The pampered pigs of Spain live exceedingly well, up to the moment when they are “sacrificed,” as the Spaniards say, and become delectable hams. The noble pig, we learned recently in Madrid, is classified by breed, diet and region and taken as seriously as wines are in France. Ham is served in almost every restaurant; there’s even a chain, Museo del Jamon, where haunches hang by their feet on every wall.
Serrano ham comes from a white pig bred in the mountains. The fresh ham is rolled in sea salt and hung to cure for 6 to 18 months, at different sea levels depending upon the region. The ham-master knows if it’s cured by inserting a splinter of cow bone into the meat and taking a sniff. When the ham is sliced, it’s dark red, not the pink of American hams which usually have nitrites added.
The ultimate ham, sweet and, it’s said, tasting of the Spanish countryside, is Iberico del Bellota. This one comes from huge black hogs that eat nothing but acorns (bellota). All day they snort and forage around oak trees, rapidly gaining weight, until they’re ready for slaughter–traditionally, the entire family gathers to cut and preserve every precious bit of the meat. The hams are cured for up to 2 years, drying and dripping fat which changes, because of the acorn diet, to unsaturated fats high in healthful oleic acid.
Paper-thin slices of ham are often served as tapas, great with Manchego cheese, Spanish olives and tomatoes. I’m ready to go back right now for those tapas with a nice glass of chilled white Verdejo wine.