Food News

Jamón 101

Javier Degen, proprietor of The Spanish Pantry and importer of fine hams, gives us the lowdown on jamón.

By Pat Nourse

What is jamón? Jamón is Spanish for ham, the meat coming from the rear leg of the pig, or what Italians call 'prosciutto'.

How should I pronounce that? 'Ha-mon' - (with a hard 'H') our J's are pronounced like H's in Spanish.

What's the difference between jamón serrano and jamón Ibérico?
Most significantly, the difference lies in the race of the pig. Jamón serrano comes from the white pig, a common race of pig found in most countries, like the Italian prosciutto. Jamón Ibérico comes from the Iberian race of pig, which is unique to the Iberian Peninsula and mostly only found and bred in certain parts of Spain.

The jamón Ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Iberian ham) has the unique ability to transform more than half of its fat into 'good fat' with properties similar to oleic acid - like olive oil. This is the only race of pig that can do this. Another important difference is that the Iberian pigs are left alive usually double the age of the white pig (average age at time of slaughter is 14-20 months). This allows the 'marbling' effect of the fat to occur within the meat. Iberian pigs are also left free to roam the pastures with plenty of natural space.

Is it popular in Spain? Very! Jamón Ibérico is the most famous delicacy from Spain, especially when it is jamón Ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Iberian ham). It's eaten on every special occasion or celebration.

How is it normally eaten? Jamón Ibérico is normally served as a starter to a fine meal. Freshly sliced, very thin, with small slices served on a plate. It is usually eaten straight with no accompaniments, but there may be a bit of fresh bread on the side. Jamón serrano is normally eaten together with melon (as a starter) or on a toast rubbed with tomato and olive oil (especially in Catalunya). It is also used to make sandwiches with fresh bread.

And when do you eat it?
Spanish typically eat jamón at lunch or dinner. However, you can grab a jamón sandwich at any time of the day in Spain.

What should I serve with it? Bread? Cheese? Olives?
When the jamón Ibérico is served as a starter, you may find some Manchego cheese and olives served alongside it. However, the jamón is always the star.

What should I drink with it? Cava? Sherry? Beer? Whisky? Red wine? Any of the above except for whisky. A cold dry sherry or manzanilla creates a great combination with the sweet and nutty Iberian ham. Any wine (red, white, rosé, sparkling) or even beer goes well too.

Any tips for serving it? It is best to serve the jamón freshly sliced and at room temperature. The thinner the slices the better. It is also important to leave the fat on.

What's the story with those excellent cradles?
We call these 'jamóneros' in Spanish and this is the way the jamón is served and presented in Spain - with the bone in, cradled in a jamónero. It is all part of the theatre of jamón. In good restaurants in Spain you will find a specialised waiter who will hand-slice the jamón in front of the guests and serve it straight to the table. It is very important to have this hand-sliced properly and with a certain process to best use the jamón and to achieve thin slices.

How long does jamón keep? It is best kept in the fridge for up to 12 months. It is a rather robust produce.

How much does jamón Ibérico cost?
Jamón Ibérico de bellota retails between $400-$500 per kilo.

Is the rear leg ('jamón') better than the front leg or shoulder ('paleta')?
There are common misconceptions that the rear leg (jamón) is better than the shoulder or front leg (paleta). This is not the case and you will find an equally rich, nutty, marbled ham from both the shoulder and the rear leg.

Is jamón better the longer it is cured?
Again, it is another misconception that the longer a jamón is cured, the better it must be. Curing jamón is a careful process that needs to be monitored under the right conditions and will vary according to the weight of the ham and environmental factors. Generally speaking, an average-sized jamón Ibérico can take from 24 to 36 months to cure. There is a balance that needs to be achieved to get the jamón right as over-curing can dry out the ham.

  • Author: Pat Nourse