Charcuterie is the study of salt and time. It’s about as ancient as cooking techniques get, dating back nearly as far as the stick + meat + fire formulation. While the term has come to encompass everything from fennel-laced sausages to duck liver pâte, jamón ibérico undeniably represents the highest expression of flesh and salt.
With only two ingredients, the control of the elements is all the more important. Too dry? No dice. Too much moisture? In comes the unfriendly bacteria. Once things go wrong, there are very few corrective measures one can take to keep his family’s food—or his company’s investment—from ending up as a lump of inedible mold. That’s another reason ham has traditionally been made in the winter: a ham hung out to dry in the heat of the Spanish summer would spoil within weeks.
At Fermín Embutidos, where these three photos where taken, fresh-cut hind quarters go directly up to the salt room, where they are buried in a sea of coarse salt for two weeks. (Jamón is only made from the meatier back legs; the front legs are reserved for paleta, delicious to be sure, but not quite in the same zip code as the real stuff.) Special meat elevators and shovels are involved. From there, the hams move through a series of different curing rooms, shedding water and blood weight along the way.
When we entered the final curing room, where hundreds of mahogany hams dangled from the rafters like adult piñatas waiting to be cracked open, I felt something akin to what my Catholic father must have felt the first time he crossed the threshold at St Peter’s. Your heart pounds and your palms sweat and you feel the sudden urge to genuflect. The room is thick with the funk of fermentation, a reminder that the pig lives on long after the animal has been slaughtered. Above you is two years of alchemy in action, a piece of meat that in other countries would have been boiled with cabbage or bookended with bread and covered in mayonnaise but is now something approaching perfection. Most hams start out weighing just under twenty pounds, but by the time the salt and air have done their work on the meat, extracting moisture, concentrating flavor, the average ham has shed more than half of its weight. That’s why a single slice can arouse in you the sensation that a whole pig has just melted across your tongue.