Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
In the Iberian Peninsula, there are two varieties of dry-cured, uncooked artisanal ham: Jamón Serrano and Jamón Iberico. There are regional and even local variations with subtle changes in the ham’s taste, mostly due to the breed used for the ham -- either white Danish-breed pigs or commercially grown stock of mixed heritage or Iberico pigs that have black hoofs.
Serrano is actually at the bottom of the range of Spanish artisanal hams; of better quality and more savory is the Jamón Iberico. At the top of the range is Jamón Iberico de Bellota i.e. ham from free-range Iberico pigs that have been fed mostly acorns for much of their life.
Additional taste variations occur from the way the hams are processed and the amount of residual fat remaining in the meat at the end of the processing. The general processing method is as follows: The fresh hams are covered with a liberal amount of salt and left in it for two to three weeks to draw out excess moisture. Then the salt is washed off and the hams are hung to air-dry in a temperature and humidity controlled space for at least 6 months and as long as three years, depending on the size of the ham and the requirements of their PDO or TSG status. Some producers hand-massage the hams as they hang to distribute the fat evenly throughout the flesh.
There are numerous regional variations on the theme and regions that produce hams use various designations. The best hams that I’ve tasted during my Iberian peregrinations have been: Dehesa de Extremadura, during my last-year’s trip to Extremadura; Jamón de Teruel where the ham is produced near the town of Teruel, Aragon; Jamón Ibérico “Fermín” from Salamanca, and Jamón de Huelva. In Portugal, I’ve loved the dry-cured ham from the Iberico pigs but also a cold-smoked version that is dryer and has a smoky and much saltier taste.
When I visited Dehesa de Solana, a producer five kilometers from the border with Portugal, the first thing we did was to go see the “oak forest” where two or three hundred saws live together with a single hog! In reality, it is not really an oak forest; it is a large savannah kind of hillside with a number of oak trees growing here and there, but also has lots of grass and a couple waterholes where the animals drink and bathe. The pigs were, I think, interested in us as much as we were interested in them. When they saw us, the entire group came over and surrounded us.
We then went to see the facility. It is a very large warehouse where the ham processing takes place and has both wholesale and retail operations. What we saw was about 20,000 bone-in hams, starting from the initial salt-curing and then hung in frames from the rafters, at different stages of readiness. When the hams are considered ready, they have lost about 35% of their weight, and have gained the incredible taste that a true Iberico jamón has.
When carving takes place, the bone-in Jamones are held on a frame and carved with flat, flexible knives.
Each “Jamón Maestro” that I met has his personal collection of blades that are hand-honed daily on an oil-stone. Jamón carving is an art and the better carvers are very much in demand. Actually, the very best are considered “Product Ambassadors” and are flown around the world to carve jamón during exhibitions and events.
Another exceptional jamón producer that I recently retasted is Cinco Jotas. I tasted their Jamón de Bellota three years ago, at the Summer Fancy Food Show and thought it was considerably better than any of the jamones I had prior to that tasting. During my visits to Spain I usually have many slices of jamón -- as tapas -- to accompany good wines but it is very rare to get the bone-in Iberico high-quality jamón de bellota, even at the better restaurants. El Celler de Can Roca, carries the Cinco Jotas and, since I have dinner there whenever I visit Catalonia, I get to have that jamón once a year.
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