Going home is a trip down memory lane> To the cold cuts and the Spanish cured meats of my childhood, to the simple meals that are so common of Spanish cuisine. Every time I go home with a friend and I try to explain our culture, cold cuts and Spanish cured meats are an essential part of the talk, and of the visit.
There is not a week that can go by in Spain without copious amounts of cured meats. In the sandwich, as a snack, as a whole meal. Friday evening dinner used to be just bread with tomato, delicious home made olive oil and a set of board and plates lined with cold cuts.
Finally, the rest of the world has caught up. Iberico ham and chorizo regularly feature on menus around the world but the list of Spanish cured meats runs the gamut, from cured to cooked to aged, don’t stay at those famous duo!.
How to serve and Spanish cured meats and cold cuts
The best way to serve all of Spain’s cured meats and cold cuts is on a wooden board, just out of the packets they were bought in, sliced or, for the thinner ones, whole with a sharp knife for people to cut their piece the way they like it, thinly sliced or thick.
The only exception is maybe chorizo, which can also be eaten “raw”, and morcilla which is almost always fried. For an extra special and local way to cook and serve them, use a terracotta bowl for frying.
All the Spanish cured meats and cold cuts should be served with copious amounts of plain toasted farmer’s bread, thin and crunchy toasted Catalan “glass bread” covered and spread with traditional “tomacons”, a kind of tomatoes that can only be found in Catalunya which are sweet and are only found in specialty markets like La Boqueria or in the countryside farm houses (my dad grows them!), and generous drizzles of extra virgin olive oil. For extra perfection, add some simple bread sticks for the ham which is happiest when savoured on its own. To complement, add in some delicious Spanish Manchego cheese, some olives and a bottle of red for the perfect casual dinner. If you want to be extra Spanish, I say make a potato omelette and add it to the table. Perfect!
1. Iberico jaburgo ham
The royalty of Spanish cured meats and cold cuts is the ham. But not all hams are made equal. There is parma ham, there is copa ham and, even in Spain, there are different quality grades of the famous Iberico ham. When I read Spanish Iberico ham on a menu abroad I wonder if it is of the right quality: will it be jamon de jabugo pata negra? And how much will they charge for it if it is? Usually I always pass up on the ham, the premiums charged for it are just silly when I know how much a good jabugo ham costs.
In Spain, you can buy ham of all prices and types, from the more day-to-day Serrano ham to the uber delicious jabugo ham. But it not just the type of pig which determines the quality or price of the ham, the part of the animal it comes from and the way it was cut or by whom hugely impact the price of a slice. For a 100gr vacuum packet of the jabugo ham I often take back home I may pay between 5-10 euro depending on the combination of those elements.
Because the really good ham is hand cut, you will pay more for the perfect slice, because there is a skill and a lot of experience involved in taking a sharp knife and attempting at cutting the perfect, long and wide but very thin, slice of ham. And because the pig’s legs shape do not allow for that type of cut to be the majority, there are also a lot of other imperfect or smaller cuts that are of the same quality but will be sold for a lower price, simply because they don’t look as nice on a plate, which is how most high quality ham is served, to be eaten on its own, or maybe with a slice of bread. Lastly, even from the same Iberico pig, the ham from the back or the front legs is not of the same quality or price. The front legs are more cured and drier because they are thinner whereas the back legs are fatter and will tasted differently. Your personal taste will tell you which one you prefer. I am happy with the drier front legs because I prefer the more concentrated and drier flavour whereas a lot of people prefer the softer texture.
But what really makes jabugo ham so special?
This type of ham, called jamon de jabugo pata negra in Spain because of the black colour of the pigs throttles, is priced and valued for the happiness of the pigs. It may sound strange, but it is true. The pigs are on an all-acorn diet, eating what they can forage in the oak forests they roam freely in, in the South and West of Spanin. Jabugo is the name of a town in the province of Huelva, in Andalucia, where most of the pigs are raised. When you hear the word Iberico ham that refers to the breed of pigs, Iberian, which are the type the ham is made from.
One of the most famously used Spanish sausages and cured meats is chorizo. Chorizo can have several variations in spiciness and type of meat but is generally a mixture of pimenton red pepper and ground pork meat. Abroad, I usually see chorizo as being spicy when, in reality, in Spain, it is not as the pimenton or pepper used is of the sweet variety. The spicy version uses the hot pimenton and is the one that is most commonly found out of Spain. Chorizo is usually thin, of two or three inch width, and its length varies. As opposed to most other cured meats, chorizo is not very compressed so, when slices, it may break up. You can eat chorizo as is, in a sandwich, sliced up or cut into 2 inch long pieces and fried. Sometimes, chorizo can accompany fried eggs or can be added to pulses or beans stews for flavour and fat.
Perhaps my most favourite cured meat of all, after ham, is fuet sausage. Typical of Catalunya and more particularly of Vic, a town an hour north of Barcelona, fuet is a mixture of finely ground pork meat mixed with lard giving it the marbled white and pinkish colour that is so popular of fuet and longaniza, a similar but larger type of sausage. The meat is usually mixed with herbs like garlic, oregano, pepper and other and then places in a pork encasing and cured.
Fuet is thin, measuring around a couple of inches in width, and about 60-70cm long so it looks like a whip, hence the name, translation in Catalan of whip. Fuets are usually hang behind the kitchen door, as they come with a short string on one end. But once you start cutting slices of it, you won’t be able to stop!
One of the sausages you can easily eat on its own, with wine or cheese, or, if you slice it thinly, you can also eat it with bread with tomato and olive oil, typically Catalan sandwich.
This is the Spanish version of a blood sausage or black pudding. The sausage and the blood are mixed with rice, making it an easier to eat version than that from other countries. Morcilla can come from various parts of Spain but the most common one is from Burgos, one of the central provinces of Spain. Usually, the sausage is also flavoured with garlic and onion. The sausage is usually served fried, like chorizo, giving it a crisp texture in the outside.
5. Lomo embuchado
A cured pork loin that is great for sandwiches. It usually wrapped in pepper and left to cure for a couple of months. the resulting meat is tender, best sliced thinly, and eaten with bread. As opposed to other sausages like chorizo, lomo embuchado can be quite dry so you are best off adding some tomato to the bread or drenching it in aromatic olive oil.
This cured meat can also be of the higher quality if the pig is of the Iberian breed or has been fed acorn like the jaburgo pigs. When compared to the more basic version, lomo embuchado iberico de bellota is a bit fattier, usually has a few white lines of fat and is definitively more flavourful, nuttier and fills your mouth with that taste of the jabugo ham.
A typical Catalan sausage like fuet, but cooked instead of cured. Butifarra is of a light pinkish colour and has the same pieces of white marbling. it is made of lean pork meat, just like fuet, but it is boiled instead of cured giving it a softer touch. Butifarra can be thin of 3-4 inc width or bigger and comes in all lengths. we usually eat it like the rest, in sandwich or bread, but bacause of its boiled and softer texture, you can also eat it with pickles and it may be paired with small pickled onions, olives or roasted peppers. Eat it on its own as well. Butifarra is not always peppery and is usually sweeter as compared to the other, generally salty cured meats.
This is a very particular and delightful sausage. Made of finely ground pork of the specific pork breed raised in Mallorca, where sobrasada is from, and mixed with red Mallorcan sweet paprika and some more spices giving it the peculiar orange color, sobrasada is eaten as a spreadable sausage resembling the texture of pate. It comes in a thick oval shaped sausage as the spread is served inside a pork casing, but usually, it is sliced and spread on bread, sometimes even drizzled with some honey. The skin may then be removed.