Food

Pigs foraging for acorns in Extremadura

Know your jamón

Jamón – Spanish dry-cured ham – is both a culinary staple and a delicacy recognised by chefs and food lovers all over the world.

Hams hanging by their hooves above rows of tapas are a familiar sight in bars and restaurants throughout Spain. On the counter or a side table, there is usually at least one ham strapped horizontally into a ‘jamonero’ rack with a long carving knife  alongside ready to serve up wafer thin slices.

Ideally jamón should be carved on demand and a good one just melts in the mouth. Sharing a plate of fine jamón with others is part of the pleasure and a glass or red wine or sherry makes an ideal accompaniment.

Jamón falls into two main categories: serrano and ibérico. Serrano, the more common of the two, is produced from white pigs in many areas of Spain including Salamanca and Granada. The serrano hams of Teruel in north-eastern Spain are particularly well known and have DO (protected designation of origin) status. These hams are cured at over 800m above sea level and, like other serrano hams, they are graded jamón bodega, jamón reserva and jamón gran reserva – a jamón reserva is cured for at least 14 months.

For the second type, the more superior jamón ibérico, look to the west of the country. This is home to the indigenous black-skinned ibérico pig which has slender legs (the hams are shaped like violin rather than a guitar) and black hooves hence the alternative name of “pata negra” (black foot) ham.

The ibérico pig’s natural habitat is the “Dehesa” pastures which border Portugal and extend down to Andalusia. A major feature of the land is the holm oak which provides the pig’s favourite food when the acorns fall in the autumn and winter. A daily feed of around ten kilos of acorns allows the pigs to double their body weight before slaughter, salting and the start of the curing process.

The best ham comes from pigs that have fed only on acorns (bellota) and have not required additional fodder. The ultimate jamón, it is known as jamón ibérico de bellota.

Ibérico ham is typically a darker shade of red than serrano and firmer in texture with marbled fat running through it. It has a rich, nutty flavour, a slight sweetness and the barest hint of salt. Not only is it delicious, it’s just what the doctor ordered: this natural food is particularly low in calories and cholesterol and easy to digest – you can even have it for breakfast. The downside: good jamón ibérico doesn’t come cheap, so expect to pay around £15 for 100g  in shops the UK.

A quick guide to serving and storing ham

1. Store a ham at ambient temperature – ideally between 15-16°C – and in dry conditions. Ham should also be served at room temperature and ideally on a slightly warmed plate to appreciate its full flavour.

2. When you have carved as much ham as you need, rub the surface of the remaining ham with fat and cover it with a cloth to prevent it from drying out. Kept in the right conditions a ham will last up to around four months.

Go to www.brindisa.com for more tips on carving and serving ham. The Spanish fine food specialist also offers ham workshops at its Borough Market shop where you can try your hand at carving ham under the guidance of a master carver and learn about the various grades of ham and their origins.