Introduction to Spanish Ham - Serrano and Ibérico
The Finest Ham in the World
Background and History
Spanish ham is greatly prized as a gourmet food both in Spain and around the world. It is eaten regularly in most Spanish households. In fact, not only is Spain the largest producer of air-dried-cured ham, Spaniards are the number one consumers in the world! Every Spaniard eats about 5 kilograms of cured ham per year. That is double what the Italians eat. There are various types of cured ham in Spain, ranging in price from economical to very expensive. Grocery stores, sausage shops and supermarkets all sell various types of ham and many will not be of a Denomination of Origin. That does not mean it does not great tasting, but it simply did not pass the strict quality control standards.
Ham is historically important food, dried and cured with salt for centuries. The people of the Iberian Peninsula ate pork and ham in their diet, even in the Roman era. However, when the Moors conquered the Peninsula, because of their religious beliefs, eating pork was prohibited. After the Christians regained control and forced the Muslims and Jews to either convert or go into exile, pork regained its popularity.
Well ,even before the arrival of the Romans at the Iberian Peninsula, the population living on the peninsula had already been growing large quantities of swines (and of spanish serrano hams). The Iberians were also trading olive oil, wine and, of course, serrano ham and cold cut meat. These activities were yielding enough returns. The pig was something so valuable that during the age of Augustus and Agripa some ham-shaped Roman coins were created. Some pig images were also discovered on consular medals which were used as military sign of some legion - Celtic and Pre-romanic Gaelic ones.
During Roman times, the pig slaughter was performed by the cook or "coquus" (who used to be a prestigious slave), but then they specialized the proces; finally, some very specialized cooks, named "vicarius supra cenas", were in charge with the slaughter. The serrano ham was the part of the pig that most valued these cooks, and it was consumed only by the high class of society. But they did not only eat serrano ham; they also consumed some other parts of the swine, cold cut meat or salted pork meat, such as loins, heads, chops and pork fat.
The Romans elaborated and produced serrano hams for ages. In many works and books they talk about the serrano ham and the ways to elaborate it - one can see they were following more or less the same stages people use today. Hams were also produced in the ancient Tarraco (Tarragona), in Conesa was discovered a fossilized serrano ham which was of about 2000 years.
Once the Roman era had finished, the Visigothic ages came, with the Mediaeval era. The monastries and the convents were the places where the gastronomy was widely preserved, the monks were looking after the vegetable gardens and each year they used to raise a pig. This way there were always aliments in their pantries, either for the clergy or for the travellers passing by, or for the people living in the monastery.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, Spain was advancing towards the South, which allowed the livestock to move towards the Southern areas, where it would have more meadows and woods for its feeding, so there could be detected a small growth. The country-persons could raise swines more and more every day, although in a more limited way. Little by little, the pig slaughters and the serrano hams productions within villages was something more common.
Types of Cured Spanish Ham
There are basically two different types of cured hams in Spain, jamón serrano or “mountain ham,” and jamón ibérico or “Iberian ham.”
Iberico ham is also known as "jamón serrano, pata negra, jamón iberico, jamón de bellota, jamón de Jabugo...", at least five different terms to refer basically to the same thing.
Jamón Serrano - There are almost 2,000 producers of Serrano ham in Spain. Eighteen of these producers formed the Consorcio de Jamón Serrano Espańol in 1990. The name Jamón Serrano is now controlled by the European Union since the year 2000 and it protects the processing of this product, although it does not apply to a specific region. Look for the label that has an "S" in the shape of a ham, and says SERRANO ESPAŃOL if you want to buy Jamón Serrano from the consortium. The mountain or Serrano ham is made from several different breeds of white pigs, such as Duroc, Landrace or Large White. They are fed mainly cereals and cured from 7 to 16 months.
Jamón Ibérico – This ham is made only from the Iberian pig. The breeding of the Iberian pig is restricted to an area in Southwestern Spain and Southeastern Portugal. Although fed some cereals, these pigs also roam countryside and feed on acorns. The curing process lasts from 14 to 36 months.
Denominations of Origin and Quality Control
Ham is such a treasured food that not only are there several Denominations of Origin, but there is even a chain of Museos de Jamón or “Ham Museums” around Spain! The Denomination of Origin of Teruel (in Aragon) was the first granted by Spain’s Department of Agriculture in 1984. Since then, other Denominations of Origin for ham have been granted. As with all Denominations of Origin, there is strict control of the quality of the product. For example, in order to carry the name jamón de Teruel, the regulations of the Denomination of Origin of Teruel cover every stage of the process, including the following: The pigs must be of a certain breed, be fed only cereals and grains of the local region, be of a certain weight when slaughtered, and spend 14 months curing in Teruel. While curing, they must pass a number of quality control checks, as well.
Besides Teruel in Aragon, other areas are well-known for their excellent ham:
Trevelez (a small village in the Sierra Nevada) Andalucia, which is located in the highest peak in Spain
Girona province in the region of Catalunya = Catalonia
Soria province in the region of Castilla-Leon = Castile and Leon
There are four grades of jamón ibérico, categorised primarily by the diet of the pigs. The curing process remains the same, but the length for which they are aged will differ with the lower grade hams receiving little more than a year of hanging and the very best up to four years.
The age difference can be seen in the finished result with the flesh of the younger hams having a lighter pink colour and those of older hams being a deep, ruby red. The taste too is very different with the acorn richness of the jamón ibérico de bellota lingering on the palate like a fine wine.
Jamón ibérico de bellota
From pure Iberico pigs fed on a diet of acorns during the Montanera and granted DO status. These hams are aged for at least three years before being released and often labelled 'reserva' and 'gran reserva' to denote their age.
Jamón ibérico de recebo
Fed on a diet of cereals and acorns and aged for at least three years.
Jamón ibérico cebo de campo
Free range, but fed only on a diet of cereals.
Jamón ibérico de cebo
Commercially reared pigs fed on a diet of cereals.
It is also worth sampling these excellent Serrano hams.
Jamón de Trévelez
Produced from white pigs which have been fed on commercial cereals, this is still a very fine ham, which fans say has a sweetness that comes from the climate in which the pigs are reared
Jamón de Teruel
The first jamon in Spain to receive DO status, these mountain hams must be aged for at least 12 months after curing before being sold.
Embutidos = Sausage
Worry not, the rest of the pig is not wasted and these other cured products are also well worth seeking out.
Chorizo de cerdo ibérico
A cured sausage made from chopped pork, pork fat and paprika. There are hundreds of regional varieties, some containing garlic and herbs
Lomo de cerdo ibérico
The cured tenderloin of the pig. Seńorio De Montanera make a stunning version covered in lard made from the fat surrounding the pig's kidneys.
Salsichon de cerdo ibérico
Another sausage, cured for at least four months.
Morcon de cerdo ibérico
A larger, less well known sausage cured with herbs and spices.