• The parts of the pig

    Everything you need to know about pigs.   Because in Spain we are specialists in using every single part of the pig.
    The traditional carving up of a pig has varied a little over the last few years, and you can now find different cuts on the market that haven’t been sold separately before, at least not in general.

    Leaving offal to one side, the ‘tocino’ fatty bacon – traditionally used for cooking (although now not so popular because of its high fat content) and for pressed meat – and the use of blood to make black pudding or simply to eat fried, we would like to run through the ‘map’ of the pig so you can find out where each part comes from.

    The shoulder is a very meaty part from the front of the pig. Its high collagen content makes it ideal for stewing, but it is also usually eaten breaded or simply on the grill.

    The shoulder loin is one of those parts that has been ‘rediscovered’ in the last few years. It is an oval part, located above the leg. It forms part of the head of the loin, and it is perfect for roasts or filleted and char-grilled.

    The blade end loin is a relatively small triangular part that is at the front end of the loin. Long and thin, only two are extracted from each pig, each weighing around 100 g. Fine, tender and delicate, the blade end loin is a delicacy to char-grill.

    Chops and the loin are two classics in our cuisine. Either on the bone (firm-favourite pork chops) or just the loin (separated from the spine), it is very juicy lean meat that can be used for any type of preparation.

    Just as for beef, the sirloin is one of the most highly-appreciated parts of the pig. This is delicate meat, smooth and aromatic, that can be served with almost anything. It is found in the lumbar region, between the ribs and the spinal column, just in front of the ham.

    What can we say about ham? For us, there’s no doubt that this is the best part of the pig. Although it is eaten all over the world, only Italy and France make a similar product (with some differences). This rear leg, produced traditionally, is one of the quintessential delicacies of the highly-appreciated Spanish cuisine.

    The streaky bacon, as its name suggests, is a fatty part of the pig meaning the lean and fatty combination that is in the belly and runs along the ribs. Although it has become more popular to eat bacon in Spain (the word has Chinese origins), it can be consumed in different ways. Not only char-grilled or grilled, it has been traditionally eaten salted and cured like ham.

    We don’t need to explain where the ribs come from, but they still deserve a mention. Like any meat on the bone, it’s a real delicacy.

    Another cut that has become more fashionable recently is the ‘secret’ upper belly. It is found between the shoulder blade and the streaky bacon, deep inside and it is a fan shaped muscle. It is known as ‘secret’ in Spanish because it remains hidden if the muscle is not cut horizontally, although people also say that butchers used to keep it for themselves as it was a very tasty part. The best way of eating it is on a hot grill to toast the fat.

    The front leg is just that. It is produced in a similar way to ham, but because it weighs less and has a greater proportion of bone, it takes considerably less time to cure. With an intense and very pleasant flavour, this piece is worth less on the market because it gives little meat and is more difficult to cut.

    The dewlap is the “fatty sister” of bacon (if that’s possible). It can be eaten fresh, char-grilled for example, but just like bacon, it can be salted or marinated. It is usually eaten with a broth. A real delicacy.

    The cheeks are also back in fashion. These are the muscles located either side of the jaw. It is a lean piece of meat, noticeably marbled with fat. As this is a well-worked muscle, it is a very tasty piece that is at its best when stewed.

    In the head, we find gelatinous parts that are used to make processed meat (such as tongue) but also ears or lips, other classic Spanish dishes.

    And that’s just a general outline. In different areas of Spain, they are bound to use parts of the pig in other ways, but we hope to have been able to shed some light on where some of the most popular cuts come from.

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  • The 5 PDO for ham in Spain

    Oil, cheese, fruit, paprika, mussels, wine and of course, ham. These are some of the many foods that have been acknowledged in our country as a paragon of quality with a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), a total of 101 agro-food products. This stand-out quality figure is protected by Europe, guaranteeing consumers a series of product characteristics that make this product unique and inimitable. Although other types of quality seal exist, such as the PGI and the TSG, today we wish to focus on the 5 Protected Designations of Origin for ham that exist in Spain. If you want to know the differences between the quality seals, you can read this entry in our blog. Differences between PDO, PGI and TSG.

    There are 4 PDO for Iberian cured ham in our country and only one for white pig ham. Let’s start with the latter, not only because it’s the oldest but also because it’s the one we know best at La estrella del jamón.

    Teruel Ham PDO 

    In 1984, the Aragon Government Agriculture Ministry approved what would be the Regulation for the Teruel Ham DO. It would not be ratified by the Ministry of Agriculture until March the following year.

    Teruel province’s cold climate, plus its relief and its traditional know-how, were key in terms of requesting and approving the acknowledgement of this seal that thereby awarded the first PDO for ham in Spain and the third in the world after Parma and San Daniele, both in Italy. Teruel Ham joined this list in February 2014.

    This ham comes from crossed-race Duroc pigs on the paternal line and Landrace, Large White or a cross of both on the maternal line, born, raised and slaughtered in the same province. It is characterised by having a smooth, not particularly salty flavour. Although it can be cured with its skin left on or cut in a V, most production keeps the hide intact, following local tradition, and to get longer curing as time is the most important factor in the pleasant flavour of its marbled lean meat, maintaining its white fat. According to its specifications, the minimum curing time is 60 weeks and it should not weigh less than 7 kg.

    PDO Teruel Ham has three distinctive signs to avoid possible frauds: it keeps the hoof on (not very usual in other hams cured in the area), it has a numbered band featuring the PDO logo and the eight-point Arabic star is branded into the skin. Only ham protected by the Teruel Ham Control Board can be called ‘Jamón de Teruel’.

    Guijuelo PDO

    This production area, that encompasses 78 towns located in the Sierra de Béjar and the ‘Peña de Francia’, in the south east of Salamanca province, is one of the most traditional ham-making areas in Spain. This led to it becoming the first Iberian cured ham PDO in our country in 1986.

    Just like the province of Teruel, this zone has a dry, cold climate that helps to gives its hams their typical sweet flavour. It has three ham categories with coloured seals that match the ASICI seals (like the other Iberian PDOs): black for 100% Iberian acorn-fed ham; red for 75% Iberian race acorn-fed ham and green for 100% or 75% Iberian race natural range feed hams.

    As opposed to other PDOs, its production zone (for raising and fattening the pigs) extends over a very wide area that encompasses 11 provinces from 4 autonomous regions from the west to the south east of Spain, that have traditionally supplied it with meat.

    Dehesa de Extremadura PDO

    Stretching over a tree-filled pasture of more than a million hectares, Extremadura could not be denied the privilege of a PDO. So, the Dehesa de Extremadura Protected Designation of Origin was set up in 1990.

    Its production zone ranges through the seas of cork oaks and holm oaks in its two provinces, Caceres and Badajoz, just like its ham-making zone that centres above all on the districts to the south east of Badajoz, Ibor-Villuercas, Cáceres-Gredos Sur, Sierra Montánchez and Sierra de San Pedro. There they cure very high-quality hams, entirely recognisable by their strong taste on the palate. We are talking about 100% Iberian acorn-fed hams, 75% Iberian race and 100% and 75% Iberian nature range feed hams, sold with black, red and green seals respectively with bands in the same colours as the seals.

    Jabugo PDO

    In 1998, Huelva Ham was registered as a Protected Designation of Origin, but it was not until March 2017 when it changed its name to one of the emblematic ham towns in Spain: Jabugo.

    The area where they raise and fatten the pigs is limited to the Extremadura meadows and the Andalusian provinces of Cordoba, Huelva, Seville, Cadiz and Malaga. However, it is the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche zone and its climate that give this ham its organoleptic characteristics. It is doubtlessly another of the great names in hams, enjoying international fame.

    Since 8th October 2018, the Jabugo PDO has only and exclusively certified 100% Iberian acorn-fed hams although for a time we will still be able to find hams on the market that are 100% Iberian acorn-fed, 75% Iberian race acorn-fed and 100% and 75% Iberian race natural range feed.

    Los Pedroches PDO

    The youngest of the ham DO in Spain (registered in 2003) is located in Cordoba, where there is the largest continuous stretch of tree-filled pasture in the south of Europe with over 300 thousand hectares of holm oak, cork oak and Gall oak.

    The district used to mainly focus on livestock and little by little it has been industrialised and produces part of the hams that are traditionally made in zones such as Huelva and Salamanca. Like the Teruel DOP, all the pigs are born, raised and slaughtered in the province, where they also make this delicious sweet and aromatic ham.

    Just like all the other Iberian PDOs (each with its own specifications), Los Pedroches mark hams with black, red and green seals to define the 100% Iberian acorn-fed products, 75% Iberian acorn-fed and 100% or 75% Iberian natural range feed hams.

    This is just a short summary of the 5 designations of origin for ham that exist in Spain. Each Control Board’s website provides much more information beyond what we have given here, although we hope that this has been useful to clarify some aspects.

    A PDO is a differentiated brand that gives consumers an extra guarantee concerning what they are eating. Give them a try and find out which one you like best. It’ll be a wonderful experience, without a doubt.

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  • How should you keep a ham at home?

    Already got a ham at home?
    Whether you are one of the lucky ones who received a ham for Christmas or maybe you buy this wonderful product all year round, you might be interested in our recommendations on how to keep your ham at home in the best possible condition.

    Let’s start with a few guidelines if you don’t want to tuck in straight away. The first thing you should know is that ham is a living product. This means that it is going to continue maturing right up to when it is eaten. Consequently, it is very important how and where you keep it. If it came in a cotton cover, the first thing you should do is take this off, as it can be the ideal place for mites and mould to appear. The same happens if it comes in a box. It would be best to ‘undress’ the piece and, if possible, hang it from its rope in a dry, cool place. If you have a spacious pantry, this would be the perfect place. If not, a basement or a garage will do. However, we recommend that, if the ham has come out of its natural drying area with the right level of curing, you should start eating it straight away.

    Once the ham has been started, we come across an infinite number of theories. So, far from dispelling false myths or going against what so many professionals might say, we are simply going to give you a few tips from someone we think is extremely knowledgeable about ham in our country: ham cutter Pedro José Pérez Casco. From his butcher’s shop in Puebla de la Calzada (Badajoz), Pedro tells us not only how he does this professionally but also what we can do at home.
    Once you have finished cutting, always using the right knivescollect up the fat that you’ve removed from the ham and rub the surface of the cut on its whitest part, particularly the lean part. You can get a similar effect by scratching the marbling with the blade of your knife and spreading the fat like butter. This leaves a fine protective layer, similar to what the ham would have naturally, thereby stopping it from drying out and oxidising.

    When covering it, Pedro gives us two tips depending on how long you think you’re going to wait before cutting it again. If this time does not exceed 48 hours, after rubbing it with its own fat, you can cover the cutting area with transparent film (not the whole piece, only the part that we have opened up with the cutting and the fat). However, the plastic is going to stop any humidity from escaping, which is the ham’s natural way of drying. Consequently, you should not cover your ham with film for more than these two days as undesirable mould will start to grow and if it doesn’t ruin the whole piece, you’ll certainly have to throw away the affected parts.

    If you think that you are not going to cut your ham for a while, the best thing to do, after rubbing the fat, is to cover it with a clean cotton cloth to stop the light affecting its properties.

    Professionally, if the ham is to be left for several days, Pedro’s recommendation is to use waxed aluminium foil. The waxed side should be in contact with the fatty film that we have created, whilst the aluminium will protect it from the light. Given that this type of paper is usually found in butcher’s shops, but it is not easy to buy it in regular stores, you might use separate waxed paper and then aluminium foil from your regular store and try this professional trick in your own home.

    We know that this is a contentious issue, as the saying going: “cada maestrillo tiene su librillo” (there’s more than one way to skin a cat). We’d encourage you to give Pedro José Pérez Casco’s tips a try and show us how you keep your ham in your own homes. We hope we’ve helped.

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  • How to choose a good ham

    The peak time for eating ham is fast approaching. The lucky ones amongst you will receive a ham as a Christmas present from their company or from a customer. Others will decide to buy one for festive family meals. And although everyone enjoys this tasty product, only the latter group face the dilemma of choosing a good ham.

    As we produce several types of ham, we would obviously recommend our own, so what we’re going to do here is suggest several aspects to consider when choosing a piece.

    Go to a specialist store

    Hypermarkets are endangering the ecosystem of small stores that have been selling hams in villages, towns and cities for years. The enormous variety of products, amazing offers and the ease of shopping in a hypermarket have meant that small stores have had to specialise. Although they cannot compete in terms of volume, they can do so for quality. So, at La Estrella del Jamón, we would encourage you to buy a great ham from this type of store. Neighbourhood butchers are usually loyal to products that have been personally selected using their own experience and not just by price. Consequently, the staff behind the counter are not only familiar with the generic product – ham in this case – but the brand or brands that their store sells and, in many cases, the people who produce it and they might even have visited the drying areas where the hams are made and witnessed the process step by step. So, when you decide to spend your money on a ham, it’s best to buy one from a specialised store.

    There are no great deals

    A whole ham is not exactly cheap for many reasons, although it is not the most expensive product in terms of price per kg in deli meat. The primary reason is because we are buying a large quantity of meat in one go, generally more than 7 kg. Secondly, because this is a product that takes a long time and loses a lot of weight from when it is put in salt, known as the ‘merma’. Thirdly, despite not exactly being an ultra-processed food, there are costs derived from handling it and exposing it to possible problems during the curing time. For all these reasons, you should not be fooled by a deal. When the price of a ham is very low, it’s hiding something. Occasionally, there are hams that have barely been cured or that are excessively dry. Other times, this might be a labelling fraud. If it is none of these, we might be buying a low-cost ham that, apart from being illegal, has a negative knock-on effect on all workers in the sector.

    Value for money

    Another aspect to consider is to adapt the quality you are after to match your budget. The price range for ham is very wide, considering the many designations, types and curings that we might find. The lowest prices are for white pig hams. Within these, we can distinguish several types. The most basic of them is what is known as Cured Ham. These are uncertified pieces. They have usually been cured for a very short time, with high salt content to accelerate the elaboration process. The next price step up is Serrano Ham: this ham meets requirements for the Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG) label that endorses it. Above this, there are hams with Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) that are Trevélez and Serón. The highest range of the white pig ham is Protected Designation of Origin Teruel Ham (PDO). If you wish to find out more about these differentiated quality brands, you can visit our post on them: Differences between PDO, PGI and TSG The prices of these hams usually match their quality. However, and due to curing and process differences between brands, this might not always be the case and you might find a serrano ham at a higher price than others with differentiated quality.
    In the next price scale up, we find Iberian cured ham. Since 2014, the Iberian Ham Quality Standard compiles four types of this ham which are marked by four different coloured seals, covering two aspects: race purity and feed. To go no any further into this matter, we would recommend visiting the next post: Iberian seals.
    The colour order will be as follows from the cheapest to the most expensive:
    white – industrial feed ham,
    green – natural range feed ham,
    red – 50 or 75% crossed acorn-fed ham
    and black – 100% Iberian acorn-fed ham.
    Above the Iberian cured hams covered by the standard, we find the four Iberian Designations of Origin that are Jabugo, Dehesa de Extremadura, Los Pedroches and Guijuelo. As for white pigs, the PDOs provide a further guarantee to consumers in addition to a series of process parameters (different in each case) that are considerably stricter than the Iberian Standard.

    Outer appearance

    Having already considered where to buy it, the price and the type of ham that you want, one of the aspects that you can ‘control’ is the visual appearance. They say that hams are like melons and until you open them, you’re not sure how they are going to come out. And it’s true to a certain extent. Ham is a ‘living’ product, constantly evolving from the start of its process and in it, you can find small anomalies such as you might find in an apparently healthy apple. But beyond that, here are some things that we would recommend considering when choosing a ham.
    The fat is a clear quality parameter in the ham. We should make it clear that it is not possible to produce a good quality product without fat. To check whether your piece has the right amount of fat, you can look at the tip and check that the fat is at least one centimetre thick (we specifically like it to have more). The fat gives the lean meat its flavour and helps keep it juicy, in addition to reducing the piece’s salty taste. On the other hand, we can check that it does not have any excessive deformities. If its natural shape is intact, it is more likely that the fat and muscle content of the piece is correct. However, a ‘deformed’ ham is not necessarily a bad ham. Once open, it might be difficult to tell the difference.
    Another aspect to weigh up is the curing time. Whether it is in the form of a branding or ink on the crust, or on a label, the ham should display a MAPA seal showing the week and the year that salting began. The curing time will not determine the hardness or the consistency of the meat or even the flavour and fragrance that the piece has acquired.
    We hope to have helped you choose your ham. If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to make an enquiry and we will try and answer it as quickly as possible.

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