Jamón Serrano – the taste of Spain
Early cave dwellers painted pigs on their walls to celebrate the animal that gave them food, skin for clothing and bones for tools. Their relatives discovered that by curing the hams and then air drying them, the process preserved the meat, making it stay edible for longer.
The process has not changed for centuries. In late autumn the pigs that had been fattened over summer were sacrificed by the family in a ritual called the “matanza”. None of the pig would be wasted, they favoured the nose to tail approach to this very precious commodity. Chorizo, salachicas and morcilla would all be made immediately with the rest of the pig being carefully butchered with the cuts being distributed to those in attendance.
The legs would be covered in sea salt to begin the curing process and hung in sheds. It was said that the air in the mountains, or sierra, gave the legs a special flavour, and the name Serrano is a derivative of sierra. The curing process could take up to two years due to the large amount of fat on the legs, over half of the weight of the leg would be lost as the fat dripped away. As winter turned into spring the legs would start to sweat as the temperature rose. The salt protected them from bacteria but under the salt a chemical change was occurring. The meat began to dry and the fats inside were broken down. This turned the saturated fats into mono-unsaturated fats which were high in oleic acid, in fact the only fat with a higher oleic acid content is olive oil. After inspection the ham was deemed fit to eat. The ham would be cut with a very sharp knife into long, thin strips, and served on warm plates so that the fat would dissolve.
There were many regional variations, one of the most revered was Jamón Ibérico which was a result of the Ibérico black pig, fed on acorns, bellotas, for a subtle and nutty flavour.
There is a quality mark, the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español, which is stamped onto every ham that has passed the stringent control tests. The mark is in the shape of an S and is branded onto the leg.