Jaume Guerra looks at me with a blank stare when I ask how he became interested in the world of Spanish hams. “Ham is a part of life in Spain,” he says, as if it was inevitable that he would become a master carver of piernas. I'm meeting with Guerra for a tutorial in Spanish jamónes, which, like any food or drink, become increasingly complex and fascinating the more you learn about them. As a greater variety of hams from Spain becomes available at U.S. grocery stores and from specialty purveyors, including Despaña and D'Artagnan, jamón aficionados may find themselves suddenly bewildered by the proliferation of choices in the meat department.
Jamón serrano, the Spanish ham almost every meat eater knows, has been available in the U.S. for about 17 years, Guerra explains, but it has recently been joined by the ibérico hams, the cebo and bellota varieties, and the lesser known (and considerably more expensive) mangalica. What are the differences among these three? And aside from asking for a sample and letting your taste buds make the decision for you, what should you know when you go to buy a Spanish ham?
Guerra gave TLK a crash course on the subject, explaining everything from how and what the pigs are fed and how long the hams are cured, to the characteristics you should look for in an exceptional Spanish ham, the carving instructions you should offer at the meat counter when you're placing your order, and how you should serve and eat your ham at home.
Next, a look at the most famous Spanish hams...