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CHRISTMAS

The ultimate guide to buying a leg of ‘jamón’ in Spain at Christmas

Cured ham is serious business in Spain and buying a pig’s leg is a quintessential Spanish tradition at Christmas. They’re delicious but can cost hundreds of euros, so knowing your ‘serranos’ from your ‘ibéricos’ is essential to not getting ripped off.

The ultimate guide to buying a leg of 'jamón' in Spain at Christmas
Photo: Ben Kerckx/Pixabay

If you didn’t know already, ‘jamón’ is a national obsession in Spain.

Every year around 6 million cured pigs’ legs are sold here, according to the country’s Association of Iberian Pigs (Asici).

When in 2015 the World Health Organisation found that eating this type of cured or processed meat could cause cancer, Spaniards laughed off the claims and have carried on gobbling down slice after slice ever since.

And even though the wide variety of ‘jamones’ is a mainstay in the Spanish diet throughout the year, it’s at Christmas when Spaniards truly splurge, traditionally buying a whole leg of cured ham with a specific thin-slicing knife (cuchillo jamonero) and a wooden stand (jamonero).

Prices can go from under €50 to thousands of euros for the crème de la crop (the record is €11,881 for a leg sold at auction in Japan in September 2020).

In between there are dozens of varieties and hundreds of brands to choose from, which can be tough as you want to buy the right one for the price. 

Here we’ll go over some of the main points to keep in mind so by the time you go the butcher’s, you’ll be a ‘jamón connoisseur’, or at least a ‘hamficionado’.

Labelling 

Pigs’ legs should come with a label or seal which determines its quality category. 

An important point to mention now is that ‘jamones’ are usually either ‘jamón serrano’ or ‘ibérico’, with the latter being considered of a higher standard and taste as they’re the Spanish breed of “cerdo ibérico” (Iberian pig), which eat only acorns that are rich in oleic acid (a healthy fat) and the process by which the meat is cured is more artisanal.

These are Spain’s official categories in descending order for ‘jamones ibéricos’, a system introduced in 2014 to prevent people from being ripped off:

Precinto negro (Black seal): 100 percent acorn-fed Iberian pig (jamón de bellota 100% ibérico). The best there is according to the experts.

Precinto rojo (Red seal): acorn-fed Iberian pig (jamón de bellota ibérico) reared in pastures and crossed with Duroc Jersey pigs, therefore of a lower quality.

Precinto verde (Green seal): pigs that haven’t been fed acorns but rather grass in natural pastures and some pig feed, even if they are Iberian pigs. 

Precinto blanco (White seal): Iberian hams which are of varying quality and come from pigs who have been fed pig feed in a more systematic and mechanised way. 

Photo: Spanish Ministry of Agriculture

You’ll also notice that the purity of the ‘ibérico’ is measured with a percentile: 100, 75, 50 percent.

And you don’t necessarily have to cough up hundreds of euros for the very best to notice a difference, as ‘patas’ that are already labelled as 50 percent Iberian are likely to be markedly better than the everyday ‘jamon serrano’ you have on bread with olive oil.

What about getting a leg of ‘jamón serrano’?

We’re focusing primarily on ‘jamones ibéricos’ in this guide as that what’s most traditional to buy at Christmas in Spain and where knowing what you’re buying is most important given the higher price tag.

That doesn’t mean that getting a leg of ‘jamón serrano’ isn’t a good idea but it falls into a completely different ‘jamón’ category than ‘ibérico’ – Duroc or ‘Jamón Blanco’ as the pigs are regular white pigs that are fed normal pig feed in most cases. 

‘Jamón serrano’ is therefore not as sumptuous as “ibérico” but still pretty tasty. The general rule is the longer it’s cured, the better it’ll taste. 

The ‘Gran Reserva’ and ‘Reserva’ varieties are cured for 15 and 7 months months, so the taste and aromas will be richer.

With the ‘bodega’ or ‘cava’ variety, the standard curing process is nine months but because this is not always mentioned in the labelling, there’s the possibility that it could be excessively raw.

Photo: AFP

The external appearance of ‘jamón ibérico’

A lot of Spaniards believe the colour of the leg’s hoof gives away the quality of the ham whereas the experts say it’s rather the thinness and longer length of the lower extremity. Iberian pigs also have more worn down hooves, as they spend their lives walking while rummaging around for acorns.

Therefore, a perfect looking hoof is generally a bad sign.

Furthermore, the leg’s skin should be wrinkled as this is an indication that it’s been properly cured and that the fat is close to the skin.

It should also be fairly homogenous in colour and appearance and not have obvious grooves or cracks which could indicate that it’s been excessively cured.

If you can, press your finger into the ‘jamón’ and if it gives way easily it usually means that it’s well cured and of ‘bellota’ quality.

The internal appearance of ‘jamón ibérico’

If you have the chance to see the cut on an Iberian ham, one sure sign of quality is for there to be visible white fat among the ‘jamón’, and for the meat to be truly red and shiny. 

A more maroon shade is usually an indication that the ham isn’t of great quality.

With ‘de bellota’ (acorn) legs the fat tends to drip at room temperature, which is a good sign. 

Photo: Luis Fernando Talavera/Pixabay

‘Jamón’ or ‘paletilla’?

The pig’s back legs are called ‘jamones’ whereas the ‘paletillas’ or ‘paletas’ are the front ones, which include the pig’s ‘arms’ and shoulder blades.

‘Paletillas’ are generally considered to be slightly tastier and have a more intense flavour, but that’s not the only thing to keep in mind.

‘Jamones’ are bigger in general – from 6.5 to 10 kg – whilst ‘paletillas’ are between 4.5 and 6.5 kg.

If only a small group of people will be tucking into the ‘pata’ this Christmas, the ‘paletilla’ can be a better option as the chances of it drying up or developing mould before you finish it are lower.

Then again, ‘paletillas’ are considered harder to cut.

A useful tip

Try to find out if you can taste the variety of ‘jamón’ you’re looking to buy. This won’t necessarily be possible in all supermarkets but if the one you’re interested in is being sold in slices at the butcher’s, you could ask for a small piece to find out if you like it.

How much should I pay for a leg of ‘jamón ibérico’?

According to Spanish food website Gastroactivity, for 100 percent acorn-fed ‘ibéricos’ (black seal), the average price is between €323 and €590. 

For 50 percent ‘ibericos’, which are fed acorns (red seal), the prices go from €281 to €299 on average.
For 50 percent ‘ibéricos’ that have eaten in pastures (green seal), you can expect to pay €211 to €255.

And finally, for Iberian pigs that have been fed pig feed (white seal) that includes cereals and legumes, you’ll pay anything from €117 to €230. 

Remember that you can always buy a smaller ‘paleta’ to pay less. For jamón serrano or other legs from non-Iberian pigs, it’s perfectly possible to pay under €100, even for the top category – ‘Gran Reserva’. 

How do I get a really good deal?

The experts’ advice is to cut out the middlemen and buy directly from ‘jamón’ producers in places like Ávila, Teruel or Granada. 

That may mean that you don’t get to see the leg before you buy it, but you can expect to save 10 or more percent on your purchase compared to buying it in a shop or supermarket.  

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FOOD & DRINK

Meet the Spanish twin chefs who earned a third Michelin star

When they were just eight years old, Spanish twins Sergio and Javier Torres set a goal: they wanted to become chefs who were among the top in their field.

Meet the Spanish twin chefs who earned a third Michelin star

To achieve this they strategically split up to get training in different esteemed kitchens around the world, published books on cooking and presented a popular TV show.

The plan worked.

Over four decades after they surprised their family by saying they wanted to be chefs, Sergio and Javier’s Barcelona restaurant, Cocina Hermanos Torres, was awarded a third Michelin star last month.

“We developed a plan, that I think is a perfect plan,” a smiling Javier, 51, said at the restaurant, one of only 13 in Spain and Portugal with the top three-star ranking from the prestigious French guide.

“When we started to go out of Barcelona we thought that Sergio would take one path, I would take another, and we would never coincide until we were ready,” he added.

The journey took the twins – who grew up in a working-class Barcelona neighbourhood – to different elite restaurants in Spain, Switzerland and France.

Before moving to Paris where he worked with top French chef Alain Ducasse, Sergio spent two years at the award-winning Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier which is also run by twins – Jacques and Laurent Pourcel.

“We were separated but every month we met up in a restaurant, ate well, we spent the little money we had and developed the next steps of our strategy,” said Sergio as sat beside his brother.

READ ALSO: These are Spain’s new Michelin-starred restaurants

Grandmother influence

Each brother specialised in different areas – one learned to cook meat and vegetables, the other fish and bread, he added.

Both siblings credit their grandmother for their passion for cooking. She was part of a wave of people who moved from the southern region of Andalusia to the more industrialised Catalonia in the northeast in search of better life following Spain’s devastating 1936-39 civil war.

“Our grandmother looked after us, and since she was in the kitchen all day we literally grew up in a kitchen,” said Sergio.

After earning two Michelin stars with their previous project “Dos Cielos” and becoming familiar faces thanks to their participation in a cooking show, they decided to open Cocina Hermanos Torres in 2018.

The twins visited some 200 possible locations before settling on an industrial building near Barcelona’s iconic Camp Nou football stadium.

They invested nearly €3 million to convert it into the restaurant, which seats a maximum of 50 people in tables with no wall separating them from the three work stations where staff prepare meals.

“We wanted to reflect what we experienced in our childhood, which was a kitchen and a table, and everyone around the table,” said Javier.

‘Difficult road’

The tasting menu costs €255, with another €160 if it is paired with wine, a stiff price in a country where the monthly minimum wage is around €1,000.

READ ALSO – REVEALED: Spain’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants

Praised for its creative and playful cuisine, among the dishes served is cured squid with poultry broth and an onion soup with Parmesan cheese and truffles.

“You will experience flavours that you have never experienced before, because you will discover a cuisine where you will like what you don’t like,” said Sergio.

On a recent visit at noon 50 staff members – many of them young – are busy at work finalising details before customers arrive.

“It seems like today a chef is like a ‘super star’. It’s a very difficult road, very difficult, with long hours and it’s very hard to make it, it takes tremendous perseverance,” said Sergio.

“You have to risk it, go for broke, give it your all, because if you don’t, you are not living,” he added with a smile.

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