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February 15, 2011

You don’t have to be in Spain long to notice the prevalence of ham.  Walking down a street, you’re likely to pass by a butcher’s shop with dozens of cured patas (the hind legs of pigs) hanging from the ceiling; a bar with sandwiches behind the counter from which protrude the tips of several slices of ham;  a café with 6 options for an entrée, all of which feature ham or other pork products.  One of my third graders even told me–very excitedly–that his only gift this Christmas (as last) was an entire pata all for himself.

In short, this is a nation fed on ham.  I’ve offended many a Spaniard by telling them about my aversion to the meat, but I’ve made a point of sampling ham in all of its various forms, and I have to say that I stand by my opinion.

Even as a non-ham-eater, I have to admit that the variety of ham available here is impressive.  There is a huge range of quality from jamón york, which is your typical lunchmeat ham, to jamón ibérico de bellota, which is the king of all hams, coveted by Spaniards and foreigners alike, that can easily cost upwards of 90 euros/kilo ($56/lb).

Let’s start at the top, with the ham that many families can only afford to serve as part of a Christmas banquet.  Jamón ibérico comes from the Iberian breed of pig.  In addition to the breed, the treatment of these pigs is also considered to be important; where the pig was raised, its diet, how much space it had to itself and how much exercise it got are considered to be equally important factors as how long the meat was cured (from 8 to 36 months.)

The official subdivisions are made based on what percentage of the Iberian pig’s diet is made up of acorns (bellotas): jamón ibérico de cebo and jamón ibérico de cebo campo pigs are fed only commercial feed, jamón ibérico de recebo pigs eat acorns during the last few months of their lives, and jamón ibérico de bellota pigs eat almost exclusively acorns.  Why acorns?  They create a rich, decadent diet for the pigs which apparently passes a nutty flavor on to the meat, especially once it’s been cured.

The cut of the meat is equally important; jamón aficionados insist that the same cured ham can take on many different flavors depending on how it’s cut, and cutting ham is considered to be an art.  A little more than ten years ago, the Spaniards founded an annual contest to evaluate ham-slicers based on their cleanliness, speed, and consistency in the weight, length, and thickness of their slices.  The winner takes away the coveted cuchillo jamonero de oro: the golden ham-cutter’s knife.  (As Dave Barry would say, no, I am not making this up.)  The ideal slice weighs approximately 100 grams and is between 4 and 6 millimeters thick.  Any thicker, and the ham won’t “penetrate your senses.”  (Thank you,, for a wonderful quote.)

I have to stop here to point out that those who already loved ham are currently enraptured, and those who didn’t like ham to start with are probably retching at the thought of it “penetrating their senses.”  If it helps, I’ll throw in a visual, and the ham-haters can skip to the last paragraph:

Photo from

Moving to a slightly more plebeian ham: jamón serrano comes from a breed of white pig, and the color of the meat is clearly lighter.  The pigs aren’t treated quite as royally as Iberian pigs, and their diet consists of commercial feed.  The name serrano means ”from the mountain” and refers to the treatment of the meat; serrano ham is cured in mountainous climates at high altitudes, either in natural caves or small drying sheds (secaderos.)

It looks similar to raw bacon (and I think that’s part of the turn-off for me), but jamón serrano is eaten exactly as you see pictured here:

Photo from Wikipedia

Spanish law closely regulates the classification of ham, based on the breed, region of origin, diet, and curing process, so you can always be sure that the product matches its label.  Until quite recently, it was illegal to export Spanish ham or take it outside the country; thankfully for you Stateside ham fans, this is no longer true.  Hopefully now you’ll know how to judge Spanish ham when you come across it in a high-end grocery or gourmet foods store.

After living here for more than a year in total, I still don’t see myself developing a love for ham anytime soon.  I’ve tried each kind once–and the jamón ibérico that I tried was cut by a recipient of the cuchillo de oro who happens to be a friend of a friend!  But I guess I just don’t like it; frankly, I’m sure any Spaniard would appreciate it much more than I would, so I’ll just leave it for them.  I don’t think they’ll mind.

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