How to get a cut above

Crisis or no crisis, sales of top-quality Spanish cured ham are on the rise The increase is backed by growing interest in how best to serve this delicacy

Multiple carving at Madrid's Gourmet Ibérica.
Multiple carving at Madrid's Gourmet Ibérica.BERNARDO PÉREZ

The Jamonería López Pascual has been selling cured ham and other top-end Spanish charcuterie products for the best part of a century from the same premises in a small street just off Madrid’s Gran Vía. In fact the López Pascual is the oldest establishment of its kind in the capital, and looks set to continue for many more years thanks to the enduring popularity of top-quality jamón, as Alberto López, the grandson of the founder, and current owner, explains: “We are selling the same amounts as before, but increasingly we find that customers want the ham freshly cut, off the bone.”

A recent study by the regional government of Madrid shows that 47 percent of consumers prefer to buy their ham freshly carved, while 33 percent buy an entire ham and serve themselves, while the remaining 20 percent are content to buy pre-cut, vacuum-packed ham. And it has to be said that the taste of ham cut by machine is not the same as a sliver recently cut by an expert carver. “The best way to eat ham is when it has just been carved by knife, because the blades on a machine, which are hot, burn the fat,” explains Antonio Riaño, a master carver who works in the Gourmet Experience department on the ninth floor of El Corte Inglés’ Callao branch, where the enclosed terrace affords spectacular views across the rooftops of the capital to the Guadarrama mountains beyond.

“The best method is to cut small slices, around three or four centimeters long, just enough to be able to pop them whole into your mouth and enjoy them,” he says, suggesting a selection of different hams as a way of getting to know the intricacies of Spanish charcuterie.

Freshly carved ham, once the preserve of the charcutería, is now on offer in a growing number of bars throughout the capital, to be typically washed down with a glass of Rioja or Ribera del Duero red wine. Meanwhile, these days no wedding is complete without a fine quality leg of ham and a master carver to dispense its succulent meat in bite-sized slivers, says Juan Antonio Cuevas of gourmet shop Alma de Julián Becerro, which is owned by a group called La Alberca that produces its own El Guijuelo denomination of origin charcuterie from animals raised in Salamanca province, an area of western Spain famous for its acorn-fed pigs.

Madrid’s best ham

For those in search of perfection in the Spanish capital, the following are good places to start:

Gourmet Experience. El Corte Inglés, Callao. Portions of 100 grams of Cinco Jotas, 22 euros. Vacuum-packed sachets available from between 12 and 16 euros, depending on the brand.

López Pascual. Corredera Baja de San Pablo, 13. Portions from between 18 and 10 euros of three-year-cured acorn-fed animals. Brands include Cinco Jotas, Joselito, Carrasco and Cumbres Mayores.

Mercado de San Miguel. Plaza de San Miguel. Ham from El Guijuelo, in Salamanca. Portions from between 10 and 18 euros. Also available to take away.

Gourmet Ibérica. C/ General Pardiñas, 89. Portions of acorn-fed ibérico (100 grams) from 15 euros. A wide range of brands from Spain's top ham-producing regions. Also to take away.

Alma de Julián Becerro. Cava Baja, 41. Take away only. Portions (100 grams) between 5.90 euros and 14.90 euros.

Mercado de Motores. Nave de Motores del Metro Metro de Madrid. First Saturday of each month. Baguettes from four euros, portions of 100 grams for 10 euros. The brand is Abadía de Castellanos, from Guijuelo.

The business opened three-and-half-years ago in Madrid’s Cava Baja, a street in the historic Austrias district that is lined with bars and restaurants. It also offers courses in carving and storing ham, as well as providing catering for private events.

Across the city, in the upscale Salamanca district, Fran Robles runs a small shop that sells just eight types of high-quality ham from animals that have been raised in free-range conditions where they graze and snuffle for roots and acorns. “No two are alike,” he says: “I quite like Cinco Jotas [a prestige brand from Andalusia], but not everything they produce: some are better than others.” Fran spends much of his time traveling round Spain’s prime jamón production areas: from Salamanca down to Huelva, and back up to Extremadura. His shop is staffed by a team of seven professionals each tasked with a single ham, and they each slice their way through a total of over 50 a week, selling either directly over the counter to walk-in customers, or fulfilling orders to hotels and restaurants. Fran also organizes courses for aficionados.

“Between the courses, events, and the work in the shop, we never stop; customers coming into the shop for the first time are often surprised to see us all slicing away at the same time,” he says. He also offers a small menu with drinks and portions of ham starting at 10 euros. “In the coming months we want to increase the size of our bar area: there is increasing demand from people who want to taste particular types of ham, and to watch how we cut it,” says Fran.

Alberto López has also made room in his shop to create a small bar area so that customers can enjoy a glass of wine and a tapa of ham. Aside from well-known brands such as Cinco Jotas and Joselito, he has another, less-famous, but highly recommended product called Cumbres Mayores. “It is unusual, a very small output, but very select and with a very distinctive taste,” he says.

Among more recent initiatives that have been giving ham appeal is the monthly Mercado de Motores secondhand market held in a former power plant near Atocha railway station. There, stallholders José Ramón Alcoba and Roberto Villasante bring ham from Salamanca, which is eagerly consumed by buyers and hagglers.

“What’s surprising is that even when there are a lot of people in the line, customers all want their ham freshly cut, rather than allowing us to serve it pre-cut, which would be a lot quicker,” says José Ramón, who estimates that he and his colleague get through about eight hams in a day.

I think people buy their ham freshly carved because it is more affordable”

“It is now an integral part of the market,” says one of the Mercado de Motores organizers, Juan Fraile. “The ham stall is something everybody who comes here looks for immediately: I think people buy their ham freshly carved because it is now more affordable; before it was prohibitively expensive.”

Quality and authenticity are what people are after, according to Ernesto Soriano, who runs a ham stall in the capital’s Mercado de San Miguel, a wrought-iron 19th-century former market next to the Plaza Mayor that has been turned into a gourmet’s paradise: “Around 90 percent of our sales come from the best ham we have, which is ibérico de bellota,” he says, referring to the traditional Iberian ham from hogs fed on acorns. “We get through about one corn-fed ham a day, which is our cheapest, compared to around 18 of the most expensive.” The Madrid regional government data suggests that ibérico makes up around 11 percent of all ham sold in the Spanish capital and its environs.

Spaniards are clearly enamored of their ham, and proud of it, often taking it abroad either for their own consumption or as a gift. That said, Fran Robles believes that few people understand much about how jamón ibérico is produced, or how best to serve it. “People know much more about wine, but there is a lot of ignorance about ham,” he says. He offers courses explaining the mysteries of ham from as little as 30 euros, as well as teaching at restaurant schools and companies.

Miriam López Ortega is the general director of López Ortega Delights, a company specialized in training master carvers. Her business card describes her as a “jamón lover” and she says she started the company because she wanted to share her passion with the world.

People know about wine, but there is a lot of ignorance about ham”

Miriam says she trains around 600 people each year in the finer points of how to prepare, carve and store a ham, from professionals working in the restaurant and bar businesses to individuals who want to serve their own portions at home. She says that while Spaniards still have a lot to learn about ham, there is growing interest, as evidenced by the number of courses and competitions related to ham carving. The V National Carvers’ Championship takes place on May 30 at Madrid’s Hotel Palace.

For the modest fee of 55 euros, she teaches her students not just how to carve a ham, but how to recognize a quality product and its different sections, as well as what to drink with it. Aside from wine, she insists that a gin and tonic works well. “It is a very dry drink that cleans the mouth; we’ve done a couple of courses and they were very successful,” says Miriam.

A ham is the end result of many factors: the breed of pig; where it was raised and what it was fed on; along with the amount of time the ham has been cured for. As a result, no single ham gets everybody’s vote. “Pigs, like people, are all different. They may have been fed the same and been raised under the same conditions, but one will vary from another,” explains Fran Robles. But Antonio Riaño says judging the best ham is simple: “The one you like the best!”

Making the right choice

There is no mathematical formula for selecting the perfect ham, but a few basic pointers can help recognize, carve and maintain one properly.

Selecting: The leg should be relatively slim, and not overly heavy. "I don't like a ham that weighs more than eight kilos," says Antonio Riaño of department store El Corte Inglés' Gourmet Experience. He says the fat covering the ham is also important.

“What distinguishes the quality of one ham from another is the presence of a fine layer of fat that should melt between the fingers,” says master carver Fran Robles. He is a firm believer in a short curing period. “I will always take the least-cured ham; it’s going to be more succulent.”

Some ham experts, such as Alberto López, whose shop in Madrid is the capital’s oldest jamonería, still use a cala, a needle made from a horse’s tibia bone that is inserted into a ham and then smelt. “If the fragrance is good, the ham is as well,” says Alberto.

Carving: The babilla, or the top of the thigh, is the driest part of a ham, and the least tasty, say the experts, which is why most carvers will begin serving from this area. The maza is the area behind the babilla, and is considered the most succulent and flavorsome section of the leg. A good ham-carving knife should be round-ended, around 40 centimeters long, and, as well as razor sharp, flexible. "It shouldn't be rigid; it has to give if you put pressure on it," says Ernesto Soriano of the Mercado de San Miguel. To avoid accidents, it is important that the hand not in use be kept above the knife. A survey by the Málaga College of Medicine suggests that there are around 57,000 accidents each year due to the incorrect use of ham knives.

Conservation: Ham that has been vacuum packed can be kept in the fridge, and should be taken out at least an hour before serving. A leg needs to be kept at room temperature. "The best thing is to cut around 50 grams a day to avoid it drying out too much," says Riaño. After carving, the ham should be smeared with the fat on the knife, and then the meat covered with a layer of skin. A cotton or muslin cloth should then be placed over the ham.

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