I was introduce to Senior Jamon by Ana Fernandez from Murcia. She was one of my new uni friends I met in September 2007, when I went “Back to School”. One day she invited us to her place for “a Spanish dinner”. “My mom brought some Spanish food from home”, she said with the mysterious look. I had know idea what was waiting for me.
That was the beginning of our love story with jamon. And with Ana of course 🙂 I was so inspired by them that even took a Spanish elective at the Uni! Despite I graduated from that course with Distinction, if you ask me now about my knowledge of Spanish, my top of mind phrases will be: “Reciclar es una mierda” (Recycling is shit) and “La lavadora es muy ruidosa” (The washing machine is very noisy), those I learnt from Ana when we lived together in the student halls.
Out of curiosity and respect to the best ham in the world (sorry, proscuitto et al) I did some research. Might be interesting for you too 😛 Seniors y senioritas, please welcome … Jamón!
While India is well known for its sacred cows, you will find another worshiped animal if you visit La Alberca – a Spanish village known for its delicious hams. There is a tradition to let a carefully selected pig out into the streets on the 13th of June, and it wanders around the town during six months when all the locals take care of it treating with high respect: greet and pat it, feed and give way to it.
Being aware of the special attitude and even veneration for the animal you will not be surprised by the granite statue of a pig in the village just in front of the church’s main entrance. Pig’s paradise lasts till January 17 – the day of Saint Anthony, when the animal is sacrificed according to the Middle Aged tradition. Although, when in old days the meat of the creature was given to the poorest family of the village, now it is just a town lottery prize. The winner has to take the pig back home and slaughter it himself. (I am not sure I would like to be the winner.) Despite the changes, the animal is still in the center of town’s life. But what makes it so special for the Spanish? To answer this question we have to travel into the history of the country and see what is the role of a pig in today’s Spain.
The people of the Iberian Peninsula ate pork and ham even in the Roman era. The meat could be easily cured, and sailors used to have this food with them in their far away journeys. Country people had rolled fresh hams in sea salt and hung them from their rafters to cure. However, when the Moors conquered the country, because of their religious beliefs, eating pork was prohibited. After the Christians got the control back, pork regained its popularity. Spanish jamon is not only one of the types of the most popular products but the national pride and is even perceived as the national identity of the Spanish. They eat the air-dried-cured ham regularly and in fact are the number one ham consumers in the world. Every Spanish person eats on average five kg of native ham per year ( I am sure Ana’s little bro eats at least 15!), when the same index for Italians is twice less.
It is easy to get lost in all the various kinds of jamón ranged in the shops and on the markets. But only before you taste them once – each type has a peculiar unique flavor. Once you try it, you will not forget the difference, and will easily find your way to the one needed according to the occasion and the size of your wallet. The secret of Spanish jamón lies in curing. There are two main ham making traditions which result in products different greatly in both: the taste and the price.
Jamón Serrano is a part of life of every Spaniard. It is made from Duroc, Pietrain, Landrace or other large white pigs, living throughout Europe and being raised mostly on cereal grains. The tradition of making it is kept in the country-side of Spain, when in early winter people get together to make ready for the long cold season. Fresh meat is placed in the sea salt for as short as one day and then gets hung up for the period from seven to sixteen months before it is ready.
Similar to wines, it is up to the experienced connoisseur to check if it is time for ham to get on the tables. During the Holiday Season there are literally hundreds of hams hanging in front of food stores, attracting attention of the holiday shoppers. The difference between Jamón Serrano and its European brothers is that the Spanish representative of the family is less moist with a consistent texture, some marbling, a purple color, and a deep ham flavor. Today, Serrano is about 90% of Spain’s annual ham production.
Jamón Iberico is a brand as well as the Beluga Caviar and a pride of Spain. It is made only from Cerdo Ibérico – unique Iberian pigs with great history going back to the Iberian Peninsula. The breeding of the Iberian pig is restricted to an area in Southwestern Spain and Southeastern Portugal. They are also known locally as “Pata Negra” due to their distinctive black hoofs. But the color is not the only peculiar feature of the Iberians. These pigs are much fatter and have more marbled meat than regular pink pigs. While traditional Jamón Iberico is made of the animals leading the regular pigs’ life – being mainly fed with cereal feeds; Jamón Iberico Belotta is a unique jamón produced from the hogs with the different lifestyle. These privileged creatures have a lot of freedom, being able to walk under the open sky around forested meadows se
arching for their favorite delicacy – the acorn. The acorn is Spanish is “bellota”. Thats where the name of the finest jamon Iberico de Bellota is coming from. Not only the black pigs’ diet makes the difference bringing the acorn flavor into Bellota Jamón Ibérico – the dream of any gourmet. They lead very active life searching for the oak trees fruits, what makes ham made from them contain less not-healthy fat and be full of healthy natural oleic acid, the best and tastiest medicine against heart diseases. (Oh I think I really really need that medicine! I will talk to my GP about it!) After the two years of a pig-paradise life, when they sometimes gain over a kilo each day (Gosh, any woman would kill herself! jeje) eating up to 10 kilos of“bellotas”, the animals are sacrificed, salted and get hung up. Being cured hanging in the mountain air from two to four years the hams lose from 20% to 40% their weight what makes the final product even tastier and healthier.
Thus, a jamón serrano is a completely different ham that any of the Iberico hams. Because it is less expensive, does that mean that jamón serrano is worse than an Iberico one: it just means that it is a different product, made a different way from a different type of pigs.
“It’s all very well to source Iberian ham, but to machine cut it is an insult to the pig.” These words of Jay Ruyner – the restaurant review of the Guardian and a gourmet perfectly describe the importance of the ham’s hand-slicing. It is very important to slice the ham very thinly.The slices should be transparent, what is only possible if you have a good knife speciallydesigned for cutting ham. It has to be a long, thin and very sharp-edged knife. Knowing how to cut the ham properly is considered so important that it is said to make a tremendous difference to its taste. In cellars across Spain, the ham is dried slowly for two years before being ceremoniously sliced into thin slices of fat and flesh that melt deliciously in the mouth. Ooohhhh!
What is Jamon for the Spanish?
I remember once I came to Spain on my own. To my greatest surprise, at the aeropuertp de Murcia I was met by my Anita’s dad who was standing there with the poster with my name on! Spanish hospitality! He was very sweet and smily. But the first thought I had still was “Sh*t, sh*t, how we are going to communicate?!” My favourite phrases about recycling and the washing machine seemed a bit irrelevant. For “una cervesa, por favor” was too early. As if reading my thoughts he handed me in a note from Ana:and gave me a decent size plastic bag full of small bocadillos de jamon! There were at least 15 of them! Ana’s mom Rosa sent them to me like you would bring a bucket of water to someone who spent at least a year in the desert! Muchos gracias, Pepe and Rosa!!
Every time I am on the plane to or from Spain, when I listen to the traditional security lecture: “In an emergency the panels above your heads will open revealing the oxygen masks. Adjust Your own mask first before helping your children and other people.”Each time I look forward to hearing if they have finally replaced the “masks”with “bocadillos”, because thats exactly what any Spaniard would prefer to have in an emergency!
Bocadillos are bread rolls with jamon or other fillings. They are a part of the Spanish national identity and I am sure no Spaniard would imagine a day without having a bocadillo – no way!
Usually a thought of having a meat with bread doesn’t cross my mind. But when I am in Spain I definitely have at least one bocadillo de jamon! Its heaven!!!
I think it is even against the law NOT no do it! Tssssss.
Does it give you an idea what Jamon is for the Spanish? 😉
That what they say about the “taste of Spain”. Adrian Rodrigo from Madrid: “In our country, jamón means meet with our friends around a table to share a meal. Being abroad, jamón reminds us about our country, scents, flavors… ” My Anita says, “When I eat it I really feel like I am at home”. As you see, jamón is more than just a type of food for the Spanish. And this fact is reflected in the local folklore and slang in particular. Saying to a woman “jamona” means she is attractive, curvy – real woman, as the Spanish see it. The expression “pata negra”, which literally means a jamón made from the black pigs, is used in speech in relation to something of the very high quality or someone very attractive.
These are the reasons for a special attitude, respect, and even veneration to a pig from the Spanish. An open-minded and life-loving nation that respects traditions, enjoys tasty food, good wines, and perceives “meals” as reasons to meet friends, talk and socialize – things that really make sense in life of the Spanish. It is much more than food. Pleasure, beauty and taste: this is what jamón represents in the country today! And we like that! 🙂
When you are in Spain next time, give a pig a way. And if you hear “jamona” behind, look back – it may be for you! 😉