Women enter the select male world of Spanish ham cutters

In Spain, cutting "jamon" is a fully-fledged job that brings prestige and money, a man's world which women are only just starting to take on.

Women enter the select male world of Spanish ham cutters
Photo: AFP

High-level cutters of the country's world-famous dry-cured ham legs, which can fetch 3,000 euros in markets like China, are employed by top restaurants, at weddings or glitzy events.

But women are still a rarity among these “rock stars” of the ham sector.

Puri Garabaya, 31, was the first so-called cortadora (cutter) to take part in the final of the Spanish Championships for Jamon Cutters in southern Jabugo last weekend.

She didn't win but told AFP before the competition that her presence was crucial “for all women who can now say: 'Look, we too can get there'.”

3,500 euros to cut ham

For this select group, cutting ham is an art, the slices so thin they're near transparent, among other techniques.

“For a 'cortador' to become a master, he must be capable of transforming the cutting process into sensations, into harmony and emotions,” says Florencio Sanchidrian.

A well-known “cortador”, Sanchidrian has cut jamon for the likes of actors Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, Pope John Paul II, the Spanish king and former US president Barack Obama.

He has earned 3,500 euros for just one cutting session, “sometimes more.”

“We're a little like rock stars, each of us has their own reputation,” jokes Raquel Acosta, another “cortadora” — the “a” at the end indicating the feminine classification of the noun as opposed to “cortador” for a man.

Aged 27, Acosta is a pioneer in this very masculine world along with Garabaya.

She started off in a jamon store in the western city of Salamanca.

At the time though, “I didn't know of any woman who had taken part in a competition,” she says.

“You didn't even hear the word 'cortadora'. If you looked it up on Google, you came up with a machine that cuts ham.”

Now though, she has travelled to Berlin, Paris, Marseille and London to promote Iberian ham, an opportunity that would have been “unimaginable” before.

Still, she says there are very few women who work at that level, between five and 10.

New image

“Women were forced to work harder to enter this world,” acknowledges Manuel Pradas, an advisor to “cortadores” in Barcelona and an expert on the sector.

He says ham was “long cut in a rudimentary manner,” a reflection of the Spain of the past that was “more chauvinistic.”

But at the turn of the century emerged “a new image of the cortador who has studied all the different cutting techniques” and focuses more on presentation in a bid to give the job more prestige, he adds.

This new image has allowed women — who say they cut ham with more “finesse” than their male counterparts — to enter the ham cutters' world.

Social media also contributed to bettering the visibility of “cortadoras,” according to Miriam Lopez, founder of the specialised blog Jamon Lovers.

With 11,000 followers on her Instagram account, Raquel Acosta is “the most famous,” says Lopez.

“Raquel is an example,” agrees Luz Maria Zamorano, 35, who in her three years as a “cortadora” has cut some 2,000 ham legs.

“It's a masculine world but I believed that you could bring a feminine touch,” she says.

And at a time when women's rights are more than ever on the agenda, jamon producers, hotels and television channels are banking on this.

Pradas himself manages in Barcelona a team of 25 “cortadores” that includes seven women who bring “freshness” to the group, he says.

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Spain records more pigs than people for first time ever

Spain is being forced to consider the environmental impact of its most famous product as figures show there are now more pigs in Spain than people.

Spain records more pigs than people for first time ever
Iberian pigs graze on acorns and fruit in an paddock in Jabugo, Huelva. Photo: AFP

A report produced for the Environment ministry has revealed that in 2017, the number of pigs slaughtered for pork products exceeded 50 million, 3.5 million more than the 46.5 million human population of Spain

Spain has seen a surge in pork production over the last five years to meet a growing export demand from China, the report found.

READ MORE: Spain's 'jamon' conquers China

File photo: Subbotina/Depositphotos

Of the 4.3 million tons of pork meat produced last year – 20 percent more than in 2012 – only a quarter is eaten within Spain, where each Spaniard consumes an average of 21kg of pork annually.

The vision of free-range pigs happily roaming across Spain’s dehesas is in stark contrast with the fact that the majority of pork products comes from factory-farmed animals.

Just a tiny percentage of pork consumed derives from the pure-bred acorn fed Iberian pig that is famous for producing the best jamon serrano.

But although the industry generated a whopping €6 billion last year, concerns are mounting over the detrimental effect of so many pigs on the environment.

Livestock in Spain now generates 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the fourth largest producer after transport, electricity generation and industry. 

Environmentalists have also raised concerns over the strain pig farming places on drought-prone areas of Spain. Each animal consumes 15 litres a day, meaning the industry as a whole uses more water than the cities of Seville, Alicate and Zaragoza combined.

Ground water is also at risk of contamination from nitrates in animal waste, warn NGO Ecologists in Action.

Spain’s environment ministry announced soon after taking office in June, that it was planning new controls on pig farming to improve “hygiene, animal health and welfare and the environment”.

READ ALSO: Ten 'ham'-azing things you really need to know

Photo: AFP