Choosing a ham is a very personal experience like choosing a bottle of wine and there are several things to consider. No one-size-fits-all and to help you through this process, we have produced this guide and created a series of useful articles within the Knowledge section of our website.
SERRANO OR IBERICO
When choosing a ham, a good starting point is to consider which type of ham you would like. There are basically two main types, Serrano ham and Iberico ham. Serrano ham is made from specially selected white pigs which are commonly used in farming. The flavour tends to be distinctive but subtle and the meat is relatively pink. Iberico, on the other hand, is made from a unique breed of Iberian pig. Meat from these pigs has a more intense flavour and the meat is a much darker red.
You may also have heard the term Pata Negra used. Pata Negra simply means Black Leg in Spanish and was how Ibérico ham was colloquially referred to in recognition that many Iberian pigs have black hooves. However, this term is not wholly accurate and was often misused. As such, this term is not recognised under the new legislation which introduced the current grading system detailed below.
Only about 10% of total Jamon production is from the Iberian pig and this together with its special organoleptic qualities makes Iberico ham much more sought after and expensive than Serrano ham. You can expect to pay at least 3x price per kilo for Iberico ham but this can go much, much higher depending on the grade. The record for the most expensive leg of ham commercially available is an Iberian "Manchado de Jabugo" which retails at £3,192 and is sold by Dehesa Maladúa.
WHOLE LEG (JAMON) OR SHOULDER (PALETA)
There is also a significant price variation between buying a whole back leg (a Jamon) and a smaller front leg or shoulder (called a Paleta). The Paleta is both cheaper per kilo and weighs less so the combination makes these much more affordable. There is a difference in the meat with the Paleta being slightly firmer, having less muscle and higher fat content. However, buying a Paleta is often seen as an ideal introduction to gourmet Spanish ham.
Serrano ham has 3 grading levels which are determined by the amount of time the ham has been cured. The Serrano ham grades are:
Bodega (Cured for 9-11 months for a whole leg and 5-6 months for a shoulder)
Reserva (Cured for 12-14 months for a leg and 7-8 months for a shoulder)
Gran Reserva (Cured for at least 15 months for legs and at least 9 months for shoulders).
Grading for the more expensive Iberico ham is more complex as it takes into account the pedigree of the pig as well as its diet and lifestyle. All of these factors play a role in the quality of the ham even before the curation time is taken into account. As with Serrano, the grading process is highly regulated and tamper-proof tags are attached to each ham to confirm authenticity. These grades and colour code are:
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota 100% (Black)
This is the highest and most expensive grade of Iberico ham as it is made from 100% pure-bred Iberian pigs which roam freely within oak forests (called Dehesas), eating a natural diet consisting mainly of acorns. The exercise and diet have a significant effect on the flavour of the meat which is cured for up to 3 years.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (Red)
Like black labelled Iberico, this is also a Bellota (acorn) grade of Iberico ham and is made from Iberican pigs which are free to roam within oak forests. The only difference is that these pigs are crossbred and therefore not pure Iberians. However, the quality of the meat remains exceptional and delivers the same flavour and texture qualities from the acorn diet and exercise of the pigs.
Jamon Iberico de Cebo de Campo (Green)
This grade of Iberico ham is from pigs which roam free in pastures, grazing on grass, natural grains and legumes. The breed of the pig will range from 50%, 75% and even 100% purebred Iberians.
Jamon Iberico de Cebo (White)
This category is often referred to simply as Jamon Iberico and is for farm-reared pigs fed on a diet of grains and high-quality feed. The pigs will be at least 50% Iberian.
ALWAYS CHECK THE INGREDIENTS
The easiest way to differentiate between a quality ham and a mass-produced version is through the ingredients. Quality ham should only include two ingredients: Pork and Salt. Lower quality, mass-produced hams are often artificially dried and chemical additives, preservatives and colourants are used. If they have been, these will be listed in the ingredients. Look out for any type of nitrites or nitrates or references to e-numbers such as E250, E251 etc.
Gourmet ham tastes best when it is freshly sliced. If you are buying a whole leg or shoulder, you will need a stable ham holder (called a jamonero) and a long, flexible knife (called a Cuchillo) to be able to safely slice and serve the ham. Getting started is easier than you think. We have sourced a range of these items for sale and provide a cutting guide to help guide you through the basics.
… AND FINALLY
You should not choose your ham on price alone. Whilst you do pay for quality, some people simply prefer the more subtle taste of a Serrano ham or find that a Paleta is a more convenient format. We hope this guide has given you the confidence to navigate through this world and will help you discover your own personal favourite.