Notes from an Iberian Ham Cutter: in Spain, serving this prized ham is an honored art form
"Que Dios te serba las manitas” (may God preserve your little hands) is the utmost appreciation a ham hand cutter can receive in Spain.
In that country cutting a whole leg of ham by hand is an artful ritual; those who do it are called cortadores. Technique is the very essence of this art, so it is considered a kind of performance. I know cortadores who handle as many as 400 jamones a year, cutting them during celebrations, expositions, fairs, wedding ceremonies, and, yes, these days, even divorce parties!
Although I am Italian, I took on learning the Spanish art of cutting hams by hand six years ago. To improve my skills I attended a course in Madrid, but didn’t gain much from it. I already knew many techniques, thanks to a book I found with photos by a Spanish specialist. But some of the most important information—how to cut around joints—was not in the book. The course master did teach us an easy way to do this, but it resulted in a lot of leftovers. So for more guidance I turned to a Spanish family based in the south; everyone in the family but the dogs had won a national prize for cutting ham. They helped me with the most difficult parts of carving slices around the joints and femur. I am very grateful to them.
What makes hand cutting an excellent service? First of all, the quality of the slice; that is, its geometry—the thinness and short length and the way it brings together both the lean and the fat parts. Second, the aesthetic of the plate: Cortadores are supposed to arrange the slices the same way a painter would his colors on a palette.
An Iberian ham allows you to appreciate seven different tastes and flavors in the same leg: one around the ankle, a second around the fetlock, a third in the front part (babilla), a fourth in the rear (maza), a fifth in the center, and the last two around the hip (punta y cadera). At every service the goal is to provide your guests with each of these tastes.
I have a deep passion for hams, and cutting them precisely with my knife gives me a lot of satisfaction. Whenever I set my brand-new jamoneros (ham holders) in place just before a ceremony, then begin gently carving, it is not long before the guests praise the thinness of the slice, the intense flavor, and the perfect cut of it.
What more could I aspire to?
My job gives me the chance to meet a lot of people, to enter dream villas, to get a glimpse of extravagant furniture or décor, and to catch some pieces of conversation among businessmen, priests, clothing designers, high society, and satin-wrapped ladies. And I have learned that culture (in the humanistic sense) has nothing to do with riches.
As I continue this job, I hope to spread this ancient skill. If you ever have the chance to watch a cortador, please keep this in mind: Above and beyond it being an artful technique, hand cutting shows a deep true love and respect for what was once a living being and now is one of the most exquisite delicacies in the world.
Written by Raffaele Bertolini
Illustration by Richard Mia