What greater expression of affection can there be than a present of a whacking great leg of ham? I’m obviously in the mother-in-law’s good books these days! This is actually a paletilla de jamon iberico, the front leg of an acorn fed Iberian boar, that spent some time wondering around the woods and fields of Guijuelo, near Salamanca, before ending up in our kitchen. The rear leg, or jamon, is larger, and lasts too long for our tastes – the two months of constant ham eating it will take to get through our paletilla is plenty for us!
Buying a ham in Spain: there are three places you are almost guaranteed to get a good leg of ham in Spain. The first is in the small town of Guijuelo (map), just south of Salamanca, where the main street has one shop after another full of exquisite hams, chorizos, lomos – everything any self-respecting carnivore could want from a pig! Combine your ham buying mission with a drive from Salamanca down to Extremadura, taking in the wild Sierra de la Peña Francesa on the way if you can.
The second name on the tip of every hamophiles tounge is Jabugo (map), a tiny town in the Sierra de Aracena, about 100 kilometres north of Huelva. Once again the quiet Andaluz town is dominated by jamon-sellers, including the famous 5J brand. Here, however, the ham is something of a footnote to the stunning scenery of the surrounding Sierra. Cork forests, wild flowers, fields of grazing fighting bulls – the highlight is the white hilltop town of Almonaster La Real (map), with its 10th Century Moorish mosque. N.B. the ham from Jabugo has a slightly stronger taste than that from Guijuelo.
Perhaps the best place to pick up a ham in big towns like Madrid and Barcelona is El Corte Ingles superstore. There’s usually a food section in the basement of the bigger branches, where they will guarentee you a decent-tasting leg of ham and even peel the first layers of tough skin away for you (I am not usually a fan of El Corte Ingles, but apparently they will replace hams that are too salty/not great quality). If you are travelling by air later, ask about vacuum packing before you make a purchase, and remember that some countries won’t let you bring ham through customs. Pick up a jamonero from the kitchen department while you are there, it’s the big wooden vice used to hold the ham in place while cutting.
A word on price: the paletilla in the photo above cost around 100 euros (weighing in at 5 kilos) from El Corte Ingles, it should be a little cheaper at source. The jamon (back leg) is more expensive per kilo, as there is a greater proportion of meat to bone in the overall weight. Finally, jamon de bellota (only fed on acorns in the final months before slaughter) is more expensive, and far nicer, than jamon de recebo (where the pigs also eat commercial feed in the final months).