I love talking about food almost as much as I love eating it and I feel lucky to have had the chance to talk to fellow foodie James Robinson, who has been working for Spanish food purveyors, Brindisa, for over 20 years.
Based in London, the company imports quality Spanish meats and cheeses (as well as many other products), which you can purchase from their online store.
But enough from me! Let’s hear from the expert!
Ben: How did you discover the world of Spanish gastronomy?
James: I have always been interested in food, both in its production and consumption. When I began working for Brindisa, nearly 20 years ago, I knew nothing about Spain or Spanish food. I was familiar with French food through numerous childhood holidays to France, but had never even visited Spain!
Monika Linton, the founder and owner of Brindisa offered me a job nearly 20 years ago and ever since I’ve been discovering something of the amazing variety of traditional foods Spain has to offer: charcuterie, cheeses, preserved fish, olive oils and vinegars.
Through research, visiting our suppliers and large amounts of tasting I have learned a great deal about many aspects of artisan Spanish food production all over the country, but also how much there is still to learn from the people who actually make the products.
B: You are the resident charcuterie specialist at Brindisa – what is exactly is “charcuterie”?
J: Charcuterie is used as a broad term to describe cured meat products, usually made of pork; in Spain these products, salchichones, chorizos, lomos etc. are known collectively as embutidos, from the Spanish word ‘embutir’, to stuff, because they are stuffed into casings.
B: And what is it about Spanish ham, particularly jamón serrano and jamón ibérico, that makes it so special?
J: Overall the quality and reputation of cured Spanish hams is exceptionally high because of centuries of accumulated knowledge on the part of producers and the high quality raw materials from which they are made. Classical writers of the Roman world were praising the quality of Spanish hams as long as two thousand years ago.
B: What’s the difference?
J: Jamón serrano and jamón ibérico are made from different breeds of pig: serrano comes from domesticated white pigs, generally cross breeds of Duroc, Large White, Landrace and Jersey strains, whilst ibérico hams are produced from the meat of the indigenous ibérico breed of pig. Jamón serrano is generally cured for 6-18 months, jamón ibérico is normally cured for between 18 months and 4 years.
There are 4 grades of ibérico ham, defined by their diet, their breeding and their living conditions:
Jamón Ibérico de bellota 100% ibérico ~ A pure bred ibérico pig which has spent the last 10-12 weeks of its life fattening on acorns on the dehesas of south western Spain.
Jamón Ibérico de bellota 75% or 50% ibérico ~ An ibérico pig with one white pig grandparent or father which has spent the last 10-12 weeks of its life fattening on acorns on the dehesas of south western Spain. (with crossbreeds, the sow must be pure ibérico)
Jamón Ibérico de cebo de campo 100% or 75% or 50% ibérico ~ An ibérico pig which may be pure bred or have one white pig grandparent or father, which has fattened up outdoors on cereals and grains.
Jamón Ibérico de cebo 100% or 75% or 50% ibérico ~ An ibérico pig which may be pure bred or have one white pig grandparent or father on which there are basically no restrictions regarding diet or living conditions.
As you can imagine, the variations enumerated above account for much of the great price differences between the different grades.
The whole story of the ibérico pig, their autumn fattening on the dehesa and of the unique ecosystem that is the dehesa, is a remarkable example of the benefits of a balanced approach to agriculture and food production, and one that demonstrates how man working harmoniously with nature can produce what is arguably one of the finest foods on earth.
B: Where does the best jamón come from? And how do you know if it’s good quality?
There are two white pig hams which have specific designations, Teruél ham DOP (Designacion de Origen Protegida) from the province of Teruél in Aragón, and Trevélez ham IGP (Indicación Geografica Protegida), from Granada, Andalucia, both of which are consistently excellent hams.
In matters of taste, there is no wrong or right, so it is impossible to be definitive about where the best is from.
There are four production regions for ibérico ham that have specific DOPs: Guijuelo, Salamanca; Jabugo, Huelva; Dehesa de Extremadura, Badajoz and Los Pedroches, Córdoba. Each of these areas produce exceptional hams which have their champions. Hams that are matured in the north are generally considered to be milder and sweeter, whilst those from further south have a more intense, savoury flavour. They all share the characteristics of richness, nuttiness and huge depth of flavour.
B: What’s the best and most traditional way to enjoy Spanish jamón?
J: In general both serrano and ibérico hams are eaten quite simply, either in a sandwich (bocadillo) or as a plate of carved or machine sliced ham, served with little breadsticks or pan con tomate. Offcuts can be used in dishes with pulses or to flavour croquetas. My personal favourite is ibérico ham or paleta (cured shoulder) for breakfast served with fresh eggs fried, Spanish style, in olive oil, with hand cut chips. Amazing!
B: What would you recommend drinking with jamón? Are there any styles of wines and beers that work particularly well with it?
J: With serrano ham I would go with a light red or unoaked white wine or simply with a good cold beer, which in Spain will almost always be lager.
With an ibérico ham the classic combination is with a dry sherry, fino or manzanilla, but a medium bodied red from Ribera del Duero or Rioja will go well with a lighter flavoured bellota ham (perhaps from Guijuelo in the north) whilst the more intense, savoury hams of the south will work well with a more mature red. I have also heard a number of people recommending vintage, yeasty champagne to accompany well aged hams, and even cold sake, which works to refresh the palate between bites.
B: Tell us a bit about Brindisa’s range of jamón
J: At Brindisa, we stock a range of hams which, we feel, represents the best Spain has to offer.
We have white pig hams from suppliers in the Teruel DOP and the Trevélez IGP, which are felt to be the best of this type of ham, as well as a one from the north of Léon, which is rich and dense.
Our range of ibérico hams is intended to show the range of prices and styles of these hams. We have a cebo de campo ham from Guijuelo, which is an excellent introductory ibérico ham and very well priced.
We then have three bellota hams:
75% iberico ham from Guijuelo cured for 3 years, which is sweet and mild but complex and lingering.
100% ibérico, acorn fed ham from Corteconcepción, in the Jabugo DOP which is produced by a small family company working in a very traditional way and making rich, deeply flavoured, melting hams.
100% ibérico, acorn fed ham from Badajóz in the DOP of Extremadura, which is our most intense and savoury ham with a truly remarkable depth and intensity.
The only grade of ibérico ham that we don’t sell is the ibérico de cebo, a ham whose provenance may not be greatly distinguishable from an intensively reared white pig.
We feel that our range covers a wide range of styles and flavours and price points, an opportunity to taste your way around some of the best hams in the world and see what style you prefer.
Make it Happen
Stock up on tasty Spanish ham and other essentials for your home by visiting their online store or visit Brindisa’s beautiful tapas kitchens around London and immerse yourself in the world of Spanish cuisine.