With the last of the mince pies gone, and the memory of Christmas fading fast, it’s time to dust off the baubles, stash the tinsel, pack up the festive frippery and start looking ahead. Here in Majorca, ‘Los Reyes’ closely follows New Year, marking a Spanish tradition where the biblically recorded ‘Three Kings’ visit each town and village across the island, delivering gifts and presents to all the over-excited children along with a few inebriated adults!
These days, with the advent of global custom sharing, Spanish kids now get the benefit of both Christmas presents from Santa along with gifts from their ‘Reyes’. How lucky are they?
Over the weekend, Los Reyes was celebrated with processions and floats across the island, ranging from the simple decorated trailers of local villages to the incredibly lavish and spectacular light-show extravaganza showcased in Palma.
Los Reyes marks the true beginning of the New Year and 2020 doesn’t really begin until ‘The Kings’ have been and gone. Mind you, the kids these days believe more in St Google and the Amazon fairy who can deliver spoils much quicker than three ancient relics traversing a desert on camels! Having said that, I have just received a Christmas card posted from the UK in November, so maybe Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar are still in the race.
Incidentally, Balthasar is documented as coming from Arabia, Melchior from ancient Persia and Gaspar from India, so a lot more effort is actually involved than a first class stamp that didn’t really deliver what it said on the tin! Sadly, the on-line concept of Christmastide isn’t half as romantic as the old, showcased traditions, because in all honesty, modern children are losing so much of their innocence, courtesy of social media! Sad but true!
Traditionally though, throughout Spain on 5 January, before going to bed children used to put their slippers and shoes out on their windowsills, stuffed with hay, so the King’s camels could feast on their way to Bethlehem. In the morning, the hay was gone, and the shoes were miraculously filled with sweets. What a lovely concept? In 2020 the kids are looking for something digitally different, usually with an x-box involved, but hopefully the magic goes on!
This time of the year also means the January sales are in full swing. And even local supermarkets are offering ‘reduced’ produce – mainly ‘turron’, displayed on tables groaning under the weight of all those almond treats they couldn’t shift before Christmas.
Legs of Iberico ham are also being greatly reduced, and as a Majorcan delicacy, I am being sorely tempted, but have quickly reminded myself of the time when we were gifted with one, and were still eating it six months later.
A good Majorcan friend brought an Iberico ham to the house as a present when we invited him to dinner. When I opened the door he was standing there carrying what I thought was a banjo! The large black bag he was holding certainly contained something which looked like a banjo! Then I saw a black hoof sticking out of the case, and realised it was a ‘jamon Iberico’ from the famous black pigs of Majorca. It must have been a very tall pig that gave up its leg because this ‘pierna’ was supermodel long!
“Where shall I put it?” I asked, referring to the ham as our kitchen is not big enough to swing a cat yet alone a pig, and all our surfaces were occupied with the prep for dinner. “Best to hang it from a beam,” said our friend. “But be careful as it drips grease.” We don’t have hooks on our kitchen as it’s not traditional and isn’t really geared up for hanging livestock from the ceiling, so I propped it in a corner, where the black hoof cast a giant shadow across the marbled worktops.
“How do I carve it?” I asked, intrigued to be in possession of such a traditional and generous gift. This is something I would never have bought for myself as there are only the two of us at home, plus the cat, who was immediately entranced by this interesting smelling banjo we had suddenly acquired. The cat approached the ham with extreme caution, nose twitching, tail swishing. Then she took a swipe at the hoof and ran upstairs to hide under the bed.
Our banjo ham was actually Jamón Ibérico de Cebo and a gastronomic delicacy, opening our eyes to new heights in the history of hams.
The three main types of Jamón Ibérico are graded in accordance with the black pig’s diet, which determines the ham’s quality. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is regarded as the finest of all hams and comes from free range pigs which roam natural oak forests feeding on acorns. The meat is cured for at least 36 months. Jamón de Recebo comes from pigs pastured and fed on a mixed diet of acorns and grain. The meat is cured for at least 24 months. Finally, Jamón Ibérico de Cebo where the pigs are fed solely on grain and the meat is again cured for up to 24 months.
Jamón Serrano on the other hand ( or trotter ) comes from the white pig, and therefore doesn’t share quite the same quality as the black Iberian pig, producing a cheaper yet still delicious option. There are 3 main varieties of Serrano ham: Serrano Bodega, Serrano Reserva, and Serrano Gran Reserva which all have a similar curing time of no more than 15 months.
Cutting an entire leg of ham, Iberico or otherwise, requires a deft and agile wrist along with many years of experience and practice. But first, you need a particular and expensive stand to rest the ham on so it remains stable while slicing. Then you need a specialised and flexible knife, honed to razor sharpness and designed specifically for the job, which will enable you to carve the thinnest possible slices.
It’s a challenging art, and we soon discovered that most Majorcans take their hams to a ‘carniceria’ ( that’s a butcher ) and have it boned, sliced and hermetically sealed in hundreds of little plastic bags, ready for eating. We immediately took that ‘no brainer’ option.
After all, you don’t want to end up in casualty with multiple lacerations or a broken foot when the heavy ham rolls off the table. Or more to the point, mess up a very expensive gift! All the bones and scraps are also sealed in bags, ready to boil up in a traditional stew or stock. You even get the hoof back which made a wonderful paperweight.
The only thing was, we had an entire fridge full of ham which we had to eat within a reasonable three months! It wasn’t an easy task. P’Amb Oli anyone?