Whenever we visit Spain, we seek out one of the country’s most famous delicacies: Jamón Ibérico de Bellota – a seriously delicious, acorn-fed, salt-cured ham. The taste of the jamon is one of the most distinctive tastes in the world – nutty, rich, slightly sweet and savory. Once you have had it, you will never forget the experience.
For the casual consumer, however, the number of options when buying jamon in Spain can be simply overwhelming. That combined with the fact that English is rarely spoken in many of the best places to buy jamon, the experience of ordering can be nearly as memorable as the taste!
Although this challenge is happily overcome by requesting tastes of all of the different jamons (see the picture to get an idea of what type of decision you will need to make!), we have created a quick guide to help you understand the different types and classifications of Spanish jamón.
With this guide the only information you will be missing on your next trip to Spain will be how to speak Spanish!
What to know when buying jamón
Types of Jamón Products
- the hind leg of a cured ham (this will be labeled as “pernil” or “Gla”); it is fattier and offers creamier, rounder flavors.
- the foreleg or shoulder of a cured ham (labeled as “paleta” or “espatlla”); it is less fatty (drier), with more direct, intense flavor.
As these two are cut, cured and eaten in the same manner, for the rest of this entry, we use the term “jamón” to refer to both the leg and the shoulder of the ham.
The Pedigree of the Pig
- Iberico – breed: Iberian; a black pig with black hoofs – sometimes referred to as pata negra
- Iberico Puro – both parents are pure Iberian pigs
- Iberico – at least one parent is a pure Iberian pig
- Serrano – breed: Landrace or Duroc Jersey; a white pig
The Diet of the Pig
- Bellota – free-range pigs that feed on acorns (bellotas) and graze in forests/meadows (dehesa) filled with cork and oak trees. As you might have guessed, this is the highest quality diet.
- Recebo – free-range pigs that feed on acorns (bellotas), graze in forests/meadows (dehesa) filled with cork and oak trees and receive additional commercial feed
- Cebo de Campo – pigs live in an open-air pen and are fed only commercial feed
- Cebo – pigs remain in a closed building and are fed only commercial feed
Appellation (Based on Geographical Location, Quality & Production)
- Jamon Iberico
- Dehesa de Extremadura – the “best” – refers to jamón produced from pigs that live and graze in the cork and oak tree forests of the Badajoz and Caceres provinces in the Extremadura region of Spain (on the border with Portugal)
- Jamon de Guijuelo – Jamóns produced in the southeast province of Salamanca, just north of Extremadura on the border with Portugal (Castile-Leon).
- Jamon de Huelva – Refers to jamóns that are matured in the mountainous Sierra de Huelva region (in the western portion of Andalucía, just south of Extremedura, also along the border with Portugal). Jabugo is one of the most famous towns in the Huelva province.
- Jamon Serrano
- Jamon de Trevelez – Trevélez is located in the High Alpujarra (in the province of Granada, Andalucia) and sits over 1,200m above sea level. Curing hams at this altitude requires less salt, giving it a unique and sweeter flavor.
- Jamon de Teruel – The province of Teruel is located in Aragon (northeast Spain). Hams are cured at 800+ m above sea level, which also requires less salt than hams cured at lower altitudes.
How to buy jamón in Spain
In Spain, they price jamón by the whole leg (or shoulder) and also by 100 grams (roughly 3.5 oz). For conversion purposes, 1000 grams (1kg) is equal to 2.2 pounds. We recommend buying as much as you can afford and have them package some to eat immediately and some to take home (we always ask for a double vacuum seal).
If you have chosen a top quality jamon, we recommend simply to eat it with your fingers and let it melt in your mouth; however, if you have chosen a less-expensive jamon, either eat it in the manner above or put a slice on top of a piece of pan con tomate (toasted or untoasted sliced bread rubbed with garlic and tomato, drizzled with olive oil and finally sprinkled with salt). De-lish!
Where to buy jamon in New York City
Although Spain’s jamon is now available in the US, it is extremely expensive and often cut too thick, masking some of the delicate flavors that you get with thinly hand cut jamón (nevertheless, it is still worth trying if you have the option. Two of our favorite places to try this delicacy in NYC are Boqueria (restaurant) and Despaña (specialty food store).
Vinos y Jamón: Wines to drink with jamón
There are few wines that pair as well as cava sparkling wine and Spain’s famous jamón ibérico. Our Guide to the Wines of Spain will give you all the information you need to learn about and buy Spanish wine.