negra) cousins.

The dish:

So the process. It’s the same basic method for all the aforementioned cured hams.

  1. Take your pig.
  2. Preferably kill your pig.
  3. Lop off the legs – the back legs are the best.
  4. Pack them in salt – for up to 14 days depending on weight and external temperature.
  5. Hang them in a dry room for 4-6 months to dry out and then let them mature.

The Iberian pigs are free-range and foraging and live out in semi man-made meadowlands called the dehesa. At intervals throughout the fields, so the pigs have to walk around – thus leading to deep fat marbling, there are oak trees that drop acorns. Pigs love acorns.

The top tier of jamón in Spain is the jamón ibérico de bellota. The pigs have a diet of almost solely acorns for the last three months of their 14-18 month lives. This adds a sweetness to the fat and chemically changes it so it is more similar to a nut fat as opposed to a saturated animal fat.

The free-range lifestyle, the long hanging time (up to 4 or 5 years), and the different producers and regions can lead to stratospheric prices: easily reaching 200€ per kilo! Expensive ham is one of the country’s great pleasures.

The best way to eat ham is cut, as thinly and freshly as possible, into small business card-sized slices by, if possible, a jamonero: a trained ham slicer. Sometime you get the odd Spanish butcher or barman who, bless his heart, has his hams, but then attacks it with abandon and serves you slices the thickness of Danish bacon. Good, thin ham, will simply melt in your mouth.

It also pairs wonderfully with tomato on bread with oil and salt and the Spanish enjoy it in somewhat uninspiring baguettes. You can also buy bits of chopped up ibérico to add to dishes: they really lift legume-based stews and are great scattered over fried eggs and potatoes.

Where I eat:

Madrid – Taberna Real (Plaza de Isabel II), Mercado de jamón ibérico (Calle Mayor, 80)

Trévelez – La Solera de Trévelez (Calle Carretera, 24)

Cáceres – La Tapería (Sanchez Garrido, 1)

What I drink with it:

Nothing pairs better with good ham than dry sparkling wines; the acidity will cut through the fat. This being Spain, that means cava. A delicious and kindly priced option is the Huguet Gran Reserva Cava Brut Nature 2009.

What I listen to:

Entre dos aguas – Paco de Lucía

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