August in Spain is carnival time. In Pontevedra, Galicia, the long central piazza of the elegant medieval city becomes a fairground, occupied by theme park rides, the unbounded energy of children and stalls of gaudy trinkets that are part and parcel of family entertainment anywhere.
There is also pleasure for the adults, and being Spain, it’s bars, seafood and ham.
The ham lottery stand – the tómbola de jamónes – is like vaudeville with ham as the solo star. Dried cured legs hang in vast quantities from the ceiling, sharing space only with the lightbulbs that illuminate the spectacle. The tombola is led by a charismatic MC with a stomping riff ‘jamón, jamón, jamón…’ that stays with you long after the carnival has left town. Punters jostle three- and four-deep at peak times, conferring with one another over the numbers. Those who miss out leave a carpet of discarded tickets, while winners take home a piece of the national meat.
No part of Spain is ambivalent about ham. In a country with strong regional identities, it’s a unifying obsession, a cornerstone of the country’s food culture.
Every bar in Spain has a leg, or several, hanging from the roof, and a leg mounted on its special bracket, the jamónero, from which paper-thin slices of the creamy, salty pink delicacy are carved.
In the supermarkets and delis ham knows how to work a room.
Spanish ham – cured and air-dried in mountain (serrano) air – has been admired since Roman times.
The customary production method, following the annual sacrifice of pigs in November, was to cure a leg of ham in sea salt for several days and then hang it in curing sheds where it could benefit from the mountain air. Similar conditions are replicated in sanitised factory environments today.
There are many variations and grades of Spanish ham. One key distinction is between Serrano ham, produced from the workaday European pig, and Ibérico ham, which is produced from the native Iberian pig. The latter is even more coveted, and expensive, when the swine feed chiefly on acorns. This is called Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.
The best way to eat ham is on a slice of fresh sourdough bread, lightly drizzled with olive oil, or, as in some parts of Spain, lightly brushed with a tomato passata.
Adulation for ham may have a connection with Spain’s multilayered religious history.
Muslims ruled parts of Spain for nearly 800 years, and during this time the eating of pork was heavily discouraged. Following the Reconquista, when Christians seized control, ham consumption became a symbol of open Catholic patriotism.
For the significant Jewish population the Reconquista had a contrasting effect. They faced either converting to Christianity or expulsion from Spain. Those who converted were called ‘Marranos’ (‘pork’ in Spanish) and were forced to eat pork products as a way of proving their faith.
In fact, as Claudia Roden explains in ‘The Book of Jewish Food,’ Marranos began cooking many traditional Jewish recipes with ham and pork products and these dishes are now considered a major contribution to Spanish cuisine.
Where to buy in Auckland
It has to be the Spanish experts at Sabato (27 Normanby Road, Mt Eden). They have whole Serrano and Iberico de Bellota ham legs which they carve expertly on the premises and vacuum pack. Nosh (see website for branches) also has a good range.
Where to eat in Auckland
Peter Gordon’s Spanish restaurant Bellota (which means ‘acorn’) has both Jamón Serrano and Jamón Ibérian de Bellota on the tapas menu. Bellota is part of the Sky City complex in central Auckland.