MADRID — On a recent morning, Florencio Sanchidrián was showing a class of 20 students why he believes that 50 percent of the value of a leg of Spanish cured ham depends on how well it gets sliced.
He started by cutting a slice: 2 inches long and as thin as possible. Then, he lifted his knife and flipped his wrist, coiling the slice to rest on the tip of his blade. Next, he slid the slice up and down the blade, “slowly, so that it can soak up all the other flavors that are already on my knife,” he explained.
Finally, a beaming Sanchidrián told his audience that “I’ve now got a slice that will taste nothing like a normal cut and will in fact remind me that God exists.”
Sanchidrián, 52, who wears a bandanna to keep his hair out of the food, may be the rock star of Spanish ham. He is certainly paid like one, charging about $4,000 to cut a leg of ham, which takes him an hour and a half.
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He has sliced ham at the Oscars, at private Hollywood parties and in the casinos of Las Vegas and Macau. Throughout the year, he follows the Formula One circuit, from New Delhi to Austin, Texas, cutting ham for VIP guests in the paddocks and lounges of the top racing teams. Popes and statesmen, including George W. Bush, have sampled ham cut by Sanchidrián while visiting Spain.
Sanchidrián said he considered himself “an ambassador for our ham.” His mission is to raise the global profile of a product prized in Spain, where the average person eats more than 10 pounds of cured ham a year, making the country among the largest producers of pork, after China, the United States and Germany.
A single leg of the finest ham — weighing 17 or 18 pounds and coming from Spain’s special Ibérico breed — can cost as much as $500 in Spain. The pigs are allowed to roam freely, which helps spread the fat around their bodies, and feed on acorns, giving their meat what aficionados describe as an incomparably sweet and nutty flavor. The best cured ham is protected by four certificates of origin, from different Spanish provinces where pigs of the Ibérico breed are raised.
However, Spain’s exports of about 20,000 tons of cured ham a year have been curtailed by food and health regulations in several countries, including the United States, where Ibérico ham was banned until five years ago over concerns about swine fever and traditional curing methods. Since then, only two Spanish slaughterhouses have been authorized to export to the United States.
To the Spanish, who have cured and served their highest-quality meat this way for generations, the U.S. concerns are overwrought. It has not helped, however, that the Spanish cure their Ibérico ham, sometimes for as long as four years, on the bone, the hoof attached and intact, insisting that it tastes better that way.
Slicing machines are out of the question, aficionados explain, because the heat generated by the machine can alter the taste and melt the fat, which is an essential part of the eating experience.
That is where ham cutters like Sanchidrián come in. Sanchidrián considers his job to be “a creative art” that combines “contar y cortar,” or “narrate and cut.” As he cuts a leg, he tells his audience about the pig’s breeding, like a sommelier describing the harvest in a vineyard.
“Remember that this animal tastes so good because it walked hundreds of kilometers, took long siestas in the fresh air and got to watch some of Spain’s best sunsets,” he told a gathering of executives invited by Citrix Systems, a U.S. software company. Earlier in the day, he had reminded his students that “red brings fortune to the Chinese and love to the Westerners, and ham can give you every shade of that color, like wine.”
Sanchidrián started slicing ham 30 years ago while working as a waiter in a Barcelona restaurant whose ham cutter fell ill. “The manager told me to take over the ham-cutting job, and it immediately felt so natural to me that the switch was then made permanent,” Sanchidrián recalled.
As he prepares to cut, Sanchidrián faces his leg of ham almost like a bullfighter about to deliver the final blow. Such showmanship, however, can ruffle feathers among the more traditional members of Spain’s ham-cutting community, which includes about 100 full-time professionals.
“I admire Florencio as a colleague, but the protagonist of the show should be the ham and not the cutter,” said José Ángel Muñoz, chief cutter for Arturo Sánchez, a ham producer.
Sanchidrián’s earnings have allowed him to establish his own restaurant in Madrid. But overall, the ham-cutting profession remains relatively underdeveloped, even in Spain, according to food experts. Lower-rated cutters earn about $250 to slice a leg, forcing them to combine that job with other catering duties.