Spain’s female ham carvers

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Carving Iberian ham legs in bars, restaurants, and at special events has traditionally been a man’s job. A new generation of women is now taking their place at the cutting board.

Jamon iberico, or expertly cured ham from the Iberian pig, has been a staple of Spanish cuisine since Roman times and is arguably the country’s most iconic food product. A carver, a leg of pork, and plates of burgundy-red ham laced with creamy, nutty-tasting fat round out any Spanish event.

Carvers are admired and celebrated for their abilities. It takes skill to slice a massive bone-in leg in a way that honours the quality of an acorn-fed pig that has been cured for up to three years by delivering a balance of flavour in every umami-packed mouthful. The large number of carving competitions in Spain attest to the importance of this job

For a variety of reasons, the hands holding the long, thin knives have typically been male. Traditionally, men butchered and slaughtered animals and owned jamonerias (charcuterie shops).

Waiters in Spain were mostly men at the time, and they were in charge of slicing ham for customers in restaurants and bars. Many went on to establish themselves as independent, well-paid cutters.

Cortador, the Spanish word for cutter, did not have a female equivalent to describe a woman doing the job at first. A metal ham-slicing machine was known as a cortadora. Opportunities to obtain a ham increased as more women began working in service and hospitality. Some of them have established themselves as genuine stars on the scene.

Raquel Acosta, 31, is one of Spain’s most well-known carvers. She hadn’t planned on going to culinary school after working her way up the restaurant ladder, from peeling potatoes to being in charge of the kitchen. She applied when a friend mentioned that a ham cutter was looking for someone to work with him.

Acosta recalls looking at her boss, who travels all over the world for events, and thinking to herself, “I want to be like him, I want his job.” She now owns her own business, is constantly on the road, and has even cut ham for actor Robert de Niro.

As a teenager, the Burgos, Castile and León native began cooking for her family. She claims that helping out in a family of 15 children has served her well. She now does over 250 events per year, many of which are food shows or corporate events.

Acosta developed her skills through competitions, and she claims that her male peers encouraged and supported her to enter. She did wonder, however, if she had been invited to participate simply because they needed one woman in the lineup. 

Now the cortadors are jealous of me–Guaranteed-Success/wiki

“The cortadors are now envious of me,” Acosta joked. “And I understand because I have more work than they do right now.”

She stated that the pay at the top can be good, with the possibility of earning up to €1,000 (approximately £850) for a full-day event, excluding the cost of the ham.

Acosta is now assembling an all-female carving team, in part due to increased requests from her customers, who say they prefer to see women carving at their events. She has no idea why this is happening, but she told herself, “OK, Raquel, follow the demand.”

The challenge, she says, is finding carvers willing to commit to a hectic schedule of working and travelling 40-plus hours per week during peak seasons.

According to Maria Castro Bermudez-Coronel, communications director of the 143-year-old ham company Cinco Jotas, the public-facing aspect of the job turns off some women.

“I always want to take women to events, but they don’t want to go because they are shy,” Bermudez-Coronel explained.

Cinco Jotas employs up to 100 carvers in the sterile slicing rooms at their base in Jabugo, Huelva province, with a 50-50 gender split. The company also sends carvers all over the world, but Bermudez-Coronel says it’s difficult to persuade women in the cutting department to relocate abroad for work because they often don’t want to uproot their families.

Maria Reyes Mangue’s journey takes her from Equatorial Guinea to Spain, where the 32-year-old has been working as a cortadora in Madrid for seven years.

“It was a difficult time in Galicia,” Mangue recalled of her early years in Spain as a 21-year-old with a newborn son. “I didn’t have any papers and had to look for food in the garbage at night.” She moved to Madrid after two years and found work as a waitress.

“There weren’t many female cutters at the time, and I didn’t know why,” she explained. “I became intrigued.”–Quick-Preparation-Tips/wiki

The owner came in one day at work and said to Mangue, “Cut me a slice of ham!” He noticed she had a good cutting hand and pulled her out of waitressing the next day to attend an intensive cutting course. She is now carving at the upscale Ten Con Ten restaurant in Madrid.

Being a black woman in a predominantly white, male carving scene is “not easy,” according to Mangue, who became a Spanish citizen this year. “It’s unusual to see a black girl slicing ham in public.”

“However, image is an important part of my job as a cutter, and the exoticism and rarity of an African woman doing something as masculine and Spanish as ham cutting is always appealing.” She compared it to an African or Asian person standing out in flamenco dancing.

“I don’t think I’ve had as many limitations as a woman or African in the world of ham as I have in my personal life,” she added.