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Ham, Spam, Jamon and other Pig Products

By Mr Grumpy - Sun 31st Jul 2011

Let's get one thing straight : In Spain ham (And any other Pig by-product) is NOT meat.

It is a religious icon, a cultural vanguard, a food, a garnish for vegetarian meals - and I have even been to certain tapas bars where it hangs from every available inch of wall or ceiling space in lieu of wallpaper.

In Spain to NOT eat ham, or any form of pig is social suicide and bound to attract stares and curiosity. Why on earth would anyone of sound mind choose not to eat ham ?

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When the Mrs and I first moved to Spain, 8 years ago, she was viewed with great suspicion by the locals because she was a vegetarian. 50 years ago they would have burned her at the stake. I can clearly recall going into a bar and ordering a 'Sandwhich vegetal', which the menu boasted, was a toasted sandwich comprising lettuce, onion, grated carrot, cucumber, tomato and hard-boiled egg. Fantastic - a sound choice for any Vegetarian.

Said Toasted sandwich arrived with a slab of Jamon proudly sitting on top. Upon questioning what it was the waiter explained that it was ham with a quizzical shrug of his shoulders. How could we possibly not have known that. Missing the point that we were questioning what a slab of pig was doing on a 'Sandwich Vegetal' that had no mention of the meat content in it's extensive list of ingredients, whilst proudly declaring itself to be a 'Vegetable sandwhich', he said we could simply remove the item if we chose not to eat it.

Great ! Helpful advise for any would-be vegetarian : look out for Spaniards when dining out as they will do everything they can to sabotage your meal.

I have a friend who doesn't eat pig. Not for religious reasons or anything like that, just out of preference. Eating out recently we ordered the Menu del dia in a bar and he asked if the roast chicken came with Ham. The waiter rather sarcastically explained that no, the chicken didn't come with Ham. Nor did it come with Beef, Lamb or fish - it was chicken. Five minutes later the food came, only to have the accompanying Green Beans on the plate served with lardons of Bacon.

I forgot to add to the list that under these circumstances Ham should be considered a vegetable or side dish aswell.

The Serano ham legs that you would see hanging from the roofs in many a tapas bar always amused me. They could be there for years, swinging from the rafters, the only nod to the fat dripping from them would be a cocktail umbrella shoved upside down, gathering fatty oozings and ready to combust like a candle if it were exposed to a naked flame. Usually with a dozen or so chain-smoking Spaniards gathered underneath the legs of prized pork.

Does the cigarette smoke actually contribute to the curing process, or add to the flavour ?

(Or should I say 'Did it' given that smoking indoors have now effectively been banned ?)

The fascination that the Spaniards have with the food means that they have to add pig content to most meals in some form. If it does not constitute the main meal then it is added to a side dish, sprinkled on top as a garnish, served as a starter or tapas etc... I honestly don't think I expressed surprise when, some time later, I learned that the pastry 'ensaimada' got its name due to the excessive amount of 'Saim', or Pork-Dripping that was used to make it.

Another useful way to help you get your recommended '5 a day' portions of pig : add it to a sweet cake for dunking in coffee at break time. Ingenious !

If you were a Veggie would you even think to ask your Patisserie if the scones or danish pastries were suitable for Vegetarians ?

After literally minutes thinking about the situation, my own theory about the Spanish worship of the pig and pig-products is two-fold * :

1.) After the expulsion of both the Moors And the Jews of 1492, proudly eating pig with every meal was a two-fingered salute to those who, by choice, didn't eat pig. Ergo anyone who didn't eat pig wasn't 'one of us' and therefore had to be 'one of them'. It became an act of acceptance, a social custom and religious ceremony.

2.) It has only been in relatively recent years that fresh meat has become more readily available and less of a luxury item, and something that we as Brits take for granted. In times of poverty and near famine, food of any origin was a luxury and being able to declare yourself "lacto-Ovo Vegetarian" madness. Whilst George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill and Ghandi were leading the way in making vegetarianism popular in the UK, most of Spain was starving. Offering a garnish of Pig is really to be considered an unexpected treat, a little like being offered a chupito after a meal. After all, if you had an option to chose to have ham or not, who in their sane mind would ever say no ?

* I have absolutely no evidence at all to support any of this, it is all complete supposition. Feel free to leave a comment shooting me down in flames and shaming me into doing at least a little bit of research on the next blog I roll out.

Comment on this Blog

 
It is a very restricted diet I realise. However, in the meantime I´m enjoying it and am finding it helps with not getting fat and not .... ahem, ... releasing gas in thunderous spurts! I mostly miss Greek yogurt with honey. And of course, wine´s not allowed but that´s just impossible for me!
Mo - Fri, 9th Sep 2011
Paleo diet - I had to look that up! Looks good until you get to the bit about avoiding dairy products. Life without cheese? Sorry, no can do. I don't live in either of those Alcalás. Mine is too small for anyone to have heard of.
Alcalaina - Fri, 9th Sep 2011
Anyway, I LOVE jamón serrano and follow a paleo diet! I don´t get angry at vegetarians Alcalaina ... are you in Alcalá de Guadaira or Henares?
Mo - Thu, 8th Sep 2011
Mr. Grumpy, I agree with your first explanation (also on an unresearched basis and I should know better, since I´m supposed to be Hispanist, or Herspanist, in feminist terms). The plot thickens when we consider that the Jewish "conversos" to Christianity who were not expelled were known as "marranos" or pigs, people who did eat pork. It´s a fascinating topic that maybe you could return to.
Mo - Thu, 8th Sep 2011
I have nothing against vegetarians but I do get very angry when, for example, they refuse to eat a rice dish because it was cooked in chicken stock. and yet they will happily tuck into an omelette. Which came first ...? Another reason the pig is so widely eaten is because it converts waste scraps into protein in the most efficient manner. Every home should have one.
Alcalaina - Wed, 31st Aug 2011
A far as Protein is concerned I would have thought that fish were more plentiful and less labour intensive, and that Poultry was more versatile and easier to keep. Hey ho! - You live and learn!
Mr Grumpy - Thu, 4th Aug 2011
Hmm. I beg to differ on point 1). Historians do agree that there was a massive surge in pig keeping in the late 15th / early 16th century (during and as the Moors were swept out of Spain). Two reasons - one is that a pig is full of lovely protein which is useful in an agrarian society (and Spain is good terrain for keeping pigs) and the second, possible more important, is that being a conspicious pork eater showed you were neither Jewish nor Moorish. A handy proof that the Inquisition couldn't miss. I wouldn't say it was a "two fingered salute" - if you had any trace of Moor or Jew about you, or your ancestors, you ate as much pork as possible or your neighbours might start to think about getting some brownie points with the Church. Toby Greens' Inquisition: Reign of Fear is a great book that goes into this in some depth!
David - Thu, 4th Aug 2011

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