Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the jamon stand
James Robinson, Brindisa
The cured and air-dried rear leg of a pig—the ham or ‘jamón'—is probably the most iconic Spanish product, so it is a vital part of what we do at Brindisa. The creme de la creme of jamónes are those that fall under the four formally classified grades of jamón Ibérico, which is what we focus on at Borough Market. You’ll see a mass of legs hanging in our temperature-controlled chamber, and almost always one or two of our skilled carvers each working on a leg throughout the day.
Jamón Ibérico is made from pigs that are native to the Iberian peninsula. Diet, breed and living conditions determine which grade of jamón their meat will be, though the common theme of the best of them (jamón Ibérico de bellota) is that they’ve been fed on acorns. Alongside the breed and diet, there’s centuries of tradition in jamón Ibérico, and each individual leg that we import will have been aged between 18 month and four years.
To do justice to the time, effort and knowledge that has been used to produce the meat, we need the carver to be well skilled, and also for that person to have the best tools: an extraordinarily sharp, flexible knife, and a quality stand to hold the ham still.
The simplest and traditional form of ham stand is basically just a clamp. It’s something that simply fixes a ham in place, allowing you to carve without having to hold the meat steady. More modern, sophisticated ham stands have an adjustable, rotating collar which allows the carver to turn the ham through 360 degrees as they work.
Tougher than leather
This makes both the preparation of the ham—when you trim the skin and fat from it—and the carving of it much easier. It allows them to be dexterous and skilled with the knife. It’s safer too, as you can always work at the optimum angle for your knife. Once it’s been hanging for two to three years, the skin of a ham is tougher than leather, so you want to be carving it in as safe a way as you can.
The stands we use at Borough Market also allow you to move the jamónes forward and back and from side to side, which means people of different heights can work in full comfort. If they’re standing there for multiple hours every day, they need to do so in the best position possible—again to ensure safety and also that the end result is always perfect.
The cost of the stands we have at the Market could never be justified for domestic use, but we do sell some basic ones to use at home. There are simple clamps and there’s also a plastic one with a rotating cuff, which maybe isn’t particularly romantic, but does a great job.
You could just about carve a jamón without a stand, but it’s tricky and the result probably won’t be as good; which is ultimately the point of what the carver is doing. I once had to carve with a non-functioning stand at a wedding, basically holding the leg with one hand while carving with the other. I got through it, but for sure that experience made me appreciate a stand more.
Feel a connection
It will take a skilled person about two to two-and-a-half hours to carve a whole jamón. They’re extremely dexterous and I personally think it’s a craft that can’t be learned by most. But maybe there’s something of the art in it too. Certainly my Spanish colleagues think so—the best of them would say they feel a connection between themselves and the meat.
The jamón carving provides an exciting, theatrical backdrop to our shop. Of course that’s a good thing and one reason to do it—it fascinates people to see two or three people carving the meat so intricately, and many people stand mesmerised or take pictures and videos.
But for us, the carving isn’t only because it looks good. Our guys are experts, and carve for up to five hours a day. They carve the meat into beautifully thin slices and present them in intricate concentric circle patterns while they work; it looks amazing and because it’s been sliced so skilfully, tastes incredible too. The better the meat is carved, the better the product for the consumer.
We have three different jamón Ibérico suppliers at the moment. The difference between them is in style, rather than quality, as there is a traditional distinction between the hams produced in Extremadura, Salamanca and Andalusia thanks to the varying climates of those regions. Those from the south tend to be more intense, more savoury, whereas those from the north might be sweeter, less intense. Which is best? It’s down to personal taste. You should pop to the Market to see the jamónes being carved and come to your own conclusion!