Until recently I had never met a champion ham slicer. That all changed when Juan Carlos Gómez visited the city of Malaga and showed off the skills that led to him being hailed as the best slicer of ham in Spain.
He was in the city teaching students of this skill how to slice Serrano ham in a perfect way. He also told them about the myths surrounding this specialist art.
He told them that the first cut may not be the deepest, but it is the most important.
He said: “If it is not going to be used very soon, at home for example, the ham should be cut from the thinnest side first, which is the driest and most cured part. The ham will keep for a longer period this way. However, if the ham is going to be eaten in one sitting, say for a celebration or special event; then the ham can be cut from the broader side.
“This is the best side, the ham is softer and should be marbled with fat. The idea is to cut a slice that fits comfortably in the mouth, without folding, but big enough to enjoy the flavour.”
He told the students that they should aim to cut as straight as possible. And, crucially, cut finely and only slices of between three and five centimetres.
Now one of the most common injuries hospitals in Spain deal with is when waiters and chefs walk in with bad cuts that occur when slicing serrano ham. Hard to believe, I know, and yet it is easy to see why.
Using the traditional Jamonera stand, in which the ham is secured, is the safest way to undertake this tricky operation. But cutting ham is not risk free. Something approaching sixty thousand ham slicing injuries are reported each year. Clearly this is not a job for the amateur, nor one to undertake under the influence of alcohol.
If you intend to eat the ham straight away then it is fixed to the jamonera via a clamp, with the trotter facing upward.
If you are not planning to eat the ham for some time to come, then the trotter should be face downward and it should be ‘opened up’ along the narrowest side of the ham, cutting parallel to the bone. When you do come to eat the ham then it is this part that should be carved and consumed first as it will have dried out.
First remove the rind and excess fat with a strong knife. A layer of fat as thick as a finger should be left on the sides so as to preserve the meat.
Use a long, narrow and flexible knife to cut off wafer thin slices of the ham. Do this by following the grain and the shape of the bone. Start each cut at a point where the ham is covered by its own fat. But only a limited amount of fat is cut off so ensuring the ham does not dry out too quickly.
Larger slices of ham are cut from the haunch. This requires skill and strength. The rind and the fat are very thick on the haunch. Remove the surplus fat from it. There will be more and more fat, and less ham, the closer you get to the bone. Be careful, your knife should not make contact with the bone.
You can remove the fat from the hip of the ham and keep it for other cooking purposes, including for stews or for when roasting meat.
Your ham on the Jamonera will be getting ever thinner, but do cut off the meat that is directly along the bone. There will be some ham hiding under a layer of fat and rind. This will be the more mature ham you cut and taste.
And when you are left with nothing but the bone, us that for making a good stock.
None of us will ever be as good at slicing serrano ham as Juan Carlos Gómez. But we can have a tasty, and hopefully bloodless, time trying.