The Spanish — on both sides of the pond — are one people united by a passion for pig, whether lechón or jamón. And now that Spanish food is all the rage, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down, the world is in love with jamón. Serrano, for sure, but also the ultimate Spanish ham, jamon ibérico, preferably de bellota.
Looking forward to some ham for Easter, I visited Carmen y Lola, a Miami-based company that imports ham and other Spanish products, mostly for the Florida market, and one of the owners, José Gutiérrez, explained the secrets of the great hams and how to carve them.
The popular jamón serrano is called blanco because the pigs are white, from the Durok breed. This makes up about 90 percent of the jamón production. The other 10 percent is the coveted ibérico from the Pata Negra (black foot) breed, native to Spain and Portugal. There are different ibérico domains, the best coming from Andalusia. The lesser ibéricos come from farmed pigs that eat commercial feed. The great ones come from truly free-range pigs living in oak forests where, in winter, they eat acorn — bellota. At the very “top top,” as Gutierrez says using a common English word used in Spanish, is the ham from animals born from both male and female free-range Pata Negra pigs.
The procedure for making great jamones is deceivingly simple. The fresh hams are salted and stacked in a pile for about two weeks. Then they are hung to dry, for as long as 36 months. Artisanal ham makers choose spots in the lower mountain region, where it’s dry and not too cold. Commercial ham is processed in more industrial settings with artificially controlled climate.
Nothing more. However, the process is delicate. Salt or hang too long or too little and the hams are ruined. “This is a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation,” Gutierrez says. “Only experts know it and can control it.”
Lola y Carmen offers ham-cutting lessons led by master cutter Mariano Ceamanos. For my visit, Gutierrez himself showed me how to cut it. Luck would have it — it was luck for I had to change my visit at the last minute — that there was a “top top” ibérico de bellota from the Valle de los Pedroches zone already started.
At the cutting classes, Ceamanos shows how to cut off the skin and the top layer of fat, and then how to begin the carving. All I had to do with mine was hold the ham, already held firmly in a jamonera, and angle a very sharp carving knife ever so slightly to get some very thin and small slices. “The slices should be enough for just one bite. One should never bite off pieces,” Gutierrez explained.
As if I needed an incentive other than a fatter wallet — an entire ibérico costs between $500 and $1,000 — Gutierrez told me that because of the pig’s acorn diet, the fat is rich in oleic acid, “like olive oil,” he said. And one should always include some fat in each slice to have the proper flavor experience. It should be eaten at room temperature, when the ham is already “sweating.”
I took a small sample of various jamones to my sister up in the Florida Panhandle and her husband, a true Southerner brought up on country ham who has developed a fondness for the serrano I bring from Miami. In a blind tasting my sister could tell the serrano was not as tasty as the Pata Negra, but she preferred a lesser ibérico to the “top top,” which had too pronounced a flavor for her taste. My brother-in-law liked them all, and being a resourceful country boy he told me, “ask them how it’s made and I’ll try to do it.”
So this is my answer, which I know is inadequate, never mind that trying to duplicate an ancestral artisanal tradition is not exactly doable. Still, jamón de Wewahitchka, y’all?