Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Hamming it up

My Spanish students have a lot of trouble with the English words jam and ham. Which is the one that comes from pigs and which is the fruit preserve? Just in case you're not sure ham is the pig product.

Britons and Spaniards also have a different idea of a ham. Mention ham and Spanish people immediately think of a cured ham, similar to Parma ham, for which the catch all term is jamon serrano or mountain ham. Back in Huntingdonshire my mum would be thinking of boiled ham. Oddly the stuff we Britons are used to is called York Ham - Jamon York - in Spain.

When some English pals asked me yesterday how the jamon serrano ham was produced I realised I didn't know. Now I do.

To paraphrase Mrs. Beaton first slaughter your pig and cut off its back legs. Next clean them up and then store the hams in big piles covered with salt for a couple of weeks. The salt both serves to preserve the meat and to draw off water. Next the salt is washed off and the hams are hung for about six months. Finally the hams are hung in a cool dry hanging sheds for between six and eighteen months. These drying sheds are typically high in the mountains which is why the stuff is called mountain ham. The last phase is to eat it. So maybe a couple of years from gentle snuffling to plate.

The same can be done with the forelegs of the little piggies, in that case it is called paleta.

The main factors that determine the quality and price of the ham are the type of pig and the food it eats.

There are basically two types of pig, the native black skinned Iberian beast, which produces the best quality ham, but only represents about 5% of the total production, and the more intensively reared white pigs like the Large White, Landrace, or Duroc strains and crosses.

The best hams come from Iberian pigs wandering around in the open air feeding and fattened on acorns in the oak groves along the southern half of the border between Spain and Portugal. But the best is also the slowest and most expensive way to produce the ham so the majority of ham you will come across is from the white pigs.

Just like the French and their Appellation contrôlée the Spanish have an organisation that acts as a quality control mechanism for lots of quality agricultural products. The Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origin or INDO (which is normally abbreviated to D.O on the bottles and packets) certifies the origin, production methods and the general quality of things like wine, honey, olive oil and, of course, ham.

There are four recognised D.O. areas for ham.

The first is in the Province of Extremadura very close to Portugal where the ham comes from pure bred Iberian pigs, or Duroc crosses which are at least 75% Iberian bloodstock. There are several quality levels which depend on what the pigs eat and how good their bloodline is.

The second is in Salamanca province around Guijuelo. Again the pigs have to have at least 75% pure Iberian blood. There are two quality classes:  the best is Jamón Ibérico de bellota - from free range pigs that spend their lives eating acorns. The hams hung for sale are marked with a red band. Not quite so good (but still yummy in my opinion) is the Jamón Ibérico - free range pigs that are fattened up with concentrated feeds. Yellow band for these.

The third D.O. are is in the Province of Huelva in Andalucia also bordering on Portugal. The bloodstock requirements and quality differences are much as before.

The fourth and last area includes all of Teruel province though the air curing must take place at more than 800 metres to gain the D.O mark. There aren't any Iberian pigs in Teruel  so all the hams are from white pigs and there are no cork-oak woods either so the little piggies eat commercial feed. It's the climate that makes things "just right" for producing high quality ham.

Traditionally the wafer thin slices (though there is a modern trend to serve it in smaller chunkier pieces) of meat are cut directly from the ham which is stored at room temperature. You see the hams clamped into stands in the majority of Spanish bars. At home it usually comes in packets from the supermarket but even then the ham should be stored and served at room temperature. The ham tends to be served alone or maybe alternated with sliced cheese and, of course, some tasty bread.

My sources tell me it's available in Tesco and Sainsbury.

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