You’ll hear the accountant in me complain a lot about the high prices in Europe. But there’s some good news for boozing carnivores who visit southern Spain: Wine and jamón are pretty affordable there. And they complement each other just perfectly, and they’re absolutely delicious.
Jamón: What Do We Know?
Jamón is dry-cured ham from Spain. There are two primary types: Jamón serrano (meaning ham from the sierra), and the more sought-after jamón ibérico, made from black Iberian pigs that hail from southwest Spain. It’s kind of like prosciutto, but there’s a longer curing process that lasts for at least twelve months – and sometimes for up to three or four years.
We started our journey through Spain in the southwest and quickly became accustomed to high quality jamón at low prices – around €4 for a tapa (small plate), and €5-8 for a full ration. When we left Andalusia for Madrid and Barcelona we were shocked at how high the prices are up north – upwards of €12-14 for a small plate in some places! The best of the best iberico varieties sell for around €70 ($96) a pound.
Jamón iberico comes from acorn-fed free-range pigs. It has a unique aromatic taste that’s much less salty and more savory than the ham we’re used to back home. Speaking of back home, up until 2005 no jamón was allowed in the U.S. because none of the Spanish producers met FDA approval.
How can you tell what kind you’re getting, other than by price and taste? Iberico varieties of ham will come from legs with black hooves, while the hooves of serrano pigs are white.
The ham is always prominently displayed so that you can see the product. The few legs of jamón that make it to the U.S. are required to have their hooves removed before import, so I’m not sure how you’d verify the type in the States.
Fun Fact: Although the process of curing of ham goes back to at least the Romans, Spanish jamón took on special importance during the centuries of Moorish occupation that lasted until the 15th century. Spanish citizens ate ham as a symbol of religious and political independence from the Moors, whose Muslim religion prevented them from consuming pork. This means that curing and eating jamón has been a marker of Spanish identity for over a thousand years.
So it’s no surprise that Spain has the second-largest per-capita consumption of ham in the world, coming in just behind Denmark at 123 pounds per person per year. If you order a hamburger (hamburguesa) in Spain, you’ll likely receive something made of pork instead of beef.
Wine: We Could Know More…
We don’t know a ton about wine, apart from when it’s there, we like to drink it. What we did learn is that along with being ham paradise, Spain is also the world’s third-largest producer of wine after France and Italy. The two go together like song and dance – throw in some cheese and it’s a party.
Vineyards throughout the country grow over 600 types of grape. Most popular is a white grape called Airén that is used to make Spanish brandy (it should be noted that brandy, sherry, and cava are three entirely different worlds in the Spanish wine repertoire).
The most widely-grown red grapes are Tempranillo, which are used to make delicious full-bodied red wines.
Every market you visit will have a huge selection of wines ranging from the €.80 boxed varieties to types that are scandalously pricey – and all seem pretty good. We were glad to enjoy many Tempranillos and Garnachas in the €1-4 range that suited us just fine.
So while there are countless types of extremely high quality Spanish wine, the nuances are lost on those of us who are less educated. In writing this I realize how sad our wine ignorance is, so we’ll have to do further research when we get to Australia in a few weeks. Shucks.
Until next time, happy eating!