Confused by all the different chorizos and jamons on offer? Hate how you don’t know why some taste great, others awful? Be confused no more!
Unsuspecting UK lovers of bacon and British ham (jamon york) may be astonished to discover that these products, although plentifully available and excellent in Spain, do not even feature on a Spanish gourmet’s radar when it comes to cured pork. Instead the Spanish treat their jamon serrano (mountain air-cured ham) with a reverence, fastidiousness and vocabulary reminiscent of a Frenchman’s attitude to wine.
How Jamon and Chorizo are Made
The black (or russet) Iberian pig is a pure breed which is regarded in Spain quite differently from the ordinary, pink, domestic kind. To produce the sweetest, best flavoured meat, it is turned out, usually in October, to roam free and feed itself on acorns in las dehesas. The dehesas are a particular landscape, once plentiful in Spain – large expanses of grass meadow liberally dotted with oak trees. These are usually encinas, Holm Oaks, but cork and other oaks also feature strongly. The pigs are killed on cold, dry days between November and early February in a ritual event called la matanza, which means “the slaughter” (for more on Iberian pigs and on the matanza, see my post “A Quest in Pursuit of Porkfection”).
Chorizos and other embutidos (literally “stuffed things”, i.e. sausages), such as morcilla (black pudding) and salchichon (slightly similar to Italian salami), are made immediately and hung outside to dry. Chorizos can be very variable: large or small, long or short, fresh or cured, moist or dry, picante (spicy hot) or sweet, smoked or not, more or less garlicky, and sometimes made from other animals or game. The common factor is that they are made from chunks of lean meat and fat, and are red from the large amounts of pimenton (dried pimiento, red pepper) used in the mix.
The hams meanwhile are salted and hung to cure in the mountain air (hence the label serrano, which means mountain) in the open-to-the-air attics of the fincas and cortijos (farms and farm buildings).
The curing is an art, and modern science has apparently not found a way to ensure that all the hams cure successfully. Those that do not spoil are later removed to bodegas (cellars), where they mature until their “bouquet” is right and they are deemed ready, at the end of about two years. The hot but not stifling summers of the meseta (mountain tableland) ensure the succulence of the hams by slowly melting and suffusing the fat throughout the meat.
Eating and Drinking
Iberian pork is excellent fresh (i.e. uncured) – try it in a dish such as Secreto de Iberico. The meat is succulent and sweet, and has more flavour and firmness than ordinary pork, but is not gamey or tough like wild boar can be.
The word iberico on a menu, however, usually implies cured, cold, thinly sliced meats. Try surtido iberico (a mix of lomo, jamon, salchichon and chorizo perhaps). The true gourmet will have a racion (portion) of jamon iberico bellota (from acorn-fed Iberian pigs - more information below), freshly cut from the ham behind the bar, served on its own.
Jamon serrano is also excellent in cooked dishes – try it cubed with judias beans or onions, or, for an outstanding treat, in strips wrapped around wild asparagus and deep-fried in olive oil.
The best cured chorizo iberico should be eaten cold like the best ham, but fresh should be cooked, and run-of-the-mill cured is also much better from the olla, i.e. out of the cooking pot. It makes great tapas cooked in red wine, and is a superb addition to stews of any kind, also to tortilla (omelette) and revueltas (scrambled eggs). In Alberca (Salamanca province), try the wonderful dish called Limon, where chorizo is served warm with oranges in a rich lemony sauce, which you mop up with bread.
The complex flavours of the best iberico complement an astonishing range of drinks, so go with your mood. Try it with a light, dry, chilled manzanilla sherry, or with a local Montanchez red wine, such as the fruity Pitarra or the rich, traditional-style Balcon de Extremadura. Or live dangerously, be wildly modern, and accompany jamon with a tumbler full of ice cubes and the sweet, nutty licor de bellotas (acorn liqueur), which tastes like liquid zabaglione.
Shop and Menu Guide
Iberico means that the meat comes from an Iberian pig. If it does not say Iberico, it is not Iberian, and the word blanco may appear.
Bellota (acorn) means that the pig fed itself on acorns (and therefore was free range) in the last months of its life. If it was fed, or ate anything except acorns and grasses, it cannot be called bellota, and the meat will be cheaper. Non-bellota hams are labelled recebo (part acorn, part fed) or cebo (all fed), and non-acorn chorizos may be labelled primera.
DO is short for Denominacion de Origen Protegida, as in DO Dehesa de Extremadura. This is similar to the French appellation controllee system for wine. A DO label means the supplier has been certified by the region as a quality-controlled producer of authentic product.
Jamon refers to the best cut of the meat, i.e. the ham, thigh, or hind leg. Lesser ranked fore legs are called paletas, and loin or flank is called lomo. Note that lomo iberico is usually cured “ham” in the loose English sense of the word, whereas lomo de cerdo is usually a fresh pork steak. Also note that other cured thigh meats, such as pato (duck), will turn up on your menu using the word jamon.
Reserva, as with Rioja wines, means the ham has been kept for longer, in this case a year longer than the normal two years.
The best (and most expensive) meat is thus theoretically jamon iberico de bellota reserva DO.
Words like bodega (cellar) and artesanal (hand crafted) may appear on the label, implying the ham was home-cured, or made by a small family business instead of a larger concern (which would use a secadero, a large-scale curing warehouse). Even when not DO these “farmyard” hams can be outstanding, and, in the countryside, are usually much cheaper than the prize specimens hanging in the shops in the big towns and cities.