The Quintessential Spanish Sausage Goes Global
Ibérico chorizo, made with Ibérico pork meat, salt, garlic and pimentón. Photo by: © Don Ibérico.
Author: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX.
Publication Date: 19 Jun 2012
Chorizo is in many ways the most versatile food. It can be fried, sautéed, grilled or roasted, added to soups and stews, used to flavor beans and vegetable dishes, or eaten thinly sliced on a crusty baguette. It is a tapa in a bar, the protagonist at a picnic or an indispensible ingredient in many traditional or innovative recipes.
If you’ve ever spent time traveling through Spain, you’ll find that while the cuisine changes noticeably from region to region, certain gastronomic elements pervade the Spanish cultural and culinary psyche with no regard for regional borders. One of the most important of these is chorizo, the traditional pork sausage par excellence, many versions of which have been made in Spain for centuries.
Despite its universality, it is common for each region and sometimes each town to have its own special way of preparing chorizo, meaning that there are hundreds of possible variations. Even so, the basic recipe remains the same. The most recognizable trait of chorizo is its striking color, which can range from burnt orange to vibrant red, thanks to the addition of Spanish pimentón, or paprika, which was first made by monks at the Monastery of Guadalupe using peppers brought back from the New World by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. One of the finest types of pimentón used in chorizo comes from PDO Pimentón de la Vera in Extremadura. It can be sweet, spicy or smoked, each imparting a distinctive aroma to these hearty sausages.
The other ingredients include lean pork and pork lard (in varying proportions), salt, and other spices such as garlic and oregano, and occasionally white wine, sugar or sherry (in Andalusia and Extremadura). The latter aid in the fermentation process which gives chorizo its typical, slightly tangy and acidic taste. To make chorizo, the pork and lard mixture is marinated for one to two days in the seasonings, and then is stuffed into either pig intestine casings or synthetic ones made from collagen or plant cellulose. They are then hung to dry and cure, or in some wetter parts of Spain, lightly smoked before hanging. Another, less common variation is fresh chorizo that must be cooked before eating. The final product is usually given one of the following shapes: vela (long, thin and straight), ristra (small and tied together) or sarta (U-shaped). Chorizo from different regions will vary in diameter and other physical aspects such as having a smooth or bumpy exterior.
Starting from scratch
All of these factors help explain the huge variety of chorizos found in Spain. Spicy, sweet, smoky, hard, soft, fat, thin, finely chopped, rough-cut, organic – each alteration leaving its mark on the product. However, before the different recipes and formats come into play, the first and most important factor is the meat. Chorizo is typically made with either regular white pork (cerdo blanco) or the famed Ibérico pork. The fat in both varieties prevents the meat from drying out on the inside, while the moist quality of the muscle tissue favors the fermentation process. In the famous Ibérico pigs the fat actually infiltrates their muscles. This, and the fact that their free-range diet consists of acorns and grasses, helps produce exquisitely textured and flavored meat that is rife with rich and nutty aromas – characteristics that are easily discernable in chorizo Ibérico.
Some of the best-known Ibérico pork chorizos come from the town of Guijuelo, in Salamanca (Castile-Leon). Here, companies like the famed producers Joselito and Carrasco long ago perfected the technique of naturally curing chorizo Ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Ibérico pigs) in the area’s cold, dry winter climate. Climate is of course another factor that influences the flavor, texture and aromas of different varieties of chorizo.
Even though the meat of the Ibérico pig is unrivaled, some of Spain’s most famous chorizos are made with local cerdo blanco. This pig is raised in a particular environment which, when combined with age-old artisanal traditions and certain local ingredients, produces a quality product that is so closely linked to the area that it is recognized by a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).
Spain has two such areas: PGI Chorizo Riojano and PGI Chorizo de Cantimpalos. In La Rioja, this product is without a doubt one of the area’s gastronomic signatures. Officially protected since 2008, the artisanal elaboration of Chorizo Riojano has been part of this region’s culinary heritage for centuries. This sausage is stuffed in natural casings and typically presented in sarta format (U-shaped). There are currently only seven chorizo companies in the PGI, producing a total of about 5,600 kilograms a year. Even so, this brightly colored yet mildly flavored chorizo is slowly starting to make a name for itself outside of Spain with exports that, at least for now, are primarily directed towards the European Union.
PGI Chorizo de Cantimpalos is produced in a 40-square-km area along the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains near Segovia (Castile-Leon), in an area known for its excellent pork. Also a classic Spanish chorizo, this product contains PDO Pimentón de la Vera, salt, garlic and oregano from the plains of Salamanca. The most typical format is known as achorizado, which are straight, large sausages (40-50 mm in diameter) that are strung together. This chorizo typically develops a natural dusting of local white mold. This mold adds to the unique flavor of the sausage, and aids in preventing the growth of harmful bacteria.
In addition to the Ibérico and PGI-protected products, Spain boasts a wealth of other famed chorizo varieties. One of these is Chorizo Zamorano, a traditional variety protected by a Marca de Garantía (quality seal), a stage prior to PGI status. Chorizo Zamorano is one of the most typical types of chorizo made in Castile-Leon and more specifically in the province of Zamora. This area boasts a long history of traditional pork products, including this chorizo, which is made with oregano, garlic, salt and sweet or spicy PDO Pimentón de la Vera. It is then cured for a minimum of five weeks. A great place to get a taste of this quality product is at Embutidos y Jamones Lema in the little town of Santibáñez de Vidriales in Zamora. This family company has been making and selling its own chorizos for two generations.
Other important chorizo varieties include: chorizo de Pamplona, which is a finely textured chorizo made with sweet pimentón; chorizo patatero which is made by adding potatoes; and the distinctive chorizos made in the northern regions of Cantabria, Galicia and Asturias, which are typically wood smoked, and often lend their deep and robust flavors to traditional bean soups like Caldo Gallego and Fabada Asturiana. Additionally, other regions boast star products that are intimately related to chorizo. The most famous of these are the slender and roughly-textured chistorra of Navarra, which are often fried on their own, or added to vegetable dishes, tortillas, beans and soups.
In Spain, chorizo in all of its many formats has long been a standard ingredient on menus everywhere, from the most humble neighborhood tavern to the country’s finest restaurants (think Arzak, Akelarre, Martín Berasateguí, among others). Given this wealth of quality products to choose from, it’s no surprise that internationally renowned chefs such as Joël Robuchon (Sea bass fillet with chorizo, artichokes in Barigoule sauce and cilantro), Thomas Keller (Olive oil-poached cod with mussels, orange and chorizo), and Jaime Oliver (Chicken, chorizo and rosemary risotto) have long been partaking in the rich and intense flavors of Spanish chorizo.
The universal appreciation of this authentic Spanish product in the rest of the world has also helped to increase the international demand for this country’s chorizo. The export market for this product has been steadily growing, despite the many hurdles that must be overcome with regard to quality and inspection standards for meat products. Rosa Sánchez, the Sales Director of Don Ibérico – a company from Guijuelo specializing in artisanal Ibérico pork products – explains that companies must pass rigorous inspections by both Spanish and the importing country’s authorities to insure the safety and quality of the product. Don Ibérico, which exports around 25% of the 50,000 kilograms of chorizo that it produces annually to Mexico, Japan, Hong Kong, French Polynesia and Europe, was the first company in Guijuelo to be approved for export to Japan – a particularly difficult process. Sánchez also points out that despite these challenges, the company’s chorizo exports continue to grow, particularly in Asia and South America.
In the United States, the best-known brand is undoubtedly Palacios, the first company to be approved for export by the Spanish government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (in 1997). Whether in the USA or elsewhere, the best places to find these and other chorizo products is through distributors and retailers that specialize in quality Spanish products, such as La Tienda (USA), Despaña (USA), R. García and Sons (UK), Brindisa (UK) and El Palacio de Hierro (Mexico).
After traveling through Spain in the 19th century, French author Alexandre Dumas said, “In every respectable household in Spain, they make as many chorizos as there are days in the year: 350 for their own consumption and 50 more for days when they have guests”. At the rate we’re going, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be enough.
Adrienne Smith is a sommelier, chef and freelance writer. She has spent the last decade eating and drinking her way through Spain.