Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A National Treasure

I recently heard of Michael Palin being referred to as a “British National Treasure”. It was a comment that immediately sparked my curiosity about the unpredictable answers that my Madrileño friends might come up with if they too were asked to name the gems of their own Spanish nation. However serious conversation here in this country is a veritable minefield with the population forever managing to somehow invent two versions and opinions of not just the Civil War but indeed every conceivable issue.

Fully aware of this schizophrenic personality it was therefore perhaps out of pure malice on my part that late one night I put the question to my motley crew of beer guzzlers. Unsurprisingly monarchs, politicians, athletes, writers and of course Catalans were an immediate source of dispute and hence quickly discounted. By the same token Picasso, Goya and Velazquez were ruled out by death, while good old-fashioned intolerance thankfully saw to it that Julio and Enrique Iglesias also failed to make the grade.

The truth is that I naively expected to hear of a Spanish born Geldof or Mother Teresa for that matter. You can therefore understand my complete surprise when my still sober group unanimously agreed that the one undisputable National Treasure of Spain was none other than “Jamón Curado”… Dry Cured Ham. Indeed even all the more remarkable is the fact that I have yet to come across a dissenting voice no matter who or where I ask.

Jamón therefore triumphs where the Constitution, King Juan Carlos, Central Government, Bullfighting and the even Castilian language have all floundered. In a time when each province tries, in ever more frequent fits of rebellion, to distinguish themselves from both each other and Madrid, no region would ever go so far as to consider disowning that one treasured icon that ironically manages to unite all of Spain.

And so it is that Jamón is a lot more than mere Spanish gastronomy. More to the point, it is something deeply engraved in Spanish history that to this day still forms an integral part of contemporary culture. Indeed even as far back as the Celtic Era cured ham was recognised as an essential source of nutrition, with the pig treated as an object of worship as a result. The early celtic process of salting and curing ham was their ingenious method for preserving meat and it is directly out of this ancient necessity that the modern method of curing ham is inherited.

“Jamón Serrano” is the most basic of the Spanish cured hams with term Serrano referring directly to the mountain origins. The name stems from the fact that long before the advent of refrigerators, the cooler airs of higher altitudes provided the perfect conditions for the essential preserving of meat achieved through this slow curing process. However be that as it may, Spaniards will never hesitate to boast about another local and far superior variation known as “Jamón Ibérico de Bellota”, believed to be the greatest example of cured meat in the world and proudly placed on a par with the best of Caviar.

However, the above-mentioned “Jamón Ibérico de Bellota” rarely if ever graced the tables of typical Spanish households down through the ages. In actual fact the lengthy time and complicated process required of “Jamón Ibérico de Bellota” meant that it could not possibly serve the needs of families who depended on the pig as a principle source of nutrition. Indeed I often listen to older acquaintances nostalgically recall how up until quite recently most village homes reared their own pig in the back yard which they would fatten up throughout the year using the leftovers of every meal. Of course considering the size of the bygone family this resulted in quite a well-fed and large animal when it came to the time of slaughter. Futhermore one close friend amusingly tells how her grandfather always kept a swine named “Rafael” which terrified both she and her brothers. As was the custom the highly obese pig would be slaughtered each year by a neighbour before her Grandfather would then acquire the next years piglet and in one of those moments of pure inspiration, name the newcomer, Rafael !!

The slaughter traditionally begins on La Fiesta de San Martin (Feast of Saint Martin) which falls on the 11th November. The reason for this is that it marks the onset of the colder winter weather, the ideal time to begin the slow curing of jamón. In the past before the arrival of European health codes each village had its own slaughter expert known as the Guardiciónero who would duly perform the task for the locals. However the pre Word War I author Gerard Brenan also described how an entire Andalucian village would congregate as if for a party, and amply fuelled by red wine the men would go about the business of sacrifice while the women having already prepared the picnic, would then cut and wash the new meats.

Unsurprisingly “Jamón culture” has also filtered into the Spanish language as seen by the phrase, “A cada cerdo le llega su San Martin” which roughly translates as, “Every pig will have his Saint Martin”. A close English equivalent of this might be “What goes around comes around” or perhaps even “He will get his comeuppance”. Another reference can be found in the less common and somewhat brutish term for loudly admiring a woman - “Jamón! Jamón!”.

As you might guess no part of the pig ever goes to waste. Traditionally time and practical needs dictated how meats were to be prepared and when to be eaten. For instance the four legs, having already been buried in sea salt for a period and then covered in oil and pepper so as to deter flies, were always left hanging to cure in the kitchen throughout the winter. In the meantime people ate the rest of the cuts such as gammon, chorizo, tripe and morcilla (spicy black pudding) which are sources of high calories and hence ideal for winter farming. It is only at the beginning at summer that the jamón, high in protein and low in fat, is ready to be taken down and cut in small almost paper thin slices. Needless to say just as is the case with making good tortilla (Spanish Omelette), the ability to expertly cut jamón is a source of pride and taken as a free license to boast incessantly.

Nowadays with the changing of Spanish society Jamón is not the vital source of nutrition that it once was. Jamón, now eaten all year round, is seen as more of a luxury than a necessity and generally served in a sandwich, tapa, canapé or restaurant starter accompanied by red wine. Nonetheless it is still one of the most consumed foods in Spain with a staggering 38.5 Jamón legs cured every year and with each Spaniard eating an average of 5 kilos of Jamón annually.

Jamón therefore is undoubtedly one of the most important symbols of not only Spanish gastronomy but Spain in general. The food has come to be regarded as a national treasure not only due to it’s exquisite taste but also of course due to it’s ancient authenticity, artesian process and quite simply a result of an addicted nation .

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