Essays - ¡Jamón, Jamón!

Mountain cured ham - jamón serrano
Mountain cured ham - jamón serrano

Jamon Jamon


By Lawrence Bohme

Foreigners may rave about that fragrant paella washed down with a creamy gazpacho, but food-wise there's only one thing that Spaniards REALLY care about and that's jamón. There was even a highly entertaining, politically incorrect film made about it, and some of the things it symbolises, with the title which I have borrowed for this article!

The plain truth is that little else Spaniards eat is more than a complement for the platter of mountain cured ham - jamón serrano - which arrives at the bar counter as lovingly as a bowl of priceless caviar is set on a table Chez Maxime. It is such a precious commodity that, on the rare occasions when burglars strike the farmhouses in the hills of Montefrio, they always head straight for the loft where the hams are drying. In fact, whenever the family down the road from me is invited to a wedding or a christening, one member always stays home to protect the jamones, just in case.

 

 

In Montefrio we eat the glorious stuff almost raw - aged for about 18 months - when it's still pink and soft and sweet; in that state, it reminds me of tuna fish sashimi, which happens to be the only thing I like as much as jamón serrano! But the great name hams - the "designated appellation hams", if you wish - such as jabugo and pata negra are hung until they turn a marbled black-red, and offer much more refined pleasures to the palette. Unfortunately they are so expensive that I only ever get to eat them when I'm working at some conference where I'm invited to the 4-star buffet. But a well-off Spaniard thinks nothing of spending 300 euros or so on a pedigreed ham.

Most of the commercially sold hams are currently made in factories with special cold rooms for the ageing process, but in the country, where each family makes its own, things are still done the natural way, with vastly superior results. To begin with, the pigs used for mass-produced ham are raised to be lean, because all of their meat except the hind legs will be sold in butcher shops and eaten fresh; whereas - as every self-respecting andaluz knows - the best ham is always the one which has the thickest layer of fat.

Every farmhouse has its cámara, a room in the attic with glass-less (but not bar-less, of course) windows that let the cold winter air blow through; the hams are rolled in salt on a table called the saladero and left there for several weeks. Then all the salt is washed away and they are hung from the rafters to "dry" - the whole objective being to age them with the minimum amount of salt, since the meat should be sweet in taste. This is risky, since about one out of every five hams are lost in the process, although success or failure are only discovered when the ageing process is over and the leathery crust around the ham is pierced for the final examination. This is ritually done with a long splinter of cow-bone - a quick whiff of which, after removal, is enough to tell if the ham has spoiled.

When I rebuilt my cortijo I turned my cámara into a bedroom and the saladero into a bed, since I am only a make-believe farmer, who relies more on the fax than the pitch fork. But every year in December I am invited to my neighbour's down the path, to take part in the year's most joyous - and perhaps most useful - event, evocatively known as la matanza.

Surely, only in Spain could a party be called "the slaughter", although I always get there well after the execution of the pigs, which occurs at dawn. All the neighbours and relatives take part, and a special man is assigned the solemn task of pinchar-ing, or "sticking" the pig. In fact, no one ever says "Tomorrow we're going to kill (matar) the pig", but "Mañana vamos a pinchar el marrano" - which, to my Anglo-Saxon ear, always sounds more like teasing the pig rather than putting it to death.

By the time I arrive the carcasses are hanging from an oak tree and the women are busy stuffing sausage around a long wooden trough. With their sleeves rolled up and their arms coated in blood, they knead the mash of onions, flesh and blood until it is ready to be stuffed into a large tin syringe-like device called la máquina, which one of them braces against her shoulder and pumps, while another holds the empty intestine over the nozzle to receive the filling. What with the red flesh slithering into the transparent sheath of the intestine, the vigorous pumping and the women's knowing grins and cackles, there is something unmistakably similar to an essential human function about the whole scene, which is the subject of many raucous jokes as the operation proceeds.

The work is followed - rewarded, rather - by a sumptuous meal in the farmhouse. The women file into one room and the men into another to be served a banquet lunch in an atmosphere of ceremonial seriousness. Since I always turn up with an assortment of foreigners of both sexes - usually the folks staying in my holiday cottages in the village - the diplomatic impasse is quietly solved by serving us at a table of our own under the grapevine of the patio.

When I explained to a villager that some of the British people who come to stay in my houses do not eat ham because they are something strange called vegetarians, he looked astonished and scoffed, "That's because in England they don't have our tasty marranos!". I replied that in England there is very good pork too, but that it was a question of philosophical preference. My words, as you can imagine, fell on deaf ears.

The reason for this attitude is an historical one: for centuries in Spain, eating pork was the only reliable way of proving that you were a real, old Christian, and not a Jew or Muslim who had converted under pressure by the Inquisition. If I may be permitted to paraphrase a favourite English expression, pigliness was the closest thing to godliness. But of course, when we feel the tender, perfumed slivers of jamón serrano melt delectably on the tongue, all that tends to be forgotten.

 

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