Spain is jamón. Jamón is Spain. It is hard to separate the significance of aged pig legs from the Spanish culture — and particularly within Catalunya. In Barcelona, where indulging in a paper-thin slice of dry-aged Spanish ham is a rite of passage for meat-eating visitors, it’s hard to find a traditional restaurant or bar without at least one glistening leg displayed on an elegant wooden jamonero (ham holder) — or even hanging from the ceiling.
All of which is to say that if meat is your thing, you should absolutely eat jamón at some point during your visit to Barcelona; you might even be tempted to smuggle some back in your suitcase. But not all jamón is created equal: Since the 1980s, Spanish ham has been strictly graded by the government, with a system of colored packaging labels that indicate its quality level based on the pig’s heritage and diet; a separate label denotes how long the meat was cured for. Here’s how to decipher the taxonomy of jamón (or “pernil,” in Catalan, which will inevitably be used on menus in Barcelona).
All ham is not created equal
There are several prevalent types of jamón you’ll likely encounter in Barcelona:
Jamón ibérico, which can only be made from Iberian pigs, is the finest jamón money can buy, renowned for the marbling of its flesh. Within this category are three levels, which split into four total labels:
Jamón ibérico de bellota is the best of the best, known for white ribbons of fat running in between its deep-red meat. Some people will drop 1,500 euros ($1,700) for a leg, because it’s just that good. Its quality is further distinguished by black and red grades:
- Black-label ibérico pigs spend the fall and winter months roaming the dehesa oak forests of southwest Spain feasting on bellotas (acorns), herbs, and wild plants, which give their meat a complexity of aromas, including its signature sweet, nutty tones. They’re bred from 100 percent Iberian pata negra pigs with signature black hooves.
- Red-label ibérico pigs have the same wild diet as black-label pigs but are 75 percent Iberian and 25 percent Duroc, a white-footed pig breed that originates from the U.S.
Jamón ibérico cebo de campo, which sports a green label, comes from pigs that have been partly pastured on acorns and grass but their diet is supplemented with grain. They can be 75 percent Iberian, 25 percent Duroc, or 50 percent Iberian and 50 percent Duroc.
Jamón ibérico de cebo, which is affixed with a white label, comes from pigs that are 50 percent Iberian and 50 percent Duroc, and fed only grain.
Another type of Spanish ham, jamón serrano, doesn’t have a colored label at all. Serrano is commercially farmed and made from a variety of pigs — Duroc, Landrace, Large White, or Pietrain — whose hooves are white or light brown. The pigs are typically kept in close quarters and fed grain, so it’s much less expensive than ham made from pata negra stock. The meat has small strips of white fat that sit side-by-side with the pale-pink muscle. The curing time will still be indicated, however.
In addition to the pig’s breeding and diet, jamón is labeled with how long it’s been cured for. Curing is the process of preserving food by drawing out moisture through a combination of salt, air, and time; all jamón, from the least to the most expensive, undergoes curing, although each producer decides the best curing time for each type of jamón. For jamón made from white-footed pigs, the minimum duration is nine to 12 months, and is usually labeled “jamón bodega.” Jamón reserva cures for 12 to 15 months, and gran reserva requires 15 months or longer. Iberian pigs are cured for at least two years, meaning all ham from pata negra pigs falls into the gran reserva category, but the size of the leg is also a factor, so the smaller paleta (shoulder) might only need 24 months — whereas the back leg (for which the Spanish word is also “jamón”) could require 36 months or longer, depending on its weight. Most Spanish ham was once cured by mountain air in natural curing sheds, but now the process mostly happens in climate-controlled facilities.
How to buy it
You could order your jamón in a restaurant and side-step overwhelming ham-related decision-making, but there’s nothing more empowering than walking out of a market with treasure tucked under your arm. You’ll have to pick between a shoulder or back leg, a slicing method — and whether to get it sliced at all. Find jamón at specialists like Enrique Tomás, markets like La Boqueria, the corner butcher — or at a supermarket, where the quality is still high but prices are moderate. At Mercadona supermarket, for example, they’ll slice it right in front of you, or you can grab one of the already vacuum-sealed packs.
First, decide whether to buy jamón or paleta. Meat on the paleta is closer to the bone, which makes it redder and more intensely flavored; as a result, it’s usually sliced thinner. If you prefer softer flavors and don’t mind paying more, then the back leg is for you. Neither is better than the other, but paleta is less expensive.
If buying sliced, decide how you want it cut. In Spain, jamón is either sliced a máquina or a cuchillo — machine- or hand-carved, respectively. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the more common machine-carved method, there’s a bias against it among aficionados, who feel cutting a cuchillo makes the jamón taste better. While the actual difference is negligible, slicing by hand is done with a cool-looking long, thin jamón knife, which does add some flair to the process.
It’s not feasible for most visitors, but if you do buy an entire bone-in leg, once at home, hang it, or rest it on a jamonero. Keep the cut side covered to protect it from drying out or developing mold, and once cut into the meat will last about a month. If you bought your jamón sliced, Enrique Tomás recommends finishing it in three months, but it will likely keep in the refrigerator for much longer. If keeping sliced ham in the refrigerator, take it out an hour before serving so it can reach peak scent and taste. Once at room temperature, you can easily peel the slices apart.
How to get it home
Sadly, health restrictions don’t allow jamón into the United States unless it’s commercially imported from a producer certified by the USDA. If you’re keen on smuggling some in, you can try the only tried-and-true method — though you didn’t hear it here. First, buy your sliced jamón vacuum-sealed, which should be an option anywhere you shop. Wrap it in several layers of tinfoil and press it in between the pages of a magazine. Then, swaddle the magazine in lightly perfumed clothing in your checked luggage. If smuggling jamón into the U.S. sounds like too much effort, just order it online from José Andrés’s Mercado Little Spain.
Ordering jamón from a restaurant is more straightforward; many menus offer only one variety, which usually arrives unadorned on a plain white plate. Even a no-name, unlabeled jamón can be pricey at a restaurant, however. And while it can be even more expensive at tourist-friendly places like El Nacional off Barcelona’s posh Passeig de Gràcia, you’ll at least get to see it sliced expertly off the bone right in front of you.
And if you aren’t sure you’re ready for the full-on taste of simply sliced jamón, try it with huevos rotos — broken-yolked eggs and jamón served over french fries — or blissful seasonal pèsols, which juxtaposes sweet peas in a savory broth adorned by tiny cubes of deep-red jamón.
Florida native Melissa Leighty is a freelance writer and photographer currently based in Barcelona, Spain, as well as the owner of Barcelona’s Salut Wine Studio.