Last week at Brindisa I had the privilege of meeting Jesús González, one of Spain's most respected Maestro Cortadores (Master Carvers). The man from Alburqueque who describes himself as a 'Ham Sommelier', was over to help promote his native Extremadura's acorn fed Ibérico ham 'Dehesa de Extremadura D.O.' which is new to Borough Market.
Jamón is obviously serious business in Spain and so is the carving. To appreciate the intensity of Ibérico ham it should be cut very thinly so it's almost translucent, and slices should be bite sized, ideally between 4-5cm in length and 5-6cm in width. Such precision is in high demand and nowadays there are thousands of professional Cortadores. Jesús, one of the first to turn the profession into an art has been in the game for 29 years, winning numerous national and international accolades for his skill with the blade.
'When I started I was one of only four professional carvers in the country, now they're popping up like mushrooms. It reminds me of when I was a kid, you could turn over a rock and find maybe four scorpions, these days you turn over a rock and find four Cortadores!'
To distinguish themselves, in 2007 Jesús and fellow carvers formed the first national ham carvers association (La Asociación Nacional de Cortadores de Jamón) uniting eleven of Spain's most revered maestros.
An important part of Jesús's work is as official carver and spokesman for the Dehesa de Extremadura D.O. one of four regional Ibérico Ham denominations (Guijuelo, Huelva and Pedroches are the others) which regulates the production of Ibérico ham in this western region of Spain. Any ham bearing the D.O. stamp such as the' Dehesa de Extremadura' Bellota (acorn fed) ham at Brindisa has to meet strict guidelines from start to finish.
Primarily the whole process has to take place in Extremadura. As soon as the piglets are weened they must be fed on a natural cereal diet which is supplemented by their foraging in the Dehesa, the Mediterranean oak forest of West and South Western Spain. When they reach the age of 18 months and a minimum weight of 90kg the fattening up process 'La Montanera' begins. During this period from October to March when the acorns (bellota) are in season, the pigs must increase their weight by at least 60% feeding solely on acorns and natural vegetation. With a minimum slaughter weight of 150kg they need to eat about 3.5kg of acorns for every kg they put on. Each animal should have a hectare or more of forest to rummage in, to provide enough acorns and to give them sufficient excercise. The fact that the Iberian pigs are truly free range is essential to the ham's flavour; by constantly working it's muscles in search of food the pig distributes acorn rich fat evenly throughout it's meat.
Curing the ham is equally rigorous, only sea salt is used as a preservative and the ham must be matured for a minimum of 20 mnths. According to Jesús, what makes Ibérico from Extremadura unique is it's balance of sweet and savoury, which is a product of the climate. With a ham from Jabugo such as 5 Jotas, the flavour is saltier and more savoury because more salt is needed for quicker curation in the hot Andalus climate. Whilst on the other hand a ham such as Joselito from further north in Guijuelo (Salamanca) has a sweeter flavour as less salt is employed in the cooler climate. Extremadura sits between these two regions geographically and climactically achieving a medium (in theory) between the two characteristics.
Finally, I got to taste some. It was superb, sweet and nutty combined with an intense savouriness that coats the roof of your mouth, the all important fat melting beautifully. Quite right that this culmination of years of care and craftsmanship should be carved by a Maesto Cortador!
Dehesa de Extremadura D.O. Ibérico de Bellota £16.50/100g
Brindisa, The Floral Hall, Stoney Street, Borough Market, London SE1
Tel: 020 7407 1036