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Iberian Peninsula’s Finest Meat

The art of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota and its maestro cortadors

Updated

By CJ Juntereal  

Maestros cortadores Mark and Michael Lopez

Maestros cortadores Mark and Michael Lopez

The most exquisite ham in the world is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. It is born from the magical coming together of certain unique ingredients— the ancient oak pastures of Spain known as the dehesa, the noble black-hoofed Ibérico pig, an abundance of acorns (bellota), clean mountain air that circulates around the hams through open windows in the curing rooms, patience, skill, and the adherence to traditional curing methods. An eight-kilogram leg of 100 percent Iberico, acorn fed, bone-in ham cured for 36 months can cost a minimum of P63,200

Vacuum packed jamon

Vacuum packed jamon

IS IT WORTH IT?

The meat glistens deep, dark red. It is striated with golden fat. Its flavor is like no other ham—sweet, with a nutty almond flavor, mildly salty, and complex. Its mouth feel is delicate, tender, and velvety. When I draw a paper-thin slice of fat against my lips, I can feel it melting against the warmth of my skin. The feeling is extraordinary. I can eat a whole plateful of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota and not feel like I’m overloaded with fat and salt. I can also feel almost guilt-free. The antioxidants in the acorns eaten by the pigs, and the unique curing process of the ham, changes saturated fats into healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid so I’m eating ham that might actually be good for my body.

 The perfect slice is paper thin, approximately the size of a credit card, with a combination of fat and lean meat

The perfect slice is paper thin, approximately the size of a credit card, with a combination of fat and lean meat

EIGHT KILOS FOR 120 PEOPLE

In recent years, Jamón Ibérico’s popularity in the Philippines has grown tremendously and it is sold here by the whole leg or in slices by weight. Intrepid Filipino travelers to Spain have even managed to smuggle whole legs home in their suitcases. Despite its expense (because its price is prohibitive even in Spain) it makes a great addition to a party because an eight-kilogram leg serves up to 120 people if carved correctly— the perfect ratio of lean meat to fat sized a little smaller than a credit card, and almost translucent. But here’s the thing, a lot of times it isn’t carved correctly. I’ve been to parties where thick, uneven slices are hacked out of a leg with a dull knife—doing an absolute injustice to a fine leg of ham.

Sliced hams are laid out to display burgundy coloration

Sliced hams are laid out to display burgundy coloration

THE MAESTRO

That’s where a maestro cortador de jamon comes in. It means jamon master carver, and a jamón master carver is to Spain what a sushi chef is to Japan. It is the master carver’s job to make sure that the jamón is served properly so that every bite is appreciated, and every bit of the jamón is optimized for consumption. It’s a skill that takes years to develop. In Spain, master carvers are hired for parties or events specifically to carve the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.

Michael and Mark Lopez were the first Filipinos to earn the title of maestro cortador de jamón in Spain. I’ve watched them work an event, their skill at carving like that of violinist, and their personalities drawing in a crowd to watch them carve and talk about the jamón. 

Michael began as a waiter in Restaurante Cinco Jotas, the namesake restaurant of Cinco Jotas, a world-renowned brand of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota that was founded in 1879. The restaurant’s master carver, Pedro Seco, saw that he had the “hands” for carving jamón and trained him to take over during his days off. Apparently, as with sushi, not everyone has the knack for it. In 2000, Cinco Jotas promoted him to maestro cortador de jamón at a different restaurant branch. Michael’s brother, Mark, who started working for Cinco Jotas in 2002, also trained. He was eventually assigned his own branch. A few years later, the brothers received their maestro cortador certificates after Cinco Jotas sent them to their headquarters in Jabugo for training. There, they carved two to three jamóns a day and observed the entire production process.

CARVING JAMÓN FOR PENELOPE CRUZ

During their time with Cinco Jotas, the brothers carved jamón at the UEFA Champions League. They worked events alongside Spanish culinary greats like Jose Ramon Andres, the Arzaks, and Joan Roca. Clients flew them to various countries to carve jamón for celebrities like Penelope Cruz and Julio Iglesias.

In 2018, they decided to venture out on their own and established Maestro Cortador Filipino (MCF)—the first service of its kind in the Philippines.

MCF offers a carving service for jamón, and also sells whole legs. They also have packages for both the purchase of jamón plus a carving service. At a minimum, if you’ve already purchased a whole leg from elsewhere, MCF charges P35,000 (within Metro Manila) for carving and serving one leg of jamón. A package that consists of one leg of MCF’s own brand of specially selected Jamón Ibérico de Bellota from Jabugo, plus a cortador, breadsticks, and a tomato-olive oil spread starts at a minimum of P88,888+. The same package with a leg of Cinco Jotas 5J personally inspected by the brothers starts at P118,888+. Cheaper packages are available for Jamón Serrano and Jamón Ibérico de Cebo (a pig that is grain-fed and 75 percent Ibérico, meaning its mom was a pure breed and its dad only 50 percent Ibérico).

THE WORLD’S MOST EXQUISITE HAM

MCF also offers a unique service. They will store, professionally carve, and vacuum-pack your jamón for future use at a cost of R10,000 per leg. It’s a good option for smaller restaurants that would like to serve quality jamón but don’t have proper storage facilities or their own cortador. MCF will deliver the jamón to them properly carved and vacuum-packed as needed. It also works out for private individuals who would like to buy their own leg of Jamón Ibérico for personal consumption. MCF will provide special storage and carve the ham when needed. Michael cautions that an unopened leg of Jamón Ibérico should not be stored in the refrigerator or freezer because the moisture will make it “sweat.” It should be stored in a cool, dry place at a temperature of 19 to 21 degrees Celsius. It shouldn’t be wrapped in plastic either, because the jamón needs to breathe. All those requirements make it a little difficult to store a Jamón Ibérico de Bellota at home—plus, there’s always the temptation to hack into it yourself whenever you get the munchies. And that would just be an insult to the world’s most exquisite ham.

Michael@maestrocortadorfilipino. com | Viber/WhatsApp: +639089390499 | YouTube and Instagram: @maestrocortadorfilipino

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