Jamón ready to be sold in La Boqueria Market
As we may already know, Jamón is the Spanish word for ham. The Spanish version is cured and dried and has a distinct and rich flavour that makes thin slices incredibly moorish. Jamón is at the heart of Spanish culture and cuisine and the traditional methods of curing and drying are what contribute to its quality, alongside the breed of the pig.
Let’s have a look at why Jamón is soooooo good.
The four stages of making Jamón are salting and washing, the resting period, drying and maturation and the bodega phase.
Jamón is made by dry-curing the legs of the pig in barrels full of salt. The legs are then left in the salt for up to two weeks in order to drain as much liquid from the meat as possible. After this, the legs are removed from the salt. The excess salt is washed off with lukewarm water and the hams are hung for the resting period.
The hams are then hung for up to two months in cold rooms which are kept at a temperature between 3° and 6° C, with a relative humidity of 80 to 90%. During this resting period the salt continues to penetrate the hams which enhances dehydration and conservation. This process gives the hams a significantly denser consistency, since most of the water has been drained.
The hams are then moved to a “secadero”, or natural drying area, where temperature and humidity are controlled through ventilation. Temperature ranges from 15° to 30° C for the 6 to 12 month drying period. The hams continue to lose moisture and begin “sweating”, which disseminates the fat throughout the meat which then helps to retain the aroma they have acquired. The final flavours and aromas begin to develop during this stage, due to a series of changes that occur in the protein and fat of the hams.
Jamón hanging during the bodega phase
The hams are then hung in cellars or bodegas for 2 years or more. The temperature may range between 10° and 20° C, with a relative humidity between 60 and 80%. During this phase the hams continue to undergo the biochemical processes initiated during the curing process, enhanced by microbial flora which give them their particular depth of aroma and final flavour.
Usually the Jamón Ibéricos take at least two years to reach their peak of flavour – some of the finest hams are cured for four or even five years.
Traditionally, the jamón was dried with the assistance of dry mountainous air flows and the natural low humidity that is a feature of the climate of these areas. These days for commercial purposes, large sheds with automated and controlled climatic conditions are responsible for the drying process, but that is not to say that in some remote areas the traditional method of using the natural environmental conditions still occurs.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota hanging in La Boqueria Market
The highest quality Jamón is Ibérico de Bellota and is made from the rear leg of the prized black Iberian pig. This is a rare breed that can be found in the southern and western regions of the Iberian Peninsula throughout Spain and Portugal. Its distinct flavour and quality is attributed to the fact that the pigs are fed on a diet of only acorns. This breed of pig is expensive, small in size and only produces small litters.
Pan con tomate
A thin slice of Jamón Iberico can be enjoyed on its own or with a slice of toasted artisanal bread which has been rubbed with raw garlic and tomato (pan con tomate). The slices are best enjoyed at room temperature as the deep savoury notes can be fully realised and the fat can literally melt in your mouth.
Jamón in the market ready to be sliced
See you again soon at The Paella Club!
Professional Chef, Writer and Paella Club Instructor.