Jaume Guerra looks at me with a blank stare when I ask how he became interested in the world of Spanish hams. “Ham is a part of life in Spain,” he says, as if it was inevitable that he would become a master carver of piernas. I’m meeting with Guerra for a tutorial in Spanish jamónes, which, like any food or drink, become increasingly complex and fascinating the more you learn about them. As a greater variety of hams from Spain becomes available at U.S. grocery stores and from specialty purveyors, including Despaña and D’Artagnan, jamón aficionados may find themselves suddenly bewildered by the proliferation of choices in the meat department.
Jamón serrano, the Spanish ham almost every meat eater knows, has been available in the U.S. for about 17 years, Guerra explains, but it has recently been joined by the ibérico hams, the cebo and bellota varieties, and the lesser known (and considerably more expensive) mangalica. What are the differences among these three? And aside from asking for a sample and letting your taste buds make the decision for you, what should you know when you go to buy a Spanish ham?
Guerra gave TLK a crash course on the subject, explaining everything from how and what the pigs are fed and how long the hams are cured, to the characteristics you should look for in an exceptional Spanish ham, the carving instructions you should offer at the meat counter when you’re placing your order, and how you should serve and eat your ham at home.
Next, a look at the most famous Spanish hams…
Jamón serrano is a working-class ham, the variety you keep on hand for day-to-day consumption, cooking (say, for croquetas and simple bocadillos), and for kids, according to Guerra. While your local meat counter is likely to have a wide selection of serranos, Guerra cautions that few of the brands sold in the U.S. are of high quality. “Large, corporate producers can afford to enter the export market,” he explains, “and the result is an abundance of mediocre hams.” Because they are exported in greater quantities and are cheaper than other Spanish hams, serranos, which are dry-aged for about a year, are often the victims of shortcuts in that aging process, which is what endows all Spanish hams with their rich flavor.
In Guerra’s opinion, the best jamón serrano available in the U.S. is by Jamónes Segovia. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a ham marketed as having a denominación de orígen, or D.O., assures its quality. “Treat ham the same way you treat wine,” Guerra advises. “A wine with a D.O. from Rioja only means it’s from Rioja and was made under certain conditions; the D.O. itself doesn’t assure that you’re drinking a great wine.”
Jamón ibérico is a step—a big one—above serrano, because most of the pigs that yield the cebo and bellota varieties of ibérico are free-range and their aging processes are longer. Bellota is better known in the U.S. than cebo, primarily because the acorn-fed pigs have achieved near mythical status here, thanks to media outlets that have portrayed the pigs as coddled darlings. According to Ignacio Saez de Ibarra, general manager of Pata Negra and Imperial Chorizo in New York, a farmer can only have so many pigs, since a single bellota hog needs two full acres of acorn trees to achieve its harvesting weight.
In both cases, though, the fact that the pigs get to wander freely means that they’re exercising more than pigs being raised and fattened in commercial pens, and that, in turn, means they’re developing more intramuscular fat. The result? A richer flavor than the serranos. Ibéricos are also aged longer: cebos for 18-36 months, and bellotas for a minimum of 36 months.
“The Ibéricos are meant to be savored,” says Guerra, “to be part of an experience, to open the appetite. They’re a rich ham, ideal for degustaciónes or tastings.”
Jeffrey Weiss, author of the excellent and comprehensive guide to Spanish charcuterie, Charcutería, the Soul of Spain, offers tips for bringing the ibéricos to your table. Serve these with a fino sherry, he recommends; “It’ll knock your socks off!” At his restaurant, jeninni kitchen + wine bar, he likes to pair jamones with grilled bread and seasonal curtidos, “little pickled goodies that we make at the restaurant.” You can get his recipe for sweet and sour pickled garlic here.
Next, one of Spain’s most expensive exports…
Jamón mangalica reigns supreme among the Spanish hams, despite the fact that the heritage pigs from which it is sourced aren’t raised in Spain at all but in Hungary. The mangalica pigs are uniquely suited for the cold climate where they live, having developed a thick coat, and—most important to those who want to eat it–thick layers of intramuscular fat.
The mangalica pigs are open-pasture foragers that eat barley, corn, grass, soybeans, sunflowers, and wheat in small, free-range groups. Once they’re fattened and ready for aging, they head to Spain, where master jamoneros begin the long process of curing. It’s this ham that takes the longest amount of time to age to perfection, usually three years. “It’s the slow curing that gives mangalica its flavor,” Guerra explains, and its deep, rich, glossiness is best suited for degustación rather than piling onto a piece of crusty bread.
How to Get the Best Ham
Few butchers in the United States are experts when it comes to Spanish hams, says Guerra, and it’s helpful if you approach the meat counter with a bit of your own knowledge to ensure you’re buying the best quality and getting good cuts. Here are Guerra’s pro tips for buying Spanish jamónes:
• Look for evidence of tirosina. “Many people make the mistake of thinking that the white, crystalline flecks or threads on Spanish ham are undesirable, when the opposite is actually the case,” says Guerra. Tirosina (or tyrosine, in English) is an amino acid, and those white crystals are evidence that the ham has been aged slowly and adequately. You won’t see them in a ham whose aging process has been accelerated.
• Ask the butcher not to trim la corteza, the yellow layer of fat encasing the pierna. Even though it’s not edible, it protects the meat, serving a similar function as a rind on a hard cheese.
• Ask the butcher to slice the ham thin. Thick cuts of Spanish hams will obscure the richness and complexity of their flavors.
Pata Negra’s Saez de Ibarra adds that packaging doesn’t necessarily advertise the differences among the hams, especially between the cebos and bellotas. If in doubt, he says, “ask for longer curation periods, always closer to 18 months, at least.”
Where to Buy Spanish Hams
In New York City, Guerra recommends Despaña, which is the only retailer where the hams are sliced by hand. As for supermarkets, Fairway carries the hams mentioned here. Finally, Guerra himself can supply you with a pierna if you hire his master carving services for a party or private event. His price includes not only his expert slicing skills, but the pierna at cost.
Outside New York, all three hams, including the mangalica, can be ordered online or by phone from D’Artagnan.
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