On the Trail of the Best Jamón in the World

Best Jamón in the World

I can read menus in Spanish. I can speak a few Spanish words: hola (hello), gracias (thank you) and baño (bathroom). And most of what I know about Spain revolves around flamenco, soccer, and paella, not necessarily in that order. But from the moment I land in Madrid, the Spanish capital routinely reminds me of one thing: its love… nay, obsession with dry-cured ham, or, as the locals call it with a dramatically throaty “h,” jamón.

Jamon on display at Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain photo by @victor_g via Unsplash

Jamón is everywhere in Madrid, Spain

Jamón hanging almost everywhere

There’s ham everywhere: hanging from ceilings of bars and eateries, displayed in shop windows, trussed into carving racks. Around nearly every corner, restaurateurs have set up tables and hung ham to announce their menus. Couples sit on outdoor terraces, feeding each other jamón tapas. It’s no surprise, then, when I hear that the Spanish consume more than 13 thousand tons of jamón per year!

Museo del Jamón

Madrid even seemingly has a museum dedicated entirely to ham: Museo del Jamón. Surely I must check it out.

A mixed plate of jamón

Turns out, Museo del Jamón is not a museum at all. It’s a restaurant that has decided that ham is so precious it will pay homage to everything jamón. There are more hams than patrons here. Hundreds of them in carving racks, hanging from the ceiling, deliciously displayed on a groaning board. The vast menu lists a dizzying array of jamón using every part of the animal but the oink. I order a tasting platter with jamón serrano, jamón ibérico and jamón ibérico de bellota.

I used to think all hams were created equal. No more. The serrano reminds me of typical American ham. The ibérico is a notch higher, with an indefinable flair confounding my taste buds that I can only describe as a hammier ham taste. But the jamón ibérico de bellota… oh, the jamón ibérico de bellota is exquisite. The slices, a deep red, richly marbled with fat, melt in my mouth, the silky, salty, nutty taste tantalizing my tongue. It’s the best ham I’ve ever eaten. And I must have more. I leave Madrid for the jamón capital of Spain—Salamanca.

Ham Carving in Salamanca

A redwood grows in the library courtyard

The ancient city of Salamanca houses an 800-year-old library alongside towering redwood trees grown from seeds some claim conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado brought back from the Americas. It’s also home to Chef Anselmo Pérez, the 2011 champion ham cutter of Spain. Yes, the Spanish are so ham crazy they have an annual competition to find the best ham cutter.

2011 Champion Jamón Carver Chef Pérez

Chef Pérez invites me to the kitchen of his tapas restaurant, Corte & Cata. With twinkling eyes and a bright smile, he looks most gentle—until he picks up his jamonero, a razor-sharp ham knife. He inserts a toothpick-size beef bone called a “cala” into the first ham, a serrano, and, removing it, sniffs to confirm the quality. Then he places the leg into an ornate holder and begins carving. Cutting with the grain, he slices identical thin pieces with the delicate precision of a surgeon and displays them, in a perfectly symmetrical pattern, on a plate.

A plate of the best jamón

I taste ham after ham, as Chef Pérez describes each. Jamón serrano is your basic Spanish ham from white-hooved pigs. The jamón ibérico is a ham from the black-footed pigs, an ancient breed native to Spain and Portugal, and like the Serrano, it is raised indoors and fed grain. Neither is a full-blooded Iberian pig. Finally jamón ibérico de bellota (pata negra) is the most expensive and longest aged of Spain’s hams from 100% black-footed pigs raised on a diet of acorns in the wild.

Jamón Carving in the Dehesa of Extremadura

Aging the jamón can take up to five years

All are delicious, but the jamón ibérico de bellota still shines as the finest. Is it the pigs’ pampered lifestyle or the acorns they thrive on that gives this jamón its otherworldly taste? It turns out it is both. I decide to see why for myself and head south to Extremadura’s dehesa.

Pigs in the dehesa of Extremadura

It is here, in the ancient pastureland of wild grasses, herbs and flowers dotted with holm oak and cork trees, that the black Iberian pigs producing the finest ham are raised.

Jamon is LOVE photo by @tomvog via Unsplash

There are at least two hectares of foraging area for each pig. No fences and no buildings, just wildflowers, butterflies and birds to keep them company – and tons of acorns to eat. Their constant exercise from foraging gets the acid in the acorns into the muscle and works the fat in there as well. The acid tenderizes the meat as it makes the fat “good” fat like olive oil and avocados, to create a well-marbled melt-in-your-mouth ham.

Chef Pepe Alba gives a carving lesson in the dehesa

From birth to the finished ham can take as long as five years, making Spain’s jamón ibérico de bellota the best-tasting ham in the world. When you consider the pure-bred quality of the pata negra, the 18 months running wild on the dehesa as each animal doubles its weight, and the many years it takes to age properly, you see why at $1500 and up for approximately a 15 lb ham, that jamón ibérico de bellota is the most expensive ham in the world.

To learn more about the amazing hams of Spain, visit www.spain.info.

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Best HamBest JamonBest Jamón in the WorldJamon IbericoJamon Iberico BellotaMadridSpain
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