SPANISH HAM , LOMO & CHORIZO

JAMON IBERICO

In the world of Spanish ham, there are two premium classifications: Iberico pigs and acorn-fed pigs. Unlike white pig breeds like Serrano, black-skinned Iberico pigs are descendants of the Mediterranean wild boar, and are colloquially called pata negra("black foot") for the hoof that accompanies each ham. They're athletic animals, runners and rooters, and thanks to the structure of their intramuscular fat, their meat is more flavorful, juicy, and distinctive.

 

​​Iberico pigs are expensive. They have smaller litters, yield less meat per head, and take time to mature, which is why many ham producers around Spain cross-bred them with other varieties. Up until recently, ham made from pigs that were as little as half-Iberico could be sold as jamon Iberico, but new legislation now requires Iberico ham to be labeled according to the percentage of the pigs' Iberian ancestry.

Then there's the acorns, the bellota, which fall from oak and cork trees from early October to early March on the farms where the pigs are raised. They're high in fat, a large percentage of which is unsaturated oleic fatty acid, and eating them is what makes the pigs' fat so soft and creamy, on the verge of melting at room temperature. Acorns also contribute to the ham's nutty flavor and aroma, as essential to the product as the meat itself. Of all commercially raised Iberico pigs, only 5% are both pure breed and acorn-fed.

Spanish ham culture has a vocabulary all its own. There are porqueros, not shepherds; pigs are "sacrificed," not slaughtered; and the farms where they're raised are called "dehesas".

The dehesas are a national treasure: each one to two thousand acres of forest partially converted to pasture, often hundreds of years old, with rolling grassy hills amidst crops of acorn-producing oak and cork trees. Just as acorns are an essential ingredient to the ham, so too are the dehesas. These pigs need to roam free, over the hills and through the woods, so their muscles develop and the ham produced is the most premium quality.

Over 18 to 24 months, the pigs will root around the dehesa, grazing on grass, mushrooms, bugs, herbs, whatever they can find. Come October all through March, the montanara, or acorn-dropping season begins, and the pigs march into action. Fatty acorns are the pigs' favorite food, and with a mandated five acres of dehesa per pig, there's plenty of room to look for them. By the pigs' second montanara, they'll have feasted enough to reach their kill weight, about 360 pounds.

The Curing Process

The curing facility is often over 100 years old: part modern office space, part ancient farm house. In one courtyard you can still see hundreds of hooks on the ceiling from when ham was cured out in the open. These days they rest in a sprawling brick-walled cellar.

 

 The ham-bound legs are then skinned, salted, rinsed, dried, and sent to the curing cellar, where they'll remain for about a year and a half.

Thick brick walls, a breezy, hilly climate, and a stable population of ham-friendly microorganisms are most of what the meat needs to finish its journey into ham. Skilled specialists monitor the cellars at all times, noting fluctuations in temperature and humidity, but their adjustments are amusingly low-tech. 

 

Need to change the temperature? Open or close a window. Air too dry? Spill some water on the floor. It's more complicated than that, of course—hams too close to a window may get moved if they dry out too quickly, and the legs are regularly rubbed down with oil to prevent insects from taking up residence—but the most vital and final measurement Carvajal takes is very much a human one.

Before any ham leaves the cellar, it gets a sniff test. A trained nose can purportedly detect 100 aromas from a premium ham, some sweet, some meaty, some nutty. Different regions of Spain have their own hammy terroir, and even different cuts of the same leg bear unique aromas.​​​​

A True Spanish Ham

The ultimate result is long, thin leg of ham with marbeld veins of fat that are a deep golden hue against a dark red meat.

 

We had an incredible experience in the city of Caceres. There Pedro Lancho, the owner of Encinar de Cabazón, served us a feast fit for a king. The highlight was when the professional waiter at his favorite restaurant brought out plates of his Gran Reserva Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.

It was served in paper thin slices on a plate that was warmed to about 80 degrees. At that temperature the fat literally melted onto the plate. On first bite, the flavor of the ham was incredible. Sweet, nutty, and not too salty. Then the complexity of ham flavors increased. An essential part of the flavor and mouth-feel was the way the fat melted away, releasing flavors that told the story of the noble Ibérico swine, of the dehesa forest pasture, of the years of careful curing, and of the countryside of Spain itself.

LOMO IBERICO BELLOTA (ACORN IBERICAN LOIN)

Cured Spanish Lomo is not as well known as other cured Spanish meats such as the Serrano ham or the ever popular chorizo.  We think that's a real shame as good cured lomo is a real gastronomic treat.

 

Lomo is basically the loin of the pig and in Spain is either cured to make regional specialities or sold fresh the same as you can buy from your local butchers in the North America or anywhere else.

When it comes to curing lomo the Spanish have this perfected as you would expect and there are several variations of lomo depending on where the cut has come from. Many local artisans season their tenderloins before the curing process begins which results in an infusion of flavours. One popular way of presenting lomo is to tie it to a wooden board with string, this is known as “table de lomo” and these loins can range from small cross sections to full lengths up to three feet long.

 

The table de lomo is certainly an impressive piece of cured meat which is always seasoned with rosemary and other herbs. Once cured the lomo turns a deep burnt orange colour, dressed with herbs it defiantly makes a great centerpiece for any Spanish table.

Iberian lomo which comes from the acorn fed Iberico hogs is something different altogether… This lomo is mottled with creamy white/yellowish fat but it is the texture of this speciality as well as the flavour that will impress. Iberian lomo has nutty tones and is literally melt in the mouth not unlike its cousin the Iberian ‘jamon’.

 

Iberian lomo can be expensive but will deliver a gastronomic experience unlike any other, weight for weight, this lomo is even more costly than Iberico ham which should suggest that it is very much one of the finest cured meats in the world.

There is one more specialty that is very popular in the Granada region of Andalucia. “Lomo de Orza” is in fact not cured but a local recipe that involves frying fresh lomo pieces and then preserving in extra virgin olive oil. The recipe is quite easy to make yourself at home but for a real taste of Spain nothing beats a jar of lomo de orza from the local artisan butcher. Each butcher will have his own recipe and will swear that his is best, one thing is for sure though and that is you can be confident that this recipe will have been down through the generations. ​

 

The pork is lightly fried with a subtle blend of herbs and spices giving this meat a unique and delicious flavour. Sometimes wine will be added along with other more secretive ingredients. One preserved the lomo takes on the extra virgin olive which is crucial for the flavour, once served the meat will literally fall apart giving it a supreme melt in the mouth texture.​

CHORIZO IBERICO BELLOTA 

Chorizo is in many ways the most versatile of our Spanish cured meats. It can be fried, sautéed, grilled or roasted, added to soups and stews, used to flavor beans and vegetable dishes, or eaten thinly sliced on a crusty baguette.

 

It is a tapa in a bar, the protagonist at a picnic or an indispensable ingredient in many traditional or innovative recipes.​

If you’ve ever spent time traveling through Spain, you’ll find that while the cuisine changes noticeably from region to region, certain gastronomic elements pervade the Spanish cultural and culinary psyche with no regard for regional borders. One of the most important of these is chorizo, the traditional pork sausage par excellence, many versions of which have been made in Spain for centuries.

Despite its universality, it is common for each region and sometimes each town to have its own special way of preparing chorizo, meaning that there are hundreds of possible variations. Even so, the basic recipe remains the same.

The most recognizable trait of chorizo is its striking color, which can range from burnt orange to vibrant red, thanks to the addition of Spanish pimentón, or paprika, which was first made by monks at the Monastery of Guadalupe using peppers brought back from the New World by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. One of the finest types of pimentón used in chorizo comes from PDO Pimentón de la Vera in Extremadura. It can be sweet, spicy or smoked, each imparting a distinctive aroma to these hearty sausages.

The other ingredients include lean pork and pork lard (in varying proportions), salt, and other spices such as garlic and oregano, and occasionally white wine, sugar or sherry (in Andalusia and Extremadura). The latter aid in the fermentation process which gives chorizo its typical, slightly tangy and acidic taste.

​ To make chorizo, the pork and lard mixture is marinated for one to two days in the seasonings, and then is stuffed into either pig intestine casings or synthetic ones made from collagen or plant cellulose. They are then hung to dry and cure, or in some wetter parts of Spain, lightly smoked before hanging.

 

Another, less common variation is fresh chorizo that must be cooked before eating. The final product is usually given one of the following shapes: vela (long, thin and straight), ristra (small and tied together) or sarta (U-shaped). Chorizo from different regions will vary in diameter and other physical aspects such as having a smooth or bumpy exterior.

At SolFarmers we know Spanish cured meats.  We know them because we grew up with them.  We were raised in a food culture so rich and varied, so grounded in quality that we are passionate to share it with the rest of the world.  This way you can enjoy a bite of Spain, without ever leaving home.

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© 2018 by SolFarmers.  

Pictures courtesy of Gabriel Gonzalez (gabriel_gonzalez@me.com)