Iberian ham or Jamón ibérico, is recognised across the world as the Spanish product par excellence. As with the wines, there is a variety of Jamón and every year the product is very different. The climate, the quality, and the quantity of acorns (bellota) and many other aspects influence the final result.
Jamón Iberico turned into a real manjar (delicacy) with the arrival of the Romans in Iberia, revaluing the product. There are still Roman coins in the shape of Jamón of that time, clear evidence that the Romans valued it very much.
Therefore, it is not strange that in Roman society there was a figure who was responsible for sacrificing the pork, work normally performed by a prestige slave. Although almost all the society consumed pork, the Jamón was the most precious, becoming one of the leading Hispanic products that they exported to Rome, consumed by the high society in special moments like banquets or parties.
Artefact had the chance to meet Alberto Pina, a jamón carver based in London. Experts like him say that a good technique and knowledge are the key factors to enjoy all the flavour that a proper jamon ibérico 100 per cent pure acorn can offer.
Pina invited Artefact to the company he works with, La Ibérica restaurant, authentic Spanish food as they brand themselves. Having the opportunity to explore this product and the profession of jamón carver. He is responsible for seven restaurants across the UK. Pina is also in charge of bringing Spanish gourmet products such as olives, olive oil, charcuterie, cheeses, wine etc.
According to Pina, the Jamón culture in the United Kingdom was remote about 10 years ago. Although we aren’t in Spain, most of the British customers know very the product well. It usually is a consumer who normally travels to Spain for vacations, even some of them have houses there.
“The British clients are more demanding. Unlike what many may think, the English customer doesn’t settle for anything and their demands for a good jamón are higher than those of the Spanish public,” Pina admits. However, in other restaurants where Pina works, in Leeds, Glasgow, and Manchester, “There is less knowledge about the product, they are still learning about jamón,” he adds.
So what does a master carver do? Apart from learning how the knife is handled. It is essential to know how to start dealing with jamón, whether it is well cut, how to take benefit of it and how it ends. “Jamón does not taste the same if it is not cut well. Each slice has to average approximately five centimetres, with a specific thickness. These details are very important for the taste in the mouth.”Jamón carver as a profession is still very exclusive and only exists in Spain. Although in the UK this role matched up to a chef, it awakens enthusiasm and curiosity about the guild. Pina confesses: “Many British chefs are interested in learning. They have contacted us asking if we took a course or classes. They know it’s not easy. The Asian sector is also very interested in the product. They are experts in the handling of knives, but they know that it is not easy to cut a jamón and they are also keen to learning.
According to Pina, the first thing they learn is to use a jamon knife, and manage the position of the hands. When this stage is mastered, it is very difficult to cut yourself. “The main thing is to give a good education with the knives, be aware that it is a very dangerous weapon. At the smallest cut, you take a tendon and you run out of hand. We have never had serious problems, always we need to be aware of though.”
To learn the technique, what is needed is practice and persistence: “Carvers usually start to gain confidence after seven or eight months of time. It is a slow process, which requires time, and the beginning and completion practice is very important,” Pina affirms.
Cerdo Ibérico (Iberian pork) is unique and it only can be found in very specific regions of Spain. That’s why this gourmet product is Spain’s showcase, and its star food-product worldwide. Pina says: “We have a kind of Iberian pork that cannot be raised in another part of Europe; mainly because of the climatology, they are very delicate breeds, it costs a lot of money to breed them, it needs time and invest money. The Jamones are usually in a dryer for about three years. We inherited it from the Romans.”In Spain, there are four places that produce this product: Salamanca (Castilla y León), Sierra de Montanchez in the region of Extremadura, Jabugo and Aracena in the Huelva area, and Los Pedroches in Cordoba (Andalusia). The most important thing for the jamón is a good curing room, where it cures for about three years. This place is always located in the mountains, to provide the jamón a lot of dry cold temperatures in winter and a dry heat in summer. “Those extreme points is what makes the jamón gets that texture and that flavour.”
Jamón’s world is quite complex even for the Spaniards. “There are several kinds of pork and within the race, there is 100 per cent Iberica or not, whether the pig has eaten acorns or not, and whether they eat acorns in the final phase of fattening. As it’s a bit confusing, we differentiate it with labels. We have four different colours of label: White, green, red and black,” Pina tells us.
- White label: they are jamones de cebo, raised on a farm, and they have not eaten acorns.
- Green label: These pigs are 60/70% iberican and free range. They have eaten acorns at one of the fattening phases.
- Red label: These pigs are 100% iberican breed and free range. They have eaten acorns at the final fattening phase.
- Black label: These pigs are 100% ibérico breed and free range, they have eaten acorns, and even they have a certificate of origin; A regulatory council that has reviewed and approved their provenance.
The colour labels also relate to the price. Taking into account the purchasing power that there is in London, the profile of the consumer does not follow any specific pattern. “British looks for the supreme quality of the product, and the one that we sell the most in the UK is 100 per cent jamon iberico and 100 per cent acorn.”
Pina says the consumption of jamon is different in the UK as well: “I don’t mix jamón with anything, however here in the UK they like to mix the flavours, jamón matches with everything, admits everything. It admits beer and wine, despite it better handled with red wine.”
Featured image by Tinou Bao