FRANCES BISSELL: Spanish know the ancient art of good eating

PUBLISHED: 11:42 16 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:31 07 September 2010

A couple of months ago I attended a tasting of exquisite cured Spanish ham at Cafe du Marche in Clerkenwell, organised for Antonio Gomez Estevez and his sister Rosario, who now run the family company based at the farm, Finca Dehesa Buenavista in the And

A couple of months ago I attended a tasting of exquisite cured Spanish ham at Cafe du Marche in Clerkenwell, organised for Antonio Gomez Estevez and his sister Rosario, who now run the family company based at the farm, Finca Dehesa Buenavista in the Andalusian province of Huelva.

They brought other products, including excellent chorizo and cured pork loin, but the star was their fabulous jamon Iberico. I have eaten my fair share of this fine product over the years, but have never tasted better than the one we were treated to that afternoon.

Dry curing of meat probably began with the Egyptians in the third millennium BC, who knew how to use salt for preservation, and passed this skill on to the Greeks and Romans.

Spanish hams are first mentioned in Strabo's Geographika written in the first century BC.

The poet Martial, two centuries later, praises Spanish ham above prime cuts of beef: "From the land of the Ceretans" (present day Cerdanya in the eastern Pyrenees) "bring me a ham and let the gluttons gorge themselves on sirloin".

Spain produces two types of ham, jamon serrano, which means air-cured ham and jamon Iberico, which is also a serrano, but which accounts for only about five to 10 per cent of Spain's ham production.

This is Spain's equivalent to caviar. Unlike caviar, it offers a democratic gastronomic pleasure, being available in most bars and restaurants throughout Spain.

It is produced from the Iberian pig, a native long-leg breed, probably descended from the wild boar. The pigs are free-range, roaming in the dry scrub land of south-western Spain, which is interspersed with oak forests, the acorns of which provide the feed that gives the ham its particular quality.

Throughout the autumn and winter, the pigs feed on acorns, eating as much as 10 kilos a day. The animals are efficient food converters, and gain about one kilo a day.

This is a far cry from the intensive rearing methods used in parts of Italy. You will look in vain in the countryside around Parma but you will not see herds of pigs roaming free.

Jamon Iberico has a fine-grained deep rose pink flesh and a marbling of almost translucent fat. The flavour will be incomparable, sweet, savoury and nutty at the same time, that elusive umami which is said to be the sixth taste.

From a nutritional point of view it is worth noting that the fat is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, almost entirely composed of oleic acid, the same fatty acid found in olive oil, which promotes the production in the body of HDL (high density lipoprotein), often known as the good cholesterol and the reduction of LDLs (low density lipoproteins, or bad cholesterol).

The cured meat is also rich in niacin, iron, magnesium, zinc and vitamins B and E. So not only is jamón Ibérico delicious, it is good for you, too. It should be noted that the meat from the shoulder, or paleta, is fabulous; many people prefer it, for its extra amount of fat.

There are three grades of jamon Iberico. The highest grade is jamon Iberico de bellota, which comes from a hog that has fed entirely on acorns and grasses. For jamon Iberico de recebo the hog's feed has been supplemented with a carefully selected feed of legumes and grains; this may happen, for example, when the acorn harvest is poor.

Jamon Iberico de cebo comes from an animal that has been fed largely on grains and legumes, supplemented towards the end with acorns.

This is the least expensive of the Iberian ham, as it is the more commercial product.

We are lucky that we are now able to buy both jamon Iberico and paleta Iberico; supermarkets sell it thinly sliced from a boned joint, in a vacuum pack, while in specialist shops you will sometimes find it hand sliced.

o Frances Bissell's latest book, The Scented Kitchen, published by Serif at £9.99, is available from all good bookshops.

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