A Porcine Paradise

Don Harris | October 2011

Pork and ham are the foundation of Spain's cuisine, and in many ways its culture. Visit any supermarket (worth its snout) and you will see dozens of jamones hanging from the rafters - and that means hoof and all. Anywhere you visit in this large country, whether it be in the mountains, on the high plains, or along the ocean, you will encounter the iconic ham of Spain. When I was a young man in the Navy with a small family living on a tight budget, I didn't pay too much attention to the ham. But what a shame it was to be living in the heart of Spain oblivious of the food that is her essence.

Especially during the holidays, most households, whether wealthy or humble, will have a jamón on a stand prominently placed on the counter as a sign of hospitality. It is presented in a special wooden stand, with a very long, thin super sharp knife next to it – ready for any friend or family member to slice off a few thin slivers, to be eaten with cheese on a sandwich or with one of many tapas – or just by itself. It will take a few weeks for the whole leg of jamón, weighing 14 or 15 pounds, to be consumed.

It is an art to slice the ham paper thin, but it is a skill well worth learning. My grandson, named Sam, lived in Cádiz with his family for six months. Before long, he had mastered the craft although he was just 9 years old! He would proudly serve a plateful of the thin slices arranged like petals of a daisy as the rest of us were sitting on the patio enjoying the day with a glass of sherry in hand.

However, it is not just during the holidays that you will encounter ham and pork – it is all year-round. You will see tasty chunks of ham in your cocido or country stew, garlic soup, and sometimes in the tortilla Española potato omelet you are served – not to mention the sausages and chorizos unique to hundreds of villages and towns. You will find it as a tapa accompanying Manchego cheese and cracked olives, or served with seafood – the other staple of Spain.

Even among the remains of the cavemen of Altamira, the earliest settlers of Spain, archaeologists have found the bones of pigs, indicating that they were a source of food. The people of Spain consume more pork and ham per capita than any other people on the face of the earth. There are two reasons for this: first, the pig provides an extraordinary amount of nourishment with virtually no waste – it is a very efficient source of food, which has been used for millennia across the world.

The second is a historical reason. As most of you realize, the Christian Spaniards embarked on a 700 year-long struggle to reclaim their homeland from the invaders from Africa and the Middle East, chafing within a society dominated by Islam. They termed this counter-insurgence the Reconquista, or the Reconquest. An easy and certain way to distinguish themselves from their foes, the Muslims, was to make pork central to their diet. So for practical and cultural reasons, ham and pork became foundational.

As the knights reclaimed many villages and towns, they would entrust the reclaimed land to the local Christians, as a sort of grant, thereby assuring the territory would remain in friendly hands. In exchange for their loyalty the local people gained pastures and woodlands to husband. It was not the severe vassalage system of Europe across the Pyrenees. Some of the land was used to raise crops and some to graze sheep and pigs. In fact, much of the choice pastureland and forests of the dehesa, where the prized Ibérico pigs flourish, was originally designated for that purpose centuries ago.

The native pig of the Iberian Peninsula is called the cerdo Ibérico and it has roamed the Peninsula for hundreds and hundreds of years. In earlier times, it was viewed as nothing special; it was just the normal Spanish pig. In more recent times, after the horrendous years of deprivation caused by the Civil War and World War II and its aftermath, Spaniards began to distinguish some of the hams from others by brand names such as Cinco Jotas, Pata Negra and Joselito. On the other hand, they might identify the jamón by the location where it was cured, such as the hams of the former Moorish fortress of Teruel, or the mile high village of Trevélez in the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas of Granada.

About 30 years ago, there was a recognition by the government and producers that there should be a way to distinguish one ham from another – the kind of pig it came from and how long it was cured.

As you can see, if you have any knowledge of the production of American ham and pork, what we are describing in Spain is almost another type of meat. That is why I prefer to call American ham 'ham,' and Spanish ham 'jamón,' as an easy way to avoid confusion. When we think of a Christmas or Easter ham in North America, we probably think of thick slices of juicy meat, which has been roasted for several hours with cloves, and then perhaps glazed with brown sugar and pineapple! Moreover, when we think of a ham sandwich we usually go to the deli counter and have them thinly slice pieces from a giant roll of cooked ham. We put those between slices of white toast or rye bread spread with a little mayonnaise and perhaps spicy mustard -- and there you have it.

Besides, if you know a little more about the production of ham in the U.S., you know that it is made moist by pumping it with water. We certainly would never dream of buying or serving it with the hoof on – heaven forbid!

I would like to guide you through the different variations of Spanish jamón and pork - in the most general sort of way. For more detail, I encourage you to visit jamon.com, our website dedicated to all things ham.

First, there are essentially two types of ham and pork available. One comes from the familiar white or pink pig, which is raised all over Europe and the U.S. In Spain, it becomes jamón Serrano, a dry-cured country ham, somewhat like Italian prosciutto, and unlike American country ham, in that it is neither smoked nor heavily salted.

The other kind, as I mentioned before, is the Ibérico. It comes from an ancient breed quite distinct from the pigs with which you and I are familiar. The sows bear small litters and the young pigs are raised for about two years before being slaughtered. The most highly prized pork comes from Ibérico pigs that feast on acorns from holm oak and cork trees (such as the kind that Ferdinand the Bull used to lounge under). The hams are hung to cure for up to four years, with the consequential loss of perhaps 40% of their weight. The result is a finely marbled ham called Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, which is 60% monounsaturated fat like olive oil: a sliver of which melts in your mouth at 70°F.

This is the Beluga caviar of hams, highly prized, and cured only in one part of Spain from a limited number of pigs. The exquisite flavor, the rarity of the animal, the many years it takes to breed in a free-range situation and the long curing time all contribute to its elite status in the ham world. Remember, this ham is enjoyed over a period of weeks – it is not that roasted glazed ham that you polish off in one Christmas meal!

Over the last few years the prime cuts of Ibérico, which used to be used exclusively for sausage making, have become popular as fresh cooked premium pork. The cuts have unusual names, but are all delicious: presa (shoulder steak), solomillo (tenderloin steak), secreto (skirt steak) and pluma (end loin). The pork is spectacularly different from the 'other white meat' marketed in the United States. With its dark color, it resembles a succulent filet mignon beefsteak.

There is also a world of delicious sausages made from Serrano and Ibérico pork, ranging in price from a few dollars for a typical chorizo to over a hundred dollars for the finest lomo Ibérico.
Chorizo, lomo (pork loin), salchichón, sobrasada, fuet, butifarra, cular, longaniza
- the list of great sausages from different parts of Spain speaks to the ubiquity of Spanish cured pork.

In Spain, the most popular cured sausage is called chorizo, kind of like pepperoni but seasoned with pungent pimentón smoked paprika. Salchichón, cured with black peppercorns, is somewhat similar to Italian salami. To continue the Italian parallels (which are only approximate), jamón Serrano is like prosciutto de Parma.

Spain's history, tradition and geography are all intertwined with its iconic cured meats. To learn more, especially about jamón, please visit our sister website, jamon.com. I hope that any of you who have not yet tasted Spain’s ham and sausages will take the opportunity to enjoy this central part of her cuisine.

Su amigo,