What was the best thing you ate in Spain?
I'm just back from a vacation that took me to Tarragona, Valencia and Barcelona in Spain and I ate very, very well -- sea bass that had been swimming in the Mediterranean hours before being grilled, true paella Valenciana cooked over a wood fire. But I think the culinary highlight was the parade of terrific ham sandwiches.
In Spain, it seems, you cannot get a bad ham sandwich. At the Autogrills that punctuate the superhighways, at museum cafes, at snack bars, at tourist sites. It's nothing but great ham sandwiches made without mayo, mustard, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes or cheese. Just good ham and good, crusty rolls.
To understand what makes Spanish ham so great, you need to understand some ham terminology. Strictly speaking, a ham is the hind leg of a pig. Usually, however, the term refers to a cured hind leg. To cure, in culinary terms, is to preserve, and there are two major ways to preserve ham -- with salt and with smoke.
Dry-cured hams are preserved by coating them with salt and aging them until the meat dries out, anywhere from one to three years. The most common dry-cured hams in America are Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele imported from Italy.
The Spanish equivalent of prosciutto is jamón serrano. But then Spain kicks it up a notch. Jamón Ibérico is made in a similar fashion but using an ancient breed native to the Iberian peninsula, the pata-negra (black-footed) pig. The pinnacle of Spanish ham is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, which is made from pata-negra pigs that have ranged free in the oak woods along the border between Spain and Portugal, eating their fill of acorns.
(Spanish ham is much less common in local markets than Italian, but it's widely available online. Tienda.com, a leading importer, sells serrano ham for $19.50 for 6 ounces; Iberico is $25 for 3 ounces; Iberico de Bellota is $48 for 3 ounces. Or, take a field trip to Despaña for the New York area's best selection of imported Spanish foods.)
In the United States, traditional dry-cured hams also are smoked. They are known as country hams, the most famous examples of which are Smithfield and Virginia.
Mostly what is available in the United States are wet-cured hams that have also been smoked. They used to be soaked in brine (saltwater), but today most are injected with brine, which speeds up the cure.
When buying American ham, look closely at the label. A product labeled, simply, "ham" derives at least 20.5 percent of its weight from protein. But manufacturers like to pump their hams up with water -- a cheap way to get them to weigh more. The FDA is onto this and mandates the following labeling standards: Ham with natural juices contains at least 18.5 percent protein; ham water added contains at least 17 percent protein with 10 percent added solution; ham and water product is anything that contains less than 17 percent meat by weight, and the label also must note how much of that weight is water.
The best bread in the world will not turn a ham and water product into a good sandwich.