Meander through the old portion of Madrid, near Plaza Mayor, and I would suspect that you would encounter the legendary Spanish cured ham called, jamón, within 20 feet in any direction of where your standing. This delicacy is so prevalent, and addictive, that both expatriates and Spaniards alike go through severe bouts of withdrawal when traveling. Phrases such as: “I need to get my mitts on some jamón the minute I land on Spanish soil” or “Although I love traveling through the States, the idea of not having a leg of jamón readily available to me at all times can make any vacation unbearable”. I sense you might be rolling your eyes about now, but if you’ve ever placed a perfectly thin, oily, sumptuous, and dare I say, sexy, piece of Jamón Iberico to your lips, trust me, there is no going back.
For those of you who are not familiar with the famous Spanish Jamón, allow me to provide you with a bit of the basics:
What is Jamón?
In the Spanish language, jamón directly translates to ham. What comes after the word “jamón” is what will determine the type of ham you are consuming. Therefore, Jamón de York is a cooked sliced ham, while Jamón Iberico is a quality uncooked cured jam.
Now technically, there are two types of jamón: Jamón Serrano and Jamón Iberico. (Jamón de York is an exception to the rule, as most people think of the word “jamón” as referring to uncooked cured ham, rather than cooked)
Jamón Iberico is 75% black Iberian pig, which also happens to the only breed of pig that naturally craves acorns – a pig after my own heart. And similar to Spanish wine, there is a Denominación de Origen that governs over the production of quality Jamón Iberico here in Spain. While Jamón Serrano, is your everyday compound fed cured ham made from white pigs and is not a term synonymous with quality. Not to say it’s a poor quality, but like wine, terms such as “Reserva”, “Curado”, “Extra” have been used as marketing tactics, rather than a direct correlation to quality. Therefore, your best bet is to either go to a tapas bar that is well respected, serving quality Jamón Serrano, or to simply experiment. Our philosophy is to eat everything you can get your hands on when visiting a new culture. Unless your palate has tasted the entire range of options, both good and bad, you won’t know what you love, what you like, and what you would rather pass on during your next visit.
What are the Various Types of Jamón?
- Jamón Iberico de Bellota : Free-range, acorn-fed Iberian pigs that will make your knees buckle and your head swoon in delight.
- Jamón Iberico de Recebo: Acorn fed Iberian pigs that are raised on either pasture and/or grain. Will you be able to tell the difference between this and a Bellota ham? I highly doubt it, but maybe those uber jamón lovers among us will be able to convey the subtle differences.
- Jamón Iberico: Unbenownst to me, this was was formally known as Jamón de Pata Negra, but was banned in April of 2006 to avoid confusion between the various Iberico categories, as they are all made from the Iberian black-footed pig. Therefore, the generic name, Jamón Iberico, currently refers to grain-fed Iberian pigs that have been cured for 24 months.
- Jamón Serrano: (Jamón Reserva, Jamón Curado and Jamón Extra): plain jane uncooked cured ham made from the white pig
Where do I Eat Great Jamón?
Fine question! There are many places to savor great jamón throughout Spain, but if you’re in Madrid, check out the famed jamón bar, Toma Jamon, or Eat Cured Ham. Located in the heart of La Latina, this is a particularly popular place to meet and greet, while savoring dozens of perfectly fatty delectables. And if your cholesterol radar is buzzing right now, don’t fret, because much of the jamón’s fat is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been proved to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. In layman’s terms, that means, “savor, enjoy and repeat”!!
PS: Ryan claims that Jamon is the only real reason to live in Spain!