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Spain’s favorite cured meat uncovered : A trip to the home of jamon reveals how the tasty treat is made

July 05,2018
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The rear legs of Spanish white pigs, known as Jamon serrano, are hung to dry for about 14 months at the factory of one of Spain’s largest pig farms and pork producers maker Grupo Jorge in Zaragoza, Spain. [LEE SUN-MIN]
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Top: White pigs at a farm run by Grupo Jorge. Middle: At Grupo Jorge’s jamon serrano factory, most of the aging process is automated and requires minimal human supervision. Above: Finished jamon serrano is checked on a machine that shows the history of how it was aged and under what temperatures. [GRUPO JORGE, LEE SUN-MIN]
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Left: Pig ears are separated at a factory close to Madrid where pork are cut into pieces. Center: Fried pig tails and head are served at Madrid’s restaurant La Tasqueria. Right: Many in Spain order a plate of jamon to share before starting a meal. [LEE SUN-MIN]
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MADRID and ZARAGOZA, Spain - Like the plate of kimchi found at nearly every meal in Korea, no Spanish table setting is complete without a display of dry-cured ham, known as jamon, to signal that it is time to eat.

The Spanish staple has been making its way to a wide range of Korean consumers over the past five years or so. Menu items like jamon serrano and iberico, made from white and black pig respectively, are more commonly found at restaurants and bars and different styles are served to cater to local consumers, not to mention having a whole pork leg displayed for carving upon request.

With more and more people enjoying jamon, exports of Spanish pork products to Korea have jumped. The volume grew the most from 2013 to 2014 as the total exports to Korea increased to 56 tons from 16.8 tons. The number steadily grew to 68.6 tons in 2017, three times what was exported to Korea in 2007.

Spain is the fourth largest producer of pork in the world, according to Interporc, an organization that helps discover new markets for Spanish white pork producers, with about 3.5 million tons of pork meat produced each year.

“The Korean market is one of the more important ones for us in Asia as exports have steadily grown,” said Daniel de Miguel, international affairs’ director for Interporc. He added that Korea has shown more potential than Japan and the company has come to Korea on numerous occasions to hold promotional events.

“We are always looking for new Korean importers to keep up with the momentum, and we are interested in creating a new recipe that could match jamon with something local in Korea.”



Different pigs, different style

For the most part, two different types of pork are available in Spain: white pork (serrano) and black pork (iberico.) Serrano products are affordable and abundant, while iberico products are known to be premium options that aren’t usually consumed daily in ordinary households. A 100-gram (3.5 ounce) pack of jamon serrano usually costs below 10 euros ($11.64) while the same amount of jamon iberico could easily sell for over 30 euros.

The pigs, according to Jose Miguel Torrecillas, communications manager at Grupo Jorge, one of Spain’s largest pork producers, are usually raised until they weigh around 110 kilograms (242 pounds).

For a white pig, it usually takes about six months to get to that size, while it takes about two years for black pigs to reach the ideal weight. While white pigs are often raised inside farms and fed animal feed, black pigs range freely and eat acorns when they are in season.

To expedite the pigs’ growth for more production and to enhance the flavor of relatively ordinary white pigs, pig experts work to mate different species of white pigs. Generally, four different types of white pigs are used - either Large White and Landrace mate with either Duroc or Pietrain.

Black Iberian pigs usually mate with each other, but sometimes also mate with one of the white pig species, most commonly Duroc. When jamon is made from the child of a white and a black pig, the package must say that it is 50 percent jamon iberico.

Jamon iberico is produced in the southwestern part of Spain where acorns are abundant while jamon serrano is mostly from northeastern part of Spain, close to other major exports markets like France and Italy.



From farm to factory

After a pig is slaughtered, it is brought to a cutting plant within 24 hours. The entire pork is cut into parts, even the ears, and put into boxes to be delivered to markets and restaurants.

Pig heads, tails, ears, skin, and intestines alongside what’s considered more frequently consumed meat are all cut separately and packed to be delivered to restaurants, or exported to countries including Korea and the United Arab Emirates, which uses non-halal meat for foreign visitors.

In Korea, pork belly and neck meat are the most popular exports from Spain, but increasingly jamon is also in demand. At Grupo Jorge’s jamon-making plant, pre-cut legs arrive and are aged for 14 months for white pigs and up to three years for black pigs.

At its factory in Zaragoza where it ages and produces 700,000 jamon legs a year, the company shows off how little human labor is needed in the process of making the food.

Rows of jamon legs are hung on moving walls after they are covered with salt and sodium nitrite (in order to prevent detrimental bacteria from growing while aging), and then put into a temperature-controlled room for months. At first, they are kept in the cold, and then the temperature gets warmer towards the end of the aging process.

When the jamon is ready for market, it is put on a machine, and the history of how that particular leg has been aged, including information about the history of temperatures the leg had been placed under, is written on a tag that was attached to the meat when it first arrived at the plant.



All parts are cooked

Albora, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Madrid is one place diners can experience what aging does to the taste of jamon. It serves a tray of three different jamon, produced in different years, to show how flavors differ according to the aging process. In general, jamon aged for a long time has a deep and dark red to black color. Different parts of the leg have slightly different shades of red.

Older jamon tends to be stickier and heavier when chewed, and they often have a stronger aroma.

At La Tasqueria, also in Madrid, diners can try a relatively unique part of a pig. The restaurant fries pig tails and ears to serve as well as the entire pork head for those who want to get every part of the meat available.

As Spain is known for its love for pork, some restaurants specialize in making all of their main dishes with different parts of pork.

Madrid eatery La Porcineria serves a burger made with iberico meat alongside grilled pork steak, which are both popular among pork lovers.

A plate of jamon is often served with cheese as well. It is recommended to keep it out for at least 15 minutes before serving as it is said to taste best at room temperature.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]