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CHRISTMAS

The ultimate guide to buying a leg of ‘jamón’ in Spain at Christmas

Cured ham is serious business in Spain and buying a pig’s leg is a quintessential Spanish tradition at Christmas. They’re delicious but can cost hundreds of euros, so knowing your ‘serranos’ from your ‘ibéricos’ is essential to not getting ripped off.

The ultimate guide to buying a leg of 'jamón' in Spain at Christmas
Photo: Ben Kerckx/Pixabay

If you didn’t know already, ‘jamón’ is a national obsession in Spain.

Every year around 6 million cured pigs’ legs are sold here, according to the country’s Association of Iberian Pigs (Asici).

When in 2015 the World Health Organisation found that eating this type of cured or processed meat could cause cancer, Spaniards laughed off the claims and have carried on gobbling down slice after slice ever since.

And even though the wide variety of ‘jamones’ is a mainstay in the Spanish diet throughout the year, it’s at Christmas when Spaniards truly splurge, traditionally buying a whole leg of cured ham with a specific thin-slicing knife (cuchillo jamonero) and a wooden stand (jamonero).

Prices can go from under €50 to thousands of euros for the crème de la crop (the record is €11,881 for a leg sold at auction in Japan in September 2020).

In between there are dozens of varieties and hundreds of brands to choose from, which can be tough as you want to buy the right one for the price. 

Here we’ll go over some of the main points to keep in mind so by the time you go the butcher’s, you’ll be a ‘jamón connoisseur’, or at least a ‘hamficionado’.

Labelling 

Pigs’ legs should come with a label or seal which determines its quality category. 

An important point to mention now is that ‘jamones’ are usually either ‘jamón serrano’ or ‘ibérico’, with the latter being considered of a higher standard and taste as they’re the Spanish breed of “cerdo ibérico” (Iberian pig), which eat only acorns that are rich in oleic acid (a healthy fat) and the process by which the meat is cured is more artisanal.

These are Spain’s official categories in descending order for ‘jamones ibéricos’, a system introduced in 2014 to prevent people from being ripped off:

Precinto negro (Black seal): 100 percent acorn-fed Iberian pig (jamón de bellota 100% ibérico). The best there is according to the experts.

Precinto rojo (Red seal): acorn-fed Iberian pig (jamón de bellota ibérico) reared in pastures and crossed with Duroc Jersey pigs, therefore of a lower quality.

Precinto verde (Green seal): pigs that haven’t been fed acorns but rather grass in natural pastures and some pig feed, even if they are Iberian pigs. 

Precinto blanco (White seal): Iberian hams which are of varying quality and come from pigs who have been fed pig feed in a more systematic and mechanised way. 

Photo: Spanish Ministry of Agriculture

You’ll also notice that the purity of the ‘ibérico’ is measured with a percentile: 100, 75, 50 percent.

And you don’t necessarily have to cough up hundreds of euros for the very best to notice a difference, as ‘patas’ that are already labelled as 50 percent Iberian are likely to be markedly better than the everyday ‘jamon serrano’ you have on bread with olive oil.

What about getting a leg of ‘jamón serrano’?

We’re focusing primarily on ‘jamones ibéricos’ in this guide as that what’s most traditional to buy at Christmas in Spain and where knowing what you’re buying is most important given the higher price tag.

That doesn’t mean that getting a leg of ‘jamón serrano’ isn’t a good idea but it falls into a completely different ‘jamón’ category than ‘ibérico’ – Duroc or ‘Jamón Blanco’ as the pigs are regular white pigs that are fed normal pig feed in most cases. 

‘Jamón serrano’ is therefore not as sumptuous as “ibérico” but still pretty tasty. The general rule is the longer it’s cured, the better it’ll taste. 

The ‘Gran Reserva’ and ‘Reserva’ varieties are cured for 15 and 7 months months, so the taste and aromas will be richer.

With the ‘bodega’ or ‘cava’ variety, the standard curing process is nine months but because this is not always mentioned in the labelling, there’s the possibility that it could be excessively raw.

Photo: AFP

The external appearance of ‘jamón ibérico’

A lot of Spaniards believe the colour of the leg’s hoof gives away the quality of the ham whereas the experts say it’s rather the thinness and longer length of the lower extremity. Iberian pigs also have more worn down hooves, as they spend their lives walking while rummaging around for acorns.

Therefore, a perfect looking hoof is generally a bad sign.

Furthermore, the leg’s skin should be wrinkled as this is an indication that it’s been properly cured and that the fat is close to the skin.

It should also be fairly homogenous in colour and appearance and not have obvious grooves or cracks which could indicate that it’s been excessively cured.

If you can, press your finger into the ‘jamón’ and if it gives way easily it usually means that it’s well cured and of ‘bellota’ quality.

The internal appearance of ‘jamón ibérico’

If you have the chance to see the cut on an Iberian ham, one sure sign of quality is for there to be visible white fat among the ‘jamón’, and for the meat to be truly red and shiny. 

A more maroon shade is usually an indication that the ham isn’t of great quality.

With ‘de bellota’ (acorn) legs the fat tends to drip at room temperature, which is a good sign. 

Photo: Luis Fernando Talavera/Pixabay

‘Jamón’ or ‘paletilla’?

The pig’s back legs are called ‘jamones’ whereas the ‘paletillas’ or ‘paletas’ are the front ones, which include the pig’s ‘arms’ and shoulder blades.

‘Paletillas’ are generally considered to be slightly tastier and have a more intense flavour, but that’s not the only thing to keep in mind.

‘Jamones’ are bigger in general – from 6.5 to 10 kg – whilst ‘paletillas’ are between 4.5 and 6.5 kg.

If only a small group of people will be tucking into the ‘pata’ this Christmas, the ‘paletilla’ can be a better option as the chances of it drying up or developing mould before you finish it are lower.

Then again, ‘paletillas’ are considered harder to cut.

A useful tip

Try to find out if you can taste the variety of ‘jamón’ you’re looking to buy. This won’t necessarily be possible in all supermarkets but if the one you’re interested in is being sold in slices at the butcher’s, you could ask for a small piece to find out if you like it.

How much should I pay for a leg of ‘jamón ibérico’?

According to Spanish food website Gastroactivity, for 100 percent acorn-fed ‘ibéricos’ (black seal), the average price is between €323 and €590. 

For 50 percent ‘ibericos’, which are fed acorns (red seal), the prices go from €281 to €299 on average.
For 50 percent ‘ibéricos’ that have eaten in pastures (green seal), you can expect to pay €211 to €255.

And finally, for Iberian pigs that have been fed pig feed (white seal) that includes cereals and legumes, you’ll pay anything from €117 to €230. 

Remember that you can always buy a smaller ‘paleta’ to pay less. For jamón serrano or other legs from non-Iberian pigs, it’s perfectly possible to pay under €100, even for the top category – ‘Gran Reserva’. 

How do I get a really good deal?

The experts’ advice is to cut out the middlemen and buy directly from ‘jamón’ producers in places like Ávila, Teruel or Granada. 

That may mean that you don’t get to see the leg before you buy it, but you can expect to save 10 or more percent on your purchase compared to buying it in a shop or supermarket.  

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FOOD & DRINK

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Not everywhere will offer you free tapas in Spain, but there are some cities where the tradition lives on. Read on to find out where they are, how you can get a free 'tapa' and the slight differences between each place.

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Tapas are an important part of Spanish culture, not only because of the gastronomical aspect but because of the social aspect of sharing dishes too. 

The word ‘tapa’ – meaning ‘lid’ – is thought to derive from a 13th-century law passed by a Castilian king requiring taverns to serve food with alcohol, perhaps in a bid to avoid inebriation of the serfs.

A ‘tapa’ was a small plate of ham or olives used as a lid to keep insects and dust away from a drink and usually came free. 

The tradition of free tapas has died out across much of Spain, but there are still some cities where it is alive and well. Most of these cities can be found in three regions – the eastern part of Andalusia, Castilla y León and Galicia. 

READ ALSO: Fourteen classic Spanish dishes to celebrate World Tapas Day

Granada

Granada is the undisputed king of free tapas in Spain, famed for its offerings which can be anything from a piece of Spanish tortilla to almost a whole meal, such as a mini burger and fries or small fried fish. It works like this – each time you buy a drink, you will be given a free tapas dish. If you order consecutive drinks in the same bar, each of the tapa dishes you get will be different. Free tapa will come with everything from beer and wine to soft drinks and sparkling water, but not with coffee or tea. Keep in mind that the price of drinks in Granada is slightly higher than in some Spanish cities, which helps to cover the cost of the food.

Calle Navas, Calle Virgen del Rosario and the area around the Cathedral offer some of the best tapas in the city. Remember that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, ask for una tapa vegetariana o tapa vegana. While most bars in the city should have a suitable alternative, some of the more rough and ready ones might not, or you may just get something simple like bread and cheese. One of Granada’s best-loved vegetarian tapas dishes is berenjena con miel (deep fried aubergine drizzled with treacle). 

READ ALSO: What to order at a restaurant in each region of Spain

Almería

Just southeast of Granada on the coast, Almería is another of Spain’s great free-tapas cities. The tradition is a little different here than in other Spanish cities because you get to choose your tapa instead of just getting a surprise. Many of the tapas menus here are vast and you’ll be spoilt for choice. It could be anything from a goat’s cheese and caramelised onion montadito (small sandwich) to paté on toast. Almeríans love their toast, so don’t be surprised if you find many different variations of topped toasts on the menu.

You’ll also have to speak up here, waiters will often come over to ask for your drink order, but not come back and ask for your tapa order. It’s best to tell your waiter what you want when your drinks arrive.

You may be able to get a free pulpo (octopus) tapa in Galicia. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP

Jaén

The city and province of the same name to the north of Granada is also known for its tapa gratis when ordering a drink. Like in Granada, here you’ll be given the tapa of the house and generally won’t be given a choice in what you get. The prices of beers here are not as high as in Almería, but tapas portions are generally pretty generous, meaning you can easily have enough for dinner by going to just a few places.

Dishes here may include a plate of migas (fried breadcrumbs or flour with pieces of meat and fried peppers) or morcilla (blood sausage or black pudding). You can try asking for a vegetarian or vegan tapa here too, but the bars may not be as accommodating as the ones in Granada and may not have so many options, although they will try with what they have. 

León

It’s not just the eastern provinces of Andalusia where you can get free tapas. One of the best foodie cities in northern Spain that has carried on this tradition is León. Some of the most typical tapas dishes you may be served here include patatas leonesas (León-style potatoes), or morcilla de León (blood sausage or black pudding from León).

During the pandemic, a few bars in León started charging around €0.30 to €0.50 for tapas, but you’ll be happy to know that the majority of them still offer it for free. Bars will generally charge less for the wine, beers and other drinks here than in Granada too. The best places to go are around the famed Barrio del Húmedo or the Barrio Romántico. There are even some bars that will offer free tapas with your coffee order for breakfast here, which is unheard of elsewhere. 

Ávila

In almost every bar in Ávila you will be served a free tapa along with your drink. You’re unlikely to be served a simple piece of bread with a topping, here the dishes are almost like mini meals. Much of the cuisine here is based on meat, so you might expect a small plate of stewed wild boar or kidney with potatoes.

You will also find that they’re pretty big compared to free tapas in some other cities and filling too, but along with that, you will be paying slightly above average for your drink. The best street to head to for free tapas here is Calle San Segundo.

Alcalá de Henares

There may only be some bars left in Madrid that will offer you a free tapa with your drink, but head just east to the student town of Alcalá de Henares and you’ll find that they’re given out freely. Lots of places here will let you choose what you want too. You’ll pay above average for a caña here, around 3, but for that you’ll get a fairly decent tapa which could include patatas bravas, burgers or scrambled eggs with potatoes.

READ ALSO: Top ten Madrid bars serving free tapas, one for each barrio

Santiago de Compostela

When you’ve finally completed the Camino, what could be better than sitting down to a nice cold beer and plate of free tapas? The majority of bars here offer simple tapa such as a piece of bread with some type of meat on top, such as jamón or sausage or a small slice of tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette).

Lugo
Another Galician place, known for offering free tapas is the walled city of Lugo. Here you’ll be given a free snack with your glass of Albariño wine or beer. Lugo’s tapas scene works differently from elsewhere too, here a waiter will come around with a tray of various types of dishes and you’ll select the one you like the look of best. These may include anything from pulpo (octopus) to empanadas (Galician-style pies), tortilla rellena (filled omelette) or anchoas (anchovies).

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