Jamon Serrano

by Ainhoa Barrio - 28 November 2013

jamon-serranoYou can never go wrong with Jamon Serrano! It is such a key element of Spanish culture that everybody who has grown up in Spain loves it, and cannot conceive living without it.

It is definitely one of the preferred fillings for rolls and baguettes, either for a packed lunch or just a snack. It is great as a starter for a meal, with some fresh tomato and olive oil. And when having drinks with a few friends, a tapa of Jamon Serrano is the perfect nibble.

Legend has it that King Alfonso XIII was having a glass of wine near the sea, when a gust of wind threatened to fill his wine glass with dust. The waiter quickly cut a slice of cured ham to protect it and explained the intention was to cover or 'tapar' his wine glass from the dust. The king then tasted the slice of ham and liked it so much he ordered another Tapa of Jamon Serrano.  And so the tradition of tapas had begun.

jamon-iberico

If you have been to Spain before you may have heard other terms like Iberico, Patanegra and Bellota, and depending on the breed of the animal, how it has been fed and brought up, the names for the cured ham will vary.

The standard and straightforward Jamon Serrano comes from the back legs of the white pig. These pigs are fed on fodder and raised in compounds. Cured ham is also made from the front legs of the white pig, but this is called Paletilla and it does not have all the flavour qualities of the back legs.

Jamon Iberico comes from a different breed of pig, as the name suggests, the Ibérian pig, which is of a higher quality. The term Patanegra refers to the ham made from an Iberian pig that has black hooves, therefore pata negra. If the ham is classified as Jamon Iberico de Bellota, it means it is free range and the pig has been fed on acorns as well as fodder so the taste is of the highest quality.

jamon-serrano-pigs

The process to cure the ham is relatively simple and has been practiced for centuries. There are written records mentioning Jamon Serrano as far back as the Roman Empire.

First, the ham is covered in sea salt and it is let to rest for at least one day per kilogram with a temperature between 1º and 5º.

After the initial salting phase is over, the ham is left to rest, covered in whichever salt has stuck to the fat layer on the exterior. This procedure allows for the salt to penetrate deeper into the ham and distribute itself. This may take between 50 to 90 days and the room temperature will need to be between 16º - 20º.

The remaining salt is then washed off with hot water and the ham is taken to cure and mature to a special room where temperature and humidity can be controlled to stay between 15º to 25º and 40% to 65% humidity.

The total time to curate Jamon Serrano is between 12 and 24 months. For Jamon Iberico it is slightly longer, needing 14 to 36 months. Jamon Iberico de Bellota takes between 24 to 38 months to reach its point of maturity.

Despite being a pork product, Jamon Serrano is a very healthy food. After the drying period, it contains more proteins and less fat than the fresh product. It is very light and rich in vitamins like B1, B6, iron, potassium and zinc.

jamon-serrano

It is common to go into a Spanish tapas bar and find an array of hams hanging from the ceiling. Whereas at the moment this is mainly done to keep them well ventilated, the tradition has a much more interesting origin. During the time of Jewish persecution in Spain, non-Jews would hang the ham from their ceiling to indicate to policeman that pork was eaten in the household, thus avoiding uncomfortable enquiries about their religion.

As well as simply cured, there are many other uses for Jamon Serrano in Spanish cooking. It is great sautéed with green peas and onions. You can also try a healthier carbonara sauce with diced ham instead of bacon. Using the bone of the ham in vegetable stews will add rich flavours to it and you can also use it to make stock. But the best way to taste it is freshly cut in thin slices and at room temperature.

Ainhoa Barrio is a Spanish food, drink and culture writer who lives in Barcelona.

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