People of Substack!
Pedro Almodóvar, one of Spain’s most important directors, made a movie called Jamón, Jamón! Only in Spain can you find a blockbuster romantic comedy starring nutty cured pork. But it makes sense because ham, or jamón as we call it, is a national treasure!
Sure, there are a lot of good pork products out there. Italians have prosciutto, Americans love bacon, and the French…I know some French people who like pâté…but we Spanish have a special relationship with pigs. Ever since Roman times, artisans on the Iberian peninsula have been curing their legs, creating the sweet, nutty meat that we know as jamón (actually…jambon in French and ham in English have the same Greek root for “leg”!). No one will argue against it, jamón is definitely the king of cured meats, it is the best culinary ambassador Spain can have.
Amigos! If you’re a subscriber, you’ll get José’s Guide to Jamón Part II in your inbox on Friday. If you want to learn about the types of jamón, join me!
One of the biggest reasons that jamón is so much better than anything else is geography. The west and southwest of Spain, where the ancient forests of the Iberian dehesa provide the ideal environment for hungry, growing pigs. This forest ecosystem covers over almost 8,000 square miles, about the size of Belgium! Can you imagine this? This special habitat covers much of southern and western Spain, across large parts of Andalucía and Extremadura, and reaching into Portugal.
The dehesa is especially important because it is one of the few ecosystems where humans actually play a constructive role, improving and maintaining the landscape to benefit wilderness and humans equally. And this has been going on since before the Bronze Age…this is old stuff!
It’s so unique and beautiful and important to our Spanish food culture because this is where the famous Ibérico pig wanders among the holm and cork oaks, feasting on sweet acorns called bellotas in Spanish. Local breeds of cattle, sheep, and goats also graze the land, and get nourishment from the land and in turn fertilize the soil.
The Spanish people are so crazy about their cured pig legs, we even have a Museo del Jamón in Madrid, a restaurant with hundreds of hams hanging behind the bar and all around the customers! There's quite an aroma in there…
For many years, Americans who wanted to eat this prized ham were forbidden to bring it back with them from trips to Spain because of strict import laws…though I know many who smuggled them in their suitcases. Maybe you were one of them? Now there’s no smuggling needed. I am happy to say that Jaleo was actually the first restaurant in the United States to serve Ibérico products! 15 years ago I worked with Embutidos Fermín in La Alberca and the Rodgers Collection, which is a fine-foods importer, to bring Ibérico products over so that Americans could finally taste our treasure on this side of the Atlantic!
I love jamón so much I even named one of my restaurants after it. Pigtail, which my team and I opened in Chicago in 2021, is a little speakeasy cocktail bar with small plates that feature jamón ibérico, even in the cocktails. If you go for a visit, be sure to have the José Taco — nori filled with jamón ibérico de bellota and osetra caviar, and also a plate of Croquetas de jamón ibérico de bellota…that is the ultimate croqueta! And you can even drink jamón…I told you before about our cocktail innovator Miguel Lancha, who crafted a cocktail using jamón…the Negroni Cristal is an Ibérico fat-washed combination of Gin Mare gin, blanc vermouth, and Luxardo Bitter Bianco. Don’t knock it until you try it!
Just this past March, I also sent vacuum-packed jamón ibérico into space, because astronauts spend long periods of time in space, and maybe they need something special to make them happy? And what gives us happiness, good food! So we are sending it to space, yes! Boom!
I know I gave you a lot of information here, but there’s so much more to tell you! On Friday I’ll have more to share for many of you…so if you want more, join me there.
Jamón, jamón was directed by Bigas Luna and not by Pedro Almodóvar…but Spanish Ham is indeed the best in the world.
A major star of Spanish cuisine!