In my interview for this program that I am participating in, one of the “how much Spanish do you know” questions was “do you like jamon?” I responded with “Eh, it’s ok, not my favorite”. My interviewer told me that ham in Spain is taken very seriously and they eat a lot of pig. I didn’t put much thought to it because I’m not a picky eater and I’m not overly attached to my American diet.
I was clueless. I had NO IDEA how important jamon was here and that jamon is NOT ham. Yes, it is made from a pig but it is not what we put on the table for Christmas dinner.
Jamon is cured pig leg. Spaniards have no qualms about the fact that it was originally an animal and the pig leg (hoof and all) is kept on a stand. You can then saw off jamon at any point that you want it (I also see them displayed in bars).
I had the opportunity to go to a jamon factory yesterday. It took almost three hours to tour the whole factory (it was HUGE). My host mother’s cousin knew someone who worked there so we got a private tour for a whole group of us from Aguilar de Campoo. The factory was in Guijuelo which is a town not far from Salamanca.
3 hours of pig. It was fascinating. I didn’t catch all the details because it was in Spanish but there were a couple of things that stood out to me.
1. There is jamon and then there is everything else they make with the pig: pelatas, chorizo, lomo (fresh or cured), fillets (what we would call pork), salchichon, meat from the head, ears, fat, sobrasada, morcillo and some stuff that I don’t remember the names of. THEN, there are different grades of jamon and different types of chorizo (probably different grades and types of the other stuff too).
2. Jamon is cured for anywhere from 2 1/2 to 3 years. It moves to different temperature controlled rooms (some are warm and some are cold).
3. At one point, the jamon is packed in salt for a period of time. As far as I could understand, salt is the only preservative used in the process. At one point in the process the pig legs are also painted with pig fat.
3. Good pig is expensive. VERY expensive. As much as $90 a pound (found that one on Wikipedia). I see jamon (the big pig legs) in the supermarkets we are in and they tend to have prices of around $75 (euros). I’m not sure what quality level these are.
4. The pigs are either free ranging or fed high quality people food (depending on the grade of meat). Sometimes it is a mixture of the two.
5. There are over 200 factories like the one I visited in the area around Salamanca.
When I tell you I saw a lot of jamon (and a lot of other pig meats too), I mean it. There were racks and racks and racks of pig legs. One room that we went in was taller than three of me (that’s a gross underestimate) and was filled to the top with legs. And there was a neverending supply of rooms each with a jamon or other pork products in a different stage of its curing process.
Our tour guide was wonderful. He was sick and he still showed us around the entire factory plus gave us souvenirs at the end. We also got to sample some leftover jamon that wasn’t a pretty enough shape for the pre-packaged plates that they sell.
Afterwards we went to a gorgeous restaurant in a nearby town where (ironically) the meat served was a plate of pork variety. Chorizo (first time I have eaten a spicy chorizo!), pig ear, pig fat, some cake-like (not sweet) thing that had pork in it, and meat from the head of the pork. I liked it all except the ear. Pig ear is the first thing I have eaten here in Spain that I do not like. I have no qualms about flavors; texture is what turns me off and pig ear is kind of like soft rubber.