How much do we miss on our Mindful Travel by not taking the time to research or even think about the origins of a meal or a specific food we know nothing about?
Spanish ham is a case in point, as we sit in a Cadiz tapas bar and ponder whether to go for the Serrano, the Iberico, or the Iberico Bellota. What’s the difference and why is one so much more expensive than the others?
Thanks to our iPhones we can easily browse a few answers to satisfy our curiosity which together with the bar owner leads to a “degustacion de jamon!”
As far back as Neolithic times 700,000 years ago, humans in Spain were eating pig meat. The Atapuercans even have drawings of pigs on their cave walls from this time, although it probably wasn’t until the year 900BC that the black Iberian pigs were created by the interbreeding of pigs and Mediterranean wild boars.
Then in 77AD Pliny the Elder wrote about Iberian pigs in his Natural History discourse:
“There’s no animal that brings a greater variety to the plate, all the others have their own peculiar flavour, but the flesh of these hogs has almost 50 different flavours”/
Despite its popularity, by 711AD and until 1492AD under the rule of the Moors, eating of the hog was banned and even specified as an act of political rebellion! Then, by 1554AD the community of Jerez de loss Caballeros claimed to be fattening up 100,000 pigs on acorns in an oak laden eco system known as /la dehesa./ And so it continued through to modern times with a clue already given as to the difference between the three types of Jamon!
Curing Spanish hams is a fairly simple process but which takes great skill and experience to reach perfection. The curing process requires three basic things: time, air and pure sea salt. It follows the natural seasons, where traditionally the ham would be salted in winter and continue to cure throughout the year. So the process starts off at very low temperature and high humidity. Gradually the humidity is lowered and temperature is raised as the seasons progress.
Traditional Method of Ham Curing
After butchering the meat is then covered in sea salt for a week or two and next rinsed thoroughly. Next comes the stage of settling. Settling involves the proper distribution of salt spread throughout the flesh, and drying of the cuts. The process of settling may last for a month or two.
After the settling process, the hams are hung in the drying rooms for up to six months at a temperature not less than 30° F and not more than 55° F. At this stage of curing, proteins and fats in the pork begin to transform, beginning the creation of a ham.
The next stage of ham curing is ageing, the process taking place in the aging room where the conditions fluctuate with the seasons, and up to 40% of the weight of the ham melts away. The aging process for an Ibérico de Bellota ham spans between two and four years. Traditionally this process is managed by controlling airflow from the outside.
Modern Method of Ham Curing
With the development of technology and growing it is not surprising that producers have come up with a four stage ham curing technique, which is:
* Salting and washing
* Time for rest
* Dry and mature
* Bodega storage
You can see how these four stages replicate the traditional process but all in temperature and airflow controlled rooms. A long way from oak forest to plate!
Here we go, more reports to follow!
I bought one of these Christmas year at ALDI. Got fed up with by Easter!
Great history here. The pig (and ham in particular) is so important in Spanish culture. Looking forward to hearing about your taste testings.