I would never have thought that ham cutting could be a competitive sport, until we paid our first visit to our Andalusian town several years back.
At the end of a European holiday, a sudden shower forced us to seek shelter in Ronda’s Convento de Santo Domingo. We stumbled into a courtyard full of locals, staring intently at the sharp knives of half a dozen men dressed in head-to-toe black including long aprons. Each man was allocated a table where a leg of Iberian ham was fastened with screws and clamps into a torturous stand. Each had his battery of knives and sharpeners upon which his logo or initials were engraved. Unbeknownst to us, we had come upon our first national ham-cutting competition, an event the Spanish and the competitors evidently took very seriously.
Every year in the month of May, competitors from all over Spain meet in our town for El Concurso Nacional de Cortadores de Jamón, the national Iberian ham cutting championships. This year marked the 17th edition, still taking place in the same courtyard we inadvertently stumbled into way back when. The event was created and is still organized by Ronda’s Casa del Jamón, a local family business with no less than four national champion ham cutters.
The patriarch, Leocadio Corbacho, began cutting ham as a teenager, long before it became a profession, let alone a nation-wide competitive event. In those days, the quality and control of the Iberian ham production was poor compared to today.
When he was contracted to supply the local military with ham, he began to cut the slices finer – not because it was the going trend, but so that more sandwiches could be made with less ham, hence feeding more soldiers. Recognizing the Spanish love of talking, he began to cut the slices fine enough that the consumer could continue a conversation while eating it. He discovered that this was a far more comfortable way of eating what eventually became a real delicacy. Only in the past couple of decades has the Iberian ham industry achieved the international fame it now enjoys. Jamón Ibérico, which is unique to Spain, is now part of the national patrimony on line with bull fighting.
Eight professionals from Madrid to Huelva were selected from hundreds of applicants to participate in this year’s championship. Thought all were male, women have begun to enter the testosterone-driven ham-cutting scene. In fact, the winner of the 2018 Ronda championship was a cortadora from Salamanca and Leocadio’s daughter Lourdes is not only the first but the only female to have won first prize at the national ham cutting championships, not once, but twice!
Alberto Corbacho, another champion cutter in the family, explains that the competitors must be professionals and good standing members of the Asociación Nacional de Cortadores de Jamón. According to the rules, each participant is presented with a leg of Premium Iberian Bellota ham, allocated by lotto prior to the competition. The legs must have similar physical characteristics and weigh approx. 8 kilos – the optimal size for an Iberian ham. Otherwise, the contestants are responsible for their own tools and aids, such as knives, tweezers, ham stand etc.
I noted that the latter had changed in the past decade. All the stands are now stainless steel, whereas in the past some would have been made of wood, bone and more traditional materials. Alberto tells me that the space age looking stainless tabla is the Ferrari of all ham stands with ability to twist, tilt and swivel almost 360 degrees in all directions.
As in any competitive event, there is tension before the games begin. One participant carefully sharpens an already razor-sharp knife, while another re-tightens the screws of his ham stand.
Like before a ski race, one of the contestants sends a look towards the heavens and crosses himself. We are in Spain, after all.
Next comes the count down and they are off! Knifes twinkle as the men in black begin to shear off long pieces of fat that protects the precious meat. The competitors are deadly serious about their craft. Each contestant appears to have his own style of handling the leg, holding the knife and building the plates. Ages vary from mid thirties to early sixties, with looks from classic 50’s Pompadour and wiry bullfighter-ish Brylcreem comb-over, to hairless minimalism.
During the course of the two-hour showdown, they must cut the leg clean, while producing plate after plate of impeccably presented and carefully cut slices or lonchas of ham. To add to the pressure, each plate should contain 100 grams of ham, on the nose. The slices need to be so thin that you can see the blade of the knife through the ham. As they say in the jamón industry, the slices must be fino como papel de fumar (fine like cigarette paper).
Half a dozen professionals from the industry (including two females) judge the event, wandering about watching the competitors’ every move.
Not only is the end product important for the awards. The discarded fatty cut-offs are also carefully inspected to verify that not a morsel of edible ham is wasted. It is the judges’ job to determine the most original plate presentations and to announce the winner – the one who demonstrates superior dexterity with the knife, as well as the utmost style and creativity when it comes to the platter presentations. You cannot be any old chopper. A jamón master must have confidence, rhythm, elegance and panache. “There is an art to ham cutting. It is all in the wrist,” says Leocadio.
I am not much of a ham person myself, but there is ham and then there is Iberian ham, particularly when speaking about Premium Bellota ham, which can cost more than 500 euros for a mere hairy leg. A certified Bellota ham comes with its own personal id, specifying place of birth and the age of the animal. Iberian Bellota ham is often said to come from pigs that have had an exclusive life-long diet of acorns, but this is not the case. Acorns are only in season from September to March, and the free roaming Iberian pigs only eat the bellota superfood during the last six months of their lives.
The Serranía around Ronda has always had the perfect climate for the rearing of the slim bluish black Iberian pigs. It also holds near optimal conditions for curing the Iberian ham. In contrast to regular Serrano ham, an Iberian ham will be immersed in salt (one day per kg) and then spend a minimum of two years curing in a humid place. Finally, the leg is hung to air, traditionally in a farm loft, to get that perfect Iberian flavour. The special Mediterranean mountain climate is likely the reason why the Asians haven’t managed to reproduce the quality of the Spanish ham yet, in spite of their effort and keen taste for jamón Ibérico.
The fat of the ham is part of the morphology of the leg muscle. The more marbling, the ‘sweeter’ the meat, the experts say. It is fundamental, not only for the richness of the taste, but also for aesthetical reasons, as proven when the competitors present their free-style creative platters.
The popularity of the championships might be partly due to the fact that during the course of the cutting, spectators are able to purchase a plate of the very ham that has been cut in front of them. Add to this the sale of tinto (red wine) from the Tempranillo grape produced by the local Chinchilla vineyard, and one is bound to have a successful event!
So, lovers of Jamón Ibérico out there, be sure to be in Ronda next May for the 18th edition of the concurso. And if you cannot wait that long or are looking for more of a challenge, there is apparently an upcoming course in jamón cutting including 10 hours of knife practice in Malaga in June.
(For more information, contact Alberto at Casa del Jamón)