At this time of year, the traditional jamón de navidad is everywhere, whether on a stand being sliced or hanging from the ceiling as complete legs. I remember once, shortly after we’d moved here, seeing hams in Mercadona for around €35 and a week later, in El Corte Inglés, seeing what I thought was a leg for the same price and being surprised they weren’t much more expensive in such a shop. But no, it was €35 a kilo rather than for the whole leg! These things can cost hundreds of Euros at the top end of the price range. There is, needless to say, a great variety on offer to account for these varying prices, and I hope the following will be helpful to anyone who isn’t familiar with this archetypal Spanish Christmas tradition.

There are two main types of Jamón, Ibérico and Serrano, with Ibérico being considered the far superior, partly because Serrano ham is much more intensively farmed, and partly because it’s cured for between just 7 and 16 months compared to what can be up to 3 years for Ibérico. Of the ham produced in Spain, 90% is Serrano, and only 10% Ibérico, and most experts would say that Iberico’s taste and texture is far better … and although I’m not remotely an expert, I would agree, and think that anyone experiencing a sliver of Ibérico simply melting on the tongue would agree too.

Within the Ibérico range, the choice is between the following:

Jamón Ibérico de Bellota: top of the range, indeed free range pigs, acorn fed.
Jamón Ibérico de Recebo: Mixed-fed pigs – acorns, natural grazing and mass-produced feed.
Jamón Ibérico de Cebo: grazed pigs also fed mass-produced feed.
Jamón Ibérico de Cebo de Campo: free range grazed pigs also fed mass-produced feed.

Once you’ve chosen the type, you have to choose the part … and here you can choose between a jamón and a paleta. Both are commonly known as jamón, and both will be displayed in the same stands, often next to each other, and at first glance the only difference will appear to be price. Properly speaking, however, the jamón is the back leg, whereas the paleta is the front. The difference can be likened to that between the meatiness of a leg of lamb and the fatty sweetness of a shoulder. For me, this is the real difference between the jamón and paleta, the choice being purely a matter of taste.

For those who just cannot see themselves getting through a whole jamón, or who just want a taster, most supermarkets sell vacuum packs of small quantity using the same terminology as for whole legs. They work out to be relatively expensive, but for just a taste of such a fantastic meat, Christmas might make it worth it!