It's impossible to visit, or live, in Spain and not see jamon offered as the filler for a quick sandwich or listed as a high-end delicacy at the finest restaurants. The pork meat is encased in fat and actually good to eat for one's health. But not all jamon is alike or is the breed of pig the same to produce the cured ham everyone raves about. To purchase jamon as a full leg is expensive, however, it's possible to enjoy smaller portions fit for most wallets.
How to Choose Jamon in Spain
Recognized as one of the world's most expensive ham products, Spain's "jamon" comes in several categories. Knowing what to buy and where to buy it is important.
Pronounced ha-mon, the cured meat comes from a pig's leg or shoulder and can take up to four years to reach the marketplace depending on the producer's method to cure. The breed of the pig and how it's fed determines the quality and pricing. For the uneducated palate, eating jamon may seem all the same. But for the connoisseur, jamon must come from a pure Ibérico pig with a pata negra (black hoof) that ate only acorns on the open plains of the dehesa during the latter stage of its life.
Black hoof of Iberian pig
Photo Credit: Judith Glynn
A typical jamon serrano bocadillo
Photo Credit: Judith Glynn
Different Types of Jamon
To help educate the public, Spain's government now requires specific labeling for jamon. For instance, the percentage of Ibérico genetics in the breed must be clear, along with the pigs' provenance. Imagery of the dehesa can’t appear on the package if the pig wasn’t raised there.
Of the three types of jamon, the least expensive is “jamón serrano.” It's more commonly served and found in a bocadillo, which is a hard roll with several slices. That pork meat comes from white pigs fed only grain and the by-product is cured for a year.
A higher quality jamon comes from black Iberian pigs. They have eaten grain but because of their breed the cured ham has a richer flavor than that of the white pigs.
The ultimate and most expensive is “jamón Iberico de bellota.” That black pig with its recognizable black hoof has been bred, nurtured and sent to the “bellota” (acorn) pastures in the dehesa for the final stage of its life. Its cured meat is a mixture of intense flavors and healthy fat.
Special Places for Jamon in Madrid
San Ildefonso Street Market
Located on the pedestrian street Fuencarral (57), this three-level covered marketplace is teeming with stalls offering take-out or noshing from one to the other. Arturo Sanchez e Hijos is a renown producer of jamon Iberico de bellota. Here the company has two stalls; one on the ground floor offering sandwiches and cut-up jamon served in paper cones. Upstairs is more of a gastronomy treat where the jamon is delicately sliced from a cured ham leg and served on a platter or combined with other ingredients to create a newer presentation of Spain's delicacy.
Also located on Fuencarral (106), Tienda Beher is a jamon producer from the Salamanca region, where the meat enjoys most of its provenance. To sell directly to the public, Beher opened its own store. Several carvers here fill shoppers' carry-out needs and tend to customers to enjoy jamon on the spot at the back of the store nicely decorated with tables and chairs. Be sure to add in cheese and wine or beer to complete the dish.
Gondiaz & La Mi Tienda
Thanks to a Gondiaz matriarch in the 1960s, jamon was introduced to Madrilenos when he brought it back from the south of Spain. Today Gondiaz imports thousands of "pata negra" cured ham legs and shoulders to sell whole in their shop, slice into hermetically sealed packages for the public and also conducts carving lessons for the trade and public. Be sure to visit La Mi Tienda restaurant next door still owned and operated by the family and dine in the the downstairs cave-like room where jamon was originally stored.
Museo de Jamon
Photo Credit: Museo de Jamon
Museo de Jamon
This establishment has several stores throughout Madrid, noticeable by the many cured ham legs hanging from the ceiling. (The small upside plastic umbrella stuck in the bottom of the ham is to catch dripping fat.) There's a stand-up counter for a quick bocadillo (sandwich). The Museo de Jamon website offers a tasting menu at specific locations.