He's cut ham for the world's elite. From Barack Obama to the King of Spain, Juan Carlos to the "Raging Bull" himself, Robert De Niro—they've all savoured the smooth, melt-in-the-mouth sensation of ham sliced by the great cortador de jamones, Florencio Sanchidrián.
The Spaniard considers himself something of an ambassador for his country's much loved Iberian ham and is said to charge around $4,000 to cut a leg of it. We got in touch with Florencio to find out what makes his slicing skills so special.
MUNCHIES: Hi Florencio. How did you become a professional ham cutter? What does it mean to you? Florencio Sanchidrián: I was working as a waiter and one day, I started cutting ham and really liked it. I continued to learn more and improve my skills until I decided to devote myself, body, and soul to this beautiful profession. The meaning for me, apart from making a living out of it, is to make sure that Spanish Iberian ham is recognised and represented globally. I travel the world attending events where I can educate people about Iberian ham—one of the four gastronomic jewels of cuisine alongside truffles, caviar, and foie gras.
What are the traits of a great cortador de jamones? You must know the product inside out—its breeding and the area where the Iberian pig usually lives and grazes. Before cutting each piece of ham, you should check all of the corresponding labels because they provide all the information we need to know about that specific piece—everything from the birthplace of the pig to where it was stored, plus the humidity and air temperature. Besides all this, a good cortador de jamones should try to manipulate the joint as little as possible and when serving the meat, help people appreciate it with all of their senses.
In the UK, most people have heard of Italian prosciutto but jamón is less understood. What are the main differences? The differences are huge. The pigs where the prosciutto comes from have nothing to do with our Iberian pigs. Iberian pigs are a native Spanish race of black pigs that are raised and bred only in the south west of the country in the Iberian Peninsula. A huge number of them live freely or partially roam free and make the most of the resources of the land, where they graze acorns and grasses. Feeding on these plants is what gives each piece its characteristic colour, flavour, aroma, and fatty texture that melts in the mouth.
The prosciutto is quite the opposite: those pigs are white in colour, are intensive breeding type, and are not free to roam the land.
And what are the differences between Iberian ham (jamón Ibérico) and mountain ham (jamones serranos)? The same differences as there are between Iberian ham and any other ham type like prosciutto, Parma, or Bayonne—which are called mountain hams (jamones serranos). The main difference with Iberian ham is the breed of pig used, the living environment, and the curing process time—anywhere between 18 to 36 months, which is twice or more than the maturation time of a regular serrano ham.
Thanks for clearing that up! You've cut ham for a lot of world leaders and celebrities. Did any of them have any unusual requests? It was a pleasure to cut ham for all of them, they all certainly enjoyed tasting it. I remember Robert Redford asked me if he could cut the ham himself. He loved it and tried four different parts of it. He said it was outstanding.
Who are the people currently doing exciting things with jamóns in Spain? As a World Ham Ambassador, I cut ham every year across all five continents. Associations like the ASICI in Spain have been doing a great job for many years. They not only promote the ham in Spain and outside Spain, but also work to improve the quality of the products involved in the food chain, by tracking from the production phase until it reaches the consumer.
And what are some jamóns we should all try before we die? An Iberian ham from 2010, which has been cured for six years is a great option. Or if you wait for the "vintage 2014" to come out in the market, that was a great year for the land—full of acorns!
I've read somewhere that Spanish jamón is good for you due to its oleic acid [a fatty acid that occurs naturally in animal products.] Should we be eating more ham? It's true, the oleic acid is one of the secrets of Iberian hams. Unlike other red meats, Iberian ham contains a large number of mono-unsaturated fatty acids such as oleic acid that help to lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular function. Moreover, it's a product that stands out for its high nutritional value, providing the body with natural antioxidants, protein, and numerous essential minerals and vitamins. It is a pleasure for all of the senses.
Thanks for talking with us Florencio!
This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2016.