Jamón Journal: Slicing the World’s Finest Hams

Jonathan Harris | October 2020

In 1996, La Tienda started in my father’s basement. We were a family of Spain fanatics and we couldn’t find any of Spain’s amazing foods or ceramics in local stores. We posted a collection of Mozarabic tiles from Andalucía, plus a few food products on our first website. We started to receive a few orders and our collection began to grow. Then in 1998, Jamón Serrano arrived on American shores for the first time in generations.

We hung a row of bone-in hams by Redondo Iglesias across the center beam of the basement while we worked a few feet away at our desks, our phone modems squeaking and chirping as we logged onto the Internet. Our dog would occasionally leap into the air to try and get a bite of delicious jamón – thankfully, they were well out of reach!

Every day the UPS truck would back into our driveway, and we would toss a few boxes on the truck – a ham, a couple of jars of piquillo peppers, a paella pan or two. We came to realize that, for most people, an 18-pound ham was just too much of a commitment. I started thinking about how to offer smaller portions – we needed a way to offer sliced jamón if we wanted to reach more people.

Talking around the dinner table, my parents and brothers and I had a lightbulb moment – we live less than an hour away from the town of Smithfield, home of Virginia’s iconic Smithfield hams. Surely someone in the ham capital of America could slice for us!

I started calling around to every ham and sausage company in the phonebook. Finally, I found a small bacon producer that was willing to work with us to slice our Serrano ham. I loaded up my father’s Toyota Forerunner with 20 boneless hams, caught the ferry over the James River and 20 minutes later arrived at the plant. 

That morning I helped supervise the cutting of La Tienda’s first batch of sliced Serrano ham. At the end of the day, we tossed a few hundred packs into the same cardboard boxes that had held the whole hams, and I was on my way.

A few years later, the enormous Smithfield Foods company embarked upon a series of acquisitions. Dozens of venerable ham brands in the area were gobbled up and generations of experience disappeared as Smithfield Foods shut down their plants as they eliminated the competition. We had to find another way to get our jamón sliced.

We started working with a small sausage producer in Virginia Beach who would slice jamón for us between selling his products at local fairs and attending to his own small shop. After a year or so our volume was big enough that we knew we needed a partner with better machinery but couldn’t find anyone who wanted to deal with this specialty product. So, we decided to start a company to slice Spanish jamón ourselves. We named it Virginia Packing LLC.

Virginia Packing now sits in our warehouse within sight of where the La Tienda boxes are packed and shipped. Our USDA inspected facilities now boast a top-of-the-line Weber meat slicer from Germany, and a packaging machine that flushes each pack of slices with nitrogen, ensuring that the precious Spanish ham is maintained in top condition. We now slice and package Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, a ham that can cost well over $1,400 a leg. We wouldn’t trust anyone else to handle this finest of all hams.

But what we are most proud of is the freshness of our sliced meats. A lot of sliced Serrano and Ibérico hams are cut in Spain and may sit for months as they cross the ocean and pass through distribution channels. We can debone imported whole hams, press them and slice them in our own facilities so our customers receive the freshest Spanish ham in the US. We also source the best quality raw material by working with the finest ham curing houses in Spain.

A lot has changed since our days in my father’s basement, surrounded by the delicious aroma of Serrano hams hanging above our desks. Since 1996, the Internet has transformed the world, and Smithfield Foods is now owned by the Shuangui company from China. La Tienda now offers nearly 1,000 gourmet foods and cookware items from across Spain.

But many things have stayed the same. Our family still makes important decisions sitting together around the dinner table. And we still work hard to make sure we are offering the very best Spanish food for your table. Our Virginia Packing team is an essential part of that mission, by carefully slicing the world’s finest hams for you to enjoy at home.