There is no Ibérico or serrano, only Jamón

A tasting of jamón at La Oliva in Granada: Ibérico, serrano, lomo, chorizo, and salchichon.

The novel most responsible for the everlasting romanticization of Jazz Age expat culture in Paris, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, takes place half in Spain. When the pressures of drinking wine and eating oysters in the cafés of Montparnasse became too much to take, Hemingway, his friends, and the characters he modelled after them, escaped to San Sebastián, a beach town on the Bay of Biscay ten miles across the border from France, or to Pamplona, a little further south, where they watched the bullfights.

Alice B. Toklas loved Spain as much as Hemingway. She would have lived there, if Gertrude Stein had agreed, in the town of Avila west of Madrid. “I immediately lost my heart to Avila,” Stein has Toklas recall in the Autobiography, “I must stay in Avila forever I insisted. Gertrude Stein was very  upset, Avila was alright but she insisted, she needed Paris.” Stein, of course, got her way, still the couple traveled many times to Spain where Toklas made an odyssey of collecting gazpacho recipes. She included seven in her cookbook, four from the Spanish cities of Malaga, Seville, Cordoba, and Segovia, and three related soups from Turkey, Greece, and Poland. One day I would like to have a potluck where each guest brings one of Toklas’s soups and we can taste them all in comparison.

Unfortunately, Toklas did not include a recipe for salmorejo, a gazpacho-like soup originating from Andalusia, which I ate side-by-side with un auténtico gazpacho the other night at Francisco Lillo Roldán’s tasting room La Oliva, in Granada. We too have temporarily escaped Paris for Spain, following not the examples of expats past, but the dictates of the French school calendar and the vagaries of chance. Paris schools have broken up for the Toussaint holiday and we are lucky enough to have friends living in Granada, in the extreme south of Spain, whom we can visit. It’s t-shirt weather here, glorious blue skies, hardly a breeze to prickle the skin. I can understand why so many Paris-dwellers before me, tired of the grey chill, have flocked to Spain for the sun.

The inexpensive wine was also a lure in Hemingway’s time – Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises buys a leather wine-skin that holds five litres, which he fills for a couple pesetas. Truth be told the cheap wine was a pretty powerful lure for me as well. A glass of white in one of Granada’s many bars costs only 2€ and comes with a free plate of tapas, Spanish ham if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, as we were last night, the tapas could be a plate of cold overcooked spinach rotini sauced with ketchup and mayonnaise. This might explain why most people don’t come to Spain for the food (except for the extremely wealthy who made the pilgrimage to El Bulli when it was still open, or to the michelin-starred restaurants of San Sebastián today). What I remembered from my only previous trip to Spain, fifteen years ago, was lots of fried food and the rare un-fried food drowned in as much oil as its counterpart. I did have one magical paella at a restaurant in Barcelona (selected by the same sophisticated friend who chose our cassoulet restaurant in Carcassonne). But otherwise, like the Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, I took the majority of my calories in liquid form.

If Spain is not necessarily reputed for the excellence of its ordinary cooking, there can be no doubt about the quality of its ingredients. We visited the mercado on my first morning in town, and came home with bags full of ripe tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, pears, and lemons. There’s so much ripe fruit on the trees throughout town it falls bursting on the street, no one can eat it fast enough. Slicks of ripe persimmon staining the pavement, pomegranate seeds erupting from their skins, grapes wizening on the vine, and oranges on the trees, Andalusia in mid-October is a garden of paradise.

Granada Produce

And then there’s the ham. Spanish jamón is so fine it’s exported around the world. We can buy it across the street in Paris at the Carrefour. In fact the French seem to prefer it to the Bayonne ham, produced in France just across the border from San Sebastían. But nothing I’ve eaten in France compares to the jamón I tasted the other night at La Oliva.

Again, thanks to a canny friend, I had the perfect dinner reservations, not at a restaurant but at a tasting room run by Francisco Lillo Roldán, who owns a shop in town where he sells oils, cheeses, meats, wines, and other Spanish products. A couple years ago he began offering evening tastings of ingredients in his shop, accompanied by explanations in English and German for sunburned vacationers about the products and Spanish food. The popularity of these evenings led Francisco to seek out slightly larger premises in the cave of a downtown boutique hotel where he could host nightly dinners. He prefers not to call La Oliva a restaurant, since the focus is not on fine cooking but on the raw materials, presented very simply. There were thirteen courses spread out over three hours the evening I went, with many courses incorporating multiple tastings, and five matched wines as well. And yet I left not feeling overstuffed, because the food had not been prepared with the butter, cream, and meat stocks that give French food its richness.

The menu focused on tasting by bringing like things into comparison. We began with three olive oils, one sweet, one bitter, and one blended. Next we had five patés – partridge, cheese, cod, ham, and tomato – daubed on little crackers. We had the gazpacho and the salmorejo side by side: the gazpacho much more of a “liquid salad” as I saw it translated on a local menu, a thin tomato water with small cubes of vegetables in it, and the salmorejo a proper soup of tomatoes thickened with bread crumbs. There were five cheeses, and five torrones to end with. In between were simple prepared dishes: swordfish with parsley and a slice of boiled potato with paprika, avocado salad with parsley and a chopped shrimp, a stewed rice with shrimp stock, pork salad in a lettuce leaf, and salt cod mixed with pomegranate seeds, or as Francisco pronounced the English name for this fruit: pomme-grenades, giving me the image of exploding apples, a very apt analogy for the way that pomegranates burst on the branch if left unpicked. (The Spanish word for pomegranate, of course, is granada. It is the symbol of the city, and possibly the origin of the city’s name. There are pomegranates everywhere in Granada,)

Bursting pomegranate. Granada, October 2013.

And then there was the plate of Spanish jamón, five varieties: Ibérico, serrano, lomo, chorizo, and salchichon. The highlight of my meal for two reasons. First, of course, the flavor. The hams were so tender, so meaty, so different from each other. My favorite was actually the lomo, which was intensely nutty. It was without a doubt the best Spanish ham I have ever had. The other reason this course made a profound impression on me had to do with Francisco’s explanation of what we were eating.

Isn’t it true, a very cultured man sitting on my right asked Francisco, that Ibérico hams taste different from serrano because the pigs eat only acorns? Francisco took a seat. The force of his feeling in response to this question dropped him. It is not an exaggeration to say that he grew close to tears as he answered:

Forty years ago there was no Ibérico or serrano, there was only jamón. You didn’t have to name the ham, because it came from Elena or someone else you knew. And people knew that every ham was different. There were so many things that might affect the flavor of a ham, from the curing process, to the conditions it was raised in, to the food it ate. Today, bureaucratic regulations strictly define what constitutes an Ibérico – exactly what percentage of the pig’s genes must be Ibérico, exactly how much of its weight must be put on through eating acorns. But this formalization of production rules distracts from the most important point, which is flavor. The difference in flavor between a male pig and a female pig may be far more profound than exactly how many pounds of acorns the pig had consumed. The only way to judge a ham is by taste.

In other words, this man who devotes his life to the promotion of Spanish “products” completely rejected the fetishization and commodification of taste. I don’t mean that he rejected either the celebration of good-tasting foods or making money through selling food. What he rejected was 1) the orientation towards gastronomy as a field of esoteric knowledge that itself constitutes refined culinary pleasure, as if knowing the number of acorns that an Ibérico pig must consume creates the enjoyment of eating its ham; and 2) the standardization of food, like ham, into modern industrial commodities defined by regularity, as if taste could be so easily determined by the number of acorns a pig eats.

To combine a love of the taste and history of local foods with such a passion against their commodity-fetishization must be profoundly difficult. I found Francisco’s point extremely interesting, but I was not sure that it made much on an impression on the fellow who asked about the acorn-consumption of Ibérico pigs in the first place. Francisco’s clientele of privileged international travellers, and here I must include myself, are those people most likely to relate to food as something to be known and then tasted. Francisco doesn’t want his guests leaving the table with a refined knowledge of the differences between Ibérico and serrano, but with a memory of pleasure in tasting all the different hams on the plate. Or not, as Francisco kept telling us: you don’t have to like everything you taste.

But I did enjoy everything, I enjoyed this meal more than any other elaborate tasting menu I’ve ever had. I haven’t tried very many, it’s true, maybe three others? Despite the reputation this blog is giving me for being a foodieI’ve never eaten out all that much, particularly not at expensive restaurants. I never had the money: I went to graduate school when I was twenty-three and had my first child when I was twenty-five, in other words I completely missed the money-making childless decade enjoyed by most middle-class professionals. And moreover, the few times that my husband and I did splurge on uber-high-end restaurants we mostly didn’t enjoy the meals. The food might have been beautiful and elaborate but it didn’t always taste good and the richness often made me feel sick afterwards. There are some who complain online that La Oliva is not really a restaurant. There is no fine cooking to be had there. But for me, this was the perfect way to enjoy Spanish food.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

45 thoughts

  1. All this talk about jamón has me yearning for Spain, Spanish food, Spanish smells and colours…

    Two things I always await when I’m there: the taste of simple cafe con leche and the garlic and oil aroma in the streets at lunch time when you can smell people making food. Mmm…

  2. Long before I lived in Spain & fell in love with the food, I was obsessed with “the Sun Also Rises.” (Used to tell adults that I wanted to be an expatriot when I grew up.)

    All that accounted for, you understand why I ADORED this post!

  3. Wonderful writing! Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts. It sounds like Francisco was able to distill what is truly wonderful about Spanish cuisine and make a gift of it, which is all I want when I travel.

  4. I find interesting that ham, particularily fine thin cured ham has different names for similar stuff, in Spain, Germany (speck), Italy (prosciutto) and I’m certain France has something equivalent.

  5. Sitting here in Cuenca, Ecuador, you had me dreaming of good ham. I really enjoyed your post. And I must agree with your friend – don’t let the fetishization of food get in the way of enjoying it. Too often people spend too much time thinking about food or wine and not enough time enjoying it.

    I can talk at length about chocolate, but in the end, what I really want to do is eat it and share it with people who appreciate it’s nuances.

  6. I loved this! It reminded me of the best chorizo I had while in Spain which was prepared by my host mother’s mother. I met the pig before he was prepared. I miss the wide availability of local quality food now that I am back in the U.S.

    1. Francisco served a fresh chorizo cooked in wine that was a revelation, so different from the cured chorizo I’ve had before. Yum! Would love to try your host mother’s mother’s chorizo.

  7. Love the history on Jamón! I’ve only been to Spain once and before going, I’d never heard of Ibérico, Serrano, Lomo or any other kind. When I first tasted Jamón, I was hooked and have been ever since. Thank you and congrats on the fresh press!

  8. What a fun post! I read “The Sun Also Rises” many years ago and you weave it into your food-based article expertly. I just juiced a bunch of “granadas” tonight! New Mexico is much like Spain, except that the cuisine is stunning, to compliment the surrounding culture. I have lived in New Mexico and have revisited that state dozens of times. I strongly suggest that you find the time somewhere in your schedule to visit that place and explore that exquisite cuisine. You might read Tony Hillerman and Rudolfo Anaya before you do, just to give you the advantage that Hemingway gave you with Spain.

    1. New Mexico is indeed stunning. I spent a fair bit of time there in my twenties: Santa Fe, Truth and Consequences, the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Albuquerque. And had a great time reading Hillerman, though I haven’t tried Anaya. Thanks for the tip. I highly endorse the recommendation.

  9. Nice post! You made me home sick. I haven’t been home in over ten years, but next time you go, try stopping by in any highway restaurants where you see lots of truck drivers and try corderito asado… I hope it is still as good as it was… Also, the food on the south is quite different from the north, central (I imagine you know). Don’t be fooled by the fried stuff (still delicious) from the south, and dive in a culinary feast awaiting for you in the north… I promise you wont regret it.
    As far as the books you mentioned, I will have to do the same, and embark myself in a journey of discovery.

    1. Hi Gloria, Thanks for pointing out how different the foods of Spain’s very varied regions can be. I spent yesterday in Málaga, where I visited the central mercado and ate _amazing_ grilled octopus and shrimp with heapings of paprika and garlic. I would love to eat/tour my way through more of Spain.

      1. The south is really interesting. I lived all over and there is no waste. I hope you are still enjoying good weather… here in Oregon, we had a rainy September, but we are being lucky with October… I still miss the sky in Spain with its radiance… 😀 Add some pics

      2. If you don’t get much sun in Portland, at least you have some terrific food for compensation. I was there in May and was blown away by the quality of the ingredients at the PSU farmer’s market as well as by the variety of the food in the restaurants.

  10. Hey Rachel, you paint a vivid picture of the food of Spain, particularly of Andalucia (that’s one reason I’m headed there soon, the other being, as you point out, that it’s a lot warmer there than just about anywhere else in Europe during winter). It’s interesting to note the fetishization, as you call it, that has taken place within the gastronomical culture of Spain. It seems like the first cousin to the bastardization of American gastronomical concepts such as organic or farm to table. Oh, and one more thing: I agree with you that the Spanish don’t necessarily have the cache of the French when it comes to restaurant meals. However, if you visit the city of Logrono, the capital of La Rioja, you will change your mind. Not only can you purchase a bottle of 5 or even 10 year old reserve wine for 5 euros or less, but the tapas bars in the old city (Casco Viejo) are flooded with excellent quality food for one euro or less. And the best part is you don’t need a guidebook or savvy local to tell you where to go; you simply can’t go wrong.

  11. Hi Gloria,
    We enjoyed your post, but must say that there is Ibérico and Serrano, indeed, and they’re extremely different!
    Agree with Francisco in rejecting the standardization of food into modern industrial commodities defined by bureaucratic regulations.
    That said, the traditional Ibérico model – based on an indigenous pig raised in its natural habitat, allowed to find its own food and behave following its instinc – is the opposite and the exception to the intensive ham producing model behind Serrano, Parma, Bayonne… And, what’s most important, this results in a huge difference in taste. Besides, the traditional Ibérico model maintains the Dehesa – the Ibérico pig’s ecosystem, of huge value – and the rural communities in Soutwest Spain that have kept loyal for generations to the sustainable Ibérico model.
    After seeing the Ibérico pigs roaming free in the Dehesa, one inmediately understands why Ibérico ham is truly unique, and tastes so good!
    At A Taste of Spain we bring foodies, food professionals and farmers from all over the world to experience this…

    1. Miguel, Thanks for the information about jamón Ibérico. You make a good counterpoint to Francisco about why names and definitions can matter. And, of course, the practice of discriminating among breeds and farming methods long precedes the modern bureaucratic state. It’s tough to find the proper balance between appreciating and fetishizing good food.

  12. Thanks Rachel. As customers, all of us have a responsibility when we choose what to eat, that’s why it’s important that people know what sets certain products such as Ibérico ham apart – not “just” the taste, but the VALUES involved. The title of your post is not very accurate, we’re afraid… Both Ibérico and Serrano are jamón, but that’s prety much all they have in common.

  13. Rachel, we have a book suggestion: Pig Perfect, by Peter Kaminsky. Great read, makes one rethink ham, pork meat & food in general. We took Peter to visit the land of Ibérico ham in Spain when he was writing this book.

  14. Okay, so I’m going to tell you a secret. Take a roasted chestnut, slightly damp. Pull it in half. Press the flat face it into a SPARSE amount of pearl sugar; don’t coat the whole thing in it, you just want some crystals of sugar stuck to the bottom. Wrap it in a piece of jamon. Eat it.

    Witness the face of whatever deity you happen to hold dear.

    Chase it down with a sip of some raisin-y port.

  15. This was a fascinating post and what was said about fetishising echoes what French friends say about good ingredients…the classification starts to take over where the producers can no longer be trusted to make something of which they are proud.

    I have a house north of Valencia and the meals I’ve had in country restaurants have been eye opening after their equivalent in France.

  16. Lovely post! Recalled my memories of a wonderful week in the Basque area of Spain earlier this year. A food and wine vacation where we sampled some of the best the country has to offer. I was so amazed by the Iberico jamon, The nuttiness and sweetness. A richness I’d never tasted before. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  17. I agree with you about jamon! Iberico, and Serrano are both direct descendents of the wild boar, and so is Mangalitsa, which is becoming popular in California now…and has WOOL! There is a restaurant that makes Mangalitsa lard chocolate chip cookies (hint…its in frisco). I think the best pigs come from eating not just loads of acorns, but gleaning crops, picking up fallen orchard fruit, turning and aerating compost piles for bugs, eating nuts and berries in hedgerows and silvaculture systems, foraging for mushrooms and truffles…basically being used as a pig tractor in a sustainable farming system. Really the pig and nature does all the work so I guess the real art is charcuterie.

  18. I know hardly anything about Spanish cooking and apart from a spell in the Canaries, have never lived there. Having read this delight of a blog am now fascinated and investigating further. Thank you!

    1. Muchas gracias, Anna. So pleased to hear that the post satisfies a Spanish reader. My trip to Andalucia, and the responses to this blog post, inspire me to return and eat my way through more of the country.

  19. Reblogged this on pic&post and commented:
    This is a reblogged post about nice things we’ve got in Spain. As you can see, mum, I appreciate good food.
    Also, and the most important, this is a post for foodies.
    For the ones that understand that food, precisely, the process of cooking, is an art.
    Is a chain of mixtures of ingredients, preferably the best ones.
    Go basic, mix wisely, master your moves, don’t overprocess.
    Get the essence.
    Simplicity is genius.
    EL HOMBRE, read carefully.

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