THE ARTISANAL HAMS OF SPAIN
Picture paper-thin strips of dark red ham like petals ringing a hand painted plate. Imagine big honest hams curing in the mountain air. Picture individual hams resting on stands in family kitchens throughout Spain with a long slim knife at hand for any and all to slice a treat.
In Spain, Jamón is hospitality. Jamón is Spain. Of all the European hams Jamón from Spain is the Gold Standard.
There exist two great traditions of artisanal cured hams in Spain, both of which are tasty and nutritious, and the source of great pride among Spaniards:
Jamon Serrano is a cured country ham from white pigs. From time immemorial in the mountains of Spain, country people have rolled fresh hams in sea salt and hung them from their rafters to cure. A year to eighteen months later the jamones are ready to mount on special stands that are designed so that anyone can stop by, carve a few paper-thin slices, and enjoy an impromptu snack - perhaps with some manchego cheese.
Today, Jamon Serrano comprises about 90% of Spain's annual ham production. These hams are produced mostly by recreating the effect of traditional techniques in modern production facilities, from white pigs raised mostly on cereal grains. The hams are made from Duroc, Pietrain, Landrace or other large white pigs, which flourish throughout Europe. When compared to hams processed in other countries, however, Jamon Serrano is less moist with a consistent texture, some marbling, a purple color, and a deep ham flavor.
Jamón Ibérico is the pride of Spain. The lineage of the unique animals that produce these hams stretches back to pre-history when they ran wild in the Iberian Peninsula. Columbus had some of them on the Santa María when he set out to discover the New World.
Jamon Ibérico is produced from Cerdo Ibérico, a pig native to Southwestern Spain and Southeastern Portugal. These pigs are much fatter and have more marbled meat than regular pink pigs. As opposed to their luckier Bellota destined bretheren, they are mostly fed cereal feeds, and may be allowed limited free range time where herbs supplement their diet.
Jamón Ibérico Bellota: a sub category of Jamón Ibérico where the pigs are free to roam the meadows of the 'dehesa'. During the autumn prior to their sacrifice, they are encouraged to gorge on acorns from the Holm oak and cork trees, sometimes gaining as much as a kilo of weight a day. Much of the resultant fat is mono-unsaturated.
Jamón Ibérico comprises only about 10% of Spain's annual ham production. Jamón Ibérico hams are aged from 24 to 36 months and have distinct marbling, a dark purple color, and an intense ham flavor coming from mono-unsaturated fat.
JAMON TYPES, GRADES & CUTS
The types and qualities of Spanish hams are determined by the breed of the pig, how and where it was raised, and how it was processed. Simple factors that make all the difference in the world.
Certain combinations of these factors are protected and warranted through certification by Denominación de Origin or the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español. These ensure that the hams that bear their seal deliver the quality and flavors synonymous with the name.
In their infancy, all pigs are raised on a diet that includes cereal grains and mother's milk. While white pigs usually continue to eat only cereal feeds after weaning, Ibérico pigs are raised on a variety of diets. Diet is the second most important factor influencing the quality of the ham, and is one of the factors evaluated in determining Iberico ham grades.
Bellota grade Ibérico ham
Hams are from Iberico pigs, which have spent the last three to four months of their lives feasting on rich, oily acorns that have dropped from the ground from holm and cork trees in the mountain meadows of a region called the dehesa. This period of grazing on the open range is called the montanera, and the pigs add about half their weight during this period.
The coveted hams they produce are unique in the world: beautiful nutty ham slices which glisten when they are served because 60% of their marbled fat contains healthy mono triglycerides (like olive oil) that melt at room temperature. Because of its quality, many connoisseurs have referred to Jamón Ibérico Bellota as the "Kobe Beef of hams."
Recebo grade Ibérico ham
These are hams from Ibérico pigs who have have enjoyed a shorter free range acorn grazing period or added less than 50% to their weight during the montanera, and are subsequently fattened and brought to market weight with cereal feed.
Cebo grade Ibérico ham
These are hams from Ibérico pigs who were raised on a diet of cereal feeds.
These are hams from Ibérico pigs, usually cross-bred with white pigs, who were raised on farms and fed cereal feeds, without a period of free range grazing.
Teruel ham, Trevélez ham, Gran Serrano ham
These hams are from white or Duroc pigs, who were raised on farms and fed cereal feed, and then cured for more than one year at high altitudes in dry climates such as Teruel and Sierra Nevada.
Oro (gold) Serrano ham, Plata (silver) Serrano ham
Hams from white pigs, who were raised on farms and fed cereal feed, then cured for less than 14 months anywhere in Spain.
Hams from white pigs, who were raised on farms (usually outside of Spain) and fed cereal feed raised, and then processed in Spain, and cured for less than 8 months.
Hams from Spain are commonly offered in the following cuts, whether made from Iberico pigs or others. The Iberico versions of each of these cuts are just now becoming available in the United States for the first time; Iberico Bellota will be available in July 2008.
THE PIG BREEDS
White pigs, which populate all of Europe, are the source of Jamón Serrano. Those bred in Spain are close relatives to those throughout neighboring countries throughout the European Union. Some of the most familiar breeds are Duroc, Pietrain and Landrace.
The Cerdo Ibérico has a lineage which reaches back to the time of the cavemen of the Iberian Peninsula. The Ibérico is a strain of pig that varies significantly from other pigs found considerably from the European pigs.
This is a rare breed, since the herds are small, and the Dehesa, the type of wooded meadow in which they forage is in short supply. A critical factor has been the existence of this Dehesa which is a meadow-like environment forested with acorn bearing trees.
Without the Dehesa there are no Ibérico hams. The unique genetic structure of the animal and its diet yield a ham that is more thoroughly marbled than a white pig. The acorn diet contributes to its rich and nutty flavor.
Iberico pigs are divided into black (Entrepelado, Lampiño, Mamellado, Silvela and Negro de los Pedroches), red (Retinto (Colorado, Oliventina), Torbiscal), spotted (Manchado de Jabugo), and light-skinned Iberico pigs (Dorado Gaditano), although these light-skinned Iberico pigs are nearly extinct.
Since pre-history, the Cerdo Ibérico has lived in free-range conditions, mainly in the mountains of western Spain along the Portuguese border, but also in parts of Andalucía. The Ibérico pig has dark skin with a sparse coat, a pointed snout, and long, slender legs.
The most common crossbreed is between Retintos or Lampiños Iberico pigs and Duroc-Jersey white pigs. Although you might think that a purebred Ibérico pig would produce the finest Jamón Iberico, cross breeding makes a more balanced fat to lean ratio -- up to a point.
Breeders are careful to keep the proportion of Iberico stock above 75%, because that is the minimum required by the four Denominations of Origin for Iberico pigs. This guarantee is why many feel that the designated D.O. is crucial to the consumer.
Mangelica pigs also produce hams in Spain. They are a Hungarian breed that is a distant relative of the Ibérico pig. It has amusingly curly hair, making it look somewhat like a sheep.
The Mangalica has the highest percentage of fat among pigs raised in Spain. This fat content makes its hams and loins mature very slowly into a ham with exceptionally rich aromas and flavor. Mangalica production is very limited, and the breed has been in danger of becoming.
One of the most important factors in determining the quality and characteristics of the resulting ham is the breed of the pig, especially in determining the way the fat is distributed in the ham.
Ibérico pigs yield hams that are streaked with glossy marbling fat. One of the distinctive genetic traits of this breed is its ability to store fat in muscle tissue, the key to the unmistakable flavor and texture of Ibérico hams. The hams from these pigs are known as Jamón Ibérico.
The Ibérico hams of Dehesa de Extremadura are characteristically long and slender. The hoof is dark, and the color of the flesh ranges from rosy to a deep purplish crimson. The texture of the ham is remarkably soft. Due to high percentage of healthy mono unsaturated fat within the meat, slices of Ibérico Bellota glisten when served at room temperature. The melting point of the fat is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ibérico ham is also popularly known as Pata Negra (black hoof) because the skin and hoof of an Ibérico hog tend to be black. This can be a confusing term because there are varieties of Iberico pigs that are not black. Conversely, there are also pigs that are not of the Ibérico blood line with black or very dark hides.
White pigs yield Jamón Serrano (or Serrano ham) that is generally leaner than those produced by their distant Ibérico cousins. They carry their fat on the outside of the ham rather than heavily marbled within the muscles. Serrano hams tend to be uniform in size, with reddish meat and white or slightly yellowish fat. The meat of Serrano hams is slightly salty and has a mild aroma.
The original Mediterranean forest, known as the encina, once stretched over vast portions of Spain. However, thanks to the Roman occupation, subsequent populations, wars and hunger, the encina has long since disappeared.
It was used for timber, animal pastureland, firewood, and the production of charcoal. Reforestation was a prime project of the government after the devastating Civil War of 1936-1939
A few patches survive of something resembling this vast primeval forest; even though on a small scale firewood is still gathered, bark from cork trees is still harvested, charcoal produced, bee hives are kept and it has become an area for recreational hunting.
Rather than clearing huge forests of holm oak, the Spaniards selectively thinned the trees in order to create the tree-studded meadow known as the dehesa.
This dehesa system plays an essential role for birds from Northern and Central Europe that winter in Southwestern Spain. In addition, the dehesa is vital to the survival of many native Spanish birds, such as the nearly extinct Spanish imperial eagle.
The holm oak, together with cork tree and the pastures form a unique bio-diverse ecosystem, which covers almost five million acres of western Spain and Portugal. Large extensions of holm oak, cork and gall oak forest in the southwest of the Iberian peninsula make up the dehesa. Each tree takes between 30 and 40 years to grow to maturity.
Inadvertently you may have first seen the dehesa when as a child your parents read you Ferdinand the Bull. Laid-back Ferdinand loved lounging under cork trees! But a word of caution: should you encounter a bull in the dehesa today, he probably will not be as mellow.
The dehesa constitutes an extraordinary ecosystem of which the pig is an essential component. It is their favorite terrain, as well as home to Retinta cows and Merino sheep.
The combination of holm oak with evergreen cork trees is fortuitous. The cork tree produces acorns after the holm oak thereby extending the seasonal feast for the animals. A hybrid (known as a mesto) has been bred that bears acorns between peaks of the other two oaks, thereby giving a constant supply to the Cerdo Ibérico.
The dehesa is a beautiful harmony: holm oak and cork trees, grasses from the pastures, aromatic plants and acorns. It is also an especially important reserve for aromatic plants such as thyme or rosemary and a wide variety of mushrooms. This exceptional habitat that provides a natural and balanced diet to the Ibérico pig, key to achieve the sensory quality of its meat.
Due to the commitment of the Ibérico ham industry, this special ecosystem, which has always been the favorite home of the Ibérico pig, continues to thrive. Acorns, fruit of both the holm oak and cork tree, are the basis of the Ibérico pig's diet, although it also feeds on the pastures, stubble and wild legumes, making a decisive contribution to the ecological balance of its natural habitat.
Fortunately, due to the increased interest in Jamón Ibérico, the commercial value of the dehesa has risen dramatically thereby sparing it from the encroaching bulldozers of land developers.
THE CURING PROCESS
On the face of it, curing hams is a simple process. All you need is salt, air and time. The process starts in conditions of low temperature and high humidity, and gradually the temperature is raised and the humidity lowered. It is a natural, spontaneous, ongoing transformation that has four distinct production stages:
Salting and washing. After the pigs are sacrificed, the freshly cut hams are covered with sea salt for a week or ten days, depending on weight. The rule of thumb is 1 day per two pounds of meat. The salting room is kept between 0 - 3°C at 85-95% humidity. After this period, the hams are rinsed in lukewarm water to remove salt crystals from the surface.
Resting period. Once cleansed of surface salt, the hams are kept for one to two months in cold rooms at a temperature between 3° and 6° C and a relative humidity of 80 or 90%. During this resting period the salt penetrates the pieces thoroughly, enhancing dehydration and conservation. This process gives hams a significantly denser consistency, since much water has been removed.
Drying and maturation. During this period, hams are moved to a "secadero", or natural drying area, where temperature and humidity are controlled through ventilation. Temperature ranges from 15° to 30° C for the 6 to 9 month drying period, during which hams continue to lose moisture, and "sweating" - dissemination of fat throughout the muscle fibers, which then retain the aroma they have acquired - also occurs. The final flavor and aromas begin to develop during this stage, due to a series of changes that occur in the protein and fat of these hams. (This is usually the final stage in processing a Serrano ham.)
Unlike prosciutto or Parma ham, the curing ham is not covered by lard or any other external ingredient that would affect the flavor. It is pure ham, waiting to be improved by the mountain air. At the right time, determined by the ham master who inspects each ham, the Ibérico hams are transferred to the bodega where they hang from a cord for as much time as it will take to finish the cure and produce the best product.
Bodega phase. Ibérico hams are then hung in cellars, or bodegas, for up to a maximum of 30 months. Temperature may range between 10° and 20° C, and relative humidity, between 60 and 80%. During this phase, hams continue to undergo the biochemical processes initiated during the curing process, enhanced by microbial flora, which give them their particular aroma and final flavor.
Usually the Jamón Ibéricos take at least two years to reach their peak of flavor - some of the best ones the ham master will cure for another half a year, or more.
Part of his decision is based upon weight - the larger hams will take a longer time to cure, the other factor in his decision is an art.
Determining the time when the Jamón Ibérico is ready is the responsibility of a specialist who draws on years of experience. He inserts a thin sliver of bone into the interior of the curing ham, and by sight and aroma makes his decision. It is similar to a baker inserting toothpick into a baking cake to see if it is done - except the stakes are vastly higher, since this meat is so precious.
N.B. Be sure not to confuse these Ibérico hams with the classic American country hams from Virginia and the South. Because of the damper climate in Virginia, their hams are heavily salted and smoked for extra preservation. As a whole, Spanish jamones have at least 300% less salt than American country hams and are never smoked.
Today the entire production process from slaughter through curing is likely to take place in modern facilities that ensure continuous production, uniform quality and environmental conditions free of the whims of Mother Nature. But this is not necessarily at odds with artisanal processing. The best hams are still processed and controlled one by one, and the wide range of ham prices is partly due to the personalized attention each ham receives during processing.
The end product is very different if, for example, the cuts are salted one by one or if they are placed in a row and salt is thrown over them by a wheel loader. It is very important to use the right amount of salt according to the cut's weight and shape and make sure it is evenly covered. This personalized care is essential in all stages of processing. The big differences in ham prices are largely due to the care they get in processing.
Until a few years ago nearly all families living in the country had one or two pigs, which they butchered in winter (December or January). The matanza, or traditional pig slaughter, was a festive occasion when many of the perishable parts of the pig were eaten: blood, ribs, snout, etc.).
Families of more modest means used hams as a means of payment and consumed the various types of sausages (chorizo, salchichón) and other products that could be preserved by marinating, such as pork rind and loin.
JAMON PRODUCTION REGIONS
Hams are produced throughout Spain, especially in mountainous areas with mild, dry summers and cold winters, which is ideal for curing.
These mountainous areas gave Jamón Serrano its name; Jamón Serrano means "mountain country ham." Just about every hamlet and mountain village boasts their own version of the Jamón Serrano, because in the days before easy transportation each village produced their own hams following local custom.
The quality of these hams is determined by the rearing of the white pig, the cool mountain breezes that cured the hams, and it processing. Drawing on a wealth of experience, a skilled ham master determines the perfect time for each phase of curing until he determines that it is time to bring his masterpiece to market. It is a pure product yielding honest flavor.
Jamón Serrano is produced and served in every Spanish province. Although some regions have a longer tradition of producing Jamón Serrano than others, the preparation of Serrano ham certainly is not limited to a certain geographic area.
Since 2001, the European Union protects the process of Serrano ham production with the certification T.S.G., Traditional Specialty Guaranteed. This certification protects the authentic taste of Serrano ham and ensures consumers in Europe and all over the world that it refers to a historical, authentic and genuine product.
In 1990, the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español was formed to bring together the principal producers/exporters of Serrano ham in Spain, with the objective of guaranteeing the quality of Spanish Serrano ham and to offer a high quality product for export.
A Serrano ham certified by the Consorcio bears the label of the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español with its control number, and the "S" in the shape of a ham branded on the skin of the ham guarantees that the Serrano ham has passed the Consorcio's rigorous standards.
Jamón Ibérico is produced in the natural range of the Cerdo Ibérico (the Ibérico pig), mainly in the high mountain meadows of western and southwestern Spain along the Portuguese border, but also in parts of Andalucía. In fact, the Ibérico ham designation can only refer to pigs reared in regions where the Dehesa natural pasture lands are found. These are:
Salamanca The town of Guijuelo and surrounding area, in the region of Castile and León
Huelva the province that includes town of Jabugo and surrounding area, in the western most area of Andalucía.
Los Pedroches Valley, in the region of Andalucía north west of Córdoba.
Flavor profiles are determines by the area where the animals are raised. The Jamón Ibérico produced in different regions varies in because of their particular micro climate and unique vegetation.
In order to assure the integrity of the Jamón Ibérico, local governmental agencies set strict standards concerning the geographic origin of the ham, the lineage of the pigs, the rearing of the animals and the steps followed to produce the final product. This earns the designation Denominación de Origin.
There are currently four distinct regions producing Ibérico hams:
Denominación de Origen Guijuelo
c/ Filiberto Villalobos 6
37770 Guijuelo (Salamanca)
Denominación de Origen Dehesa de Extremadura
c/ Cánavos del Castillo s/n
06800 Mérida (Badajoz)
Denominación de Origen Jamón de Huelva
c/ Plaza doña Elvira s/n
21200 Aracena (Huelva)
Denominación de Origen Los Pedroches
c/ Real 6
14440 Villanueva de Córdoba
HOW SPANISH JAMON DIFFERS FROM OTHER HAMS
Dry cured hams have been produced throughout southern Europe for centuries. Spain, Portugal, France and Italy have highly valued hams employing a variety of breeds and curing methods.
This tradition of dry cured hams migrated to the Old South of the United States in 17th Century, especially in Virginia and the Carolinas. The well known Smoked hams from peanut fed pigs were produced in the Surry and Smithfield areas. The resulting hams from the several countries vary widely in flavor, aroma, texture and quality.
Country-style ham in America is a specially cured and smoked ham that is traditionally prepared in rural sections of Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vermont, and other states. "Country ham" refers to a style, rather than a location.
Traditionally hogs for these hams were fed beechnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, and fruit to produce more flavorful and tender meat. This is seldom the case today. They are dry-cured in salt, smoked over fragrant hardwoods, and aged at least six months. These hams are meant to be cooked before eating, and require of 24 - 48 hour soaking in water to leech out the excess salt.
On the whole, Spanish ham usually has a more uniform texture, more intense flavor, and is usually less moist than other cured hams, because of the long curing stage. This is especially true of hams from acorn-fed Iberico Bellota pigs.
The following is a random sampling of some of the better known of the the hundreds of other European and American cured hams:
Alentejo ham is an Ibérico ham from Portugal. It is similar to Spanish Ibérico ham, although somewhat smaller. The breeds are closely related, with the pigs are raised on the comparable Portuguese dehesa as they are in Spain. The open forest grasslands with acorn-bearing cork and holm oak trees are critical to their development.
Ammerland ham is a wet-cured, boneless ham from Germany that has been cold-smoked with beech wood and juniper berries.
Ardennes from Bayonne is an air-dried, salt cured, uncooked ham from Belgium, which is sliced thinly for serving and has an appearance and flavor that is similar to Italian prosciutto ham. Thicker cut slices can be pan-fried
Bigorre ham is made from free-range Gascony black pigs, an Ibérico breed, which is raised in the Pyrenees Mountains in France.
Black Forest ham is a moist, boneless German-style ham made only from the top and bottom round. It is smoked over pine and fir and coated with beef blood to give it a black exterior. Very lean and tender, it is fully cooked, weighs 4 to 6 pounds, and is often sliced thin and used for sandwiches.
Irish ham is produced in Ulster near Belfast. It is pickled and smoked over peat fires in order to achieve a unique flavor. The Irish ham is prepared as you would an American country ham soaking the remove excessive salt and then cooked.
Jambon cru (raw ham) or Jambon du pays (local ham) is a generic designation for French hams from Alsace and Vendée. They weigh in the neighborhood of 15 lb, and some of the Alsatian hams may be smoked.
Jambon sec (dry cured ham) is a designation for hams from France that meet a minimum weight and are dry cured for at least 3 months. Hams in this category include hams from the Ardennes, Auvergne, Bayonne, Laucaune, Najac and Savoie. Jambon sec supérieur denotes hams such as Bigorre, that are from pigs raised and processed by traditional methods in France.
Prosciutto di Parma is the true prosciutto, a superior Italian ham from northern Italy's province of Parma, the same area noted for Parmesan cheese. The special diet of chestnuts and whey derived from the cheese-making process that Parma pigs enjoy results in an excellent quality of meat. Parma hams are seasoned, salt-cured and air-dried but not smoked. They have a rosy-brown flesh that is firm and dense. Before dry curing many prosciutto hams are coated with lard and cured for at least 10 12 months, yielding a smooth-textured, slightly salty ham.
Prosciutto di San Daniele is a guitar-shaped Italian ham produced in San Daniele, a picturesque village of 8,000 located in northeastern Italy between the Alps and the Adriatic. Its micro-climate alternates between dryness and humidity which contributes to the prosciuttos salty-sweet flavor and almost creamy texture. It is cured for at least 12 months.
Smithfield Ham has been produced in America since the Colonial times of the 17th Century, and is defined by legislation. According to the 1926 Statute passed by the General Assembly of Virginia, Genuine Smithfield hams [are those] cut from the carcasses of peanut-fed hogs, raised in the peanut-belt of the State of Virginia or the State of North Carolina, and which are cured, treated, smoked, and processed in the town of Smithfield, in the State of Virginia. These gourmet hams have a deep red meat that is dry and pungent. Modern Smithfield hams are not necessarily peanut fed.
Speck Alto Adige is a distinctive lightly smoked dry cured ham from Italy which has a unique hybrid of flavors. Its delicate aroma and defining taste are the result of the incorporation of two distinct gastronomic preferences in Europe. One is the smoking methods of general area of the north of Germany. The other is the salting techniques of the southern Mediterranean regions, such as Spain, Italy and Portugal. The result is a milder than northern smoked hams, yet stronger and less sweet than ham produced in southern Europe.
Virginia Ham is a country ham from the United States, produced in states including Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The ham is produced from Berkshire black pigs raised mostly on corn. These pigs have a high proportion of marbling fat, and are cured up to a year. Some of the best hams are smoked over hardwoods like walnut, oak, maple or apple. A long salt curing phase necessitated by the local climate makes the final product very salty up to three times the salt of a Spanish Jamón Serrano. Therefore in preparation cooking and serving, it is soaked for over 24 hours in a bath of pure water and then either roasted or simmered
Westphalian ham is gourmet boneless ham produced from pigs raised on acorns in Germany's Westphalia forest. The ham is cured before being slowly smoked over beech wood mixed with juniper branches. The combination of the gourmet diet, curing and smoking results in a dark brown, very dense ham with a distinctive, light smoky flavor.
York ham is the quintessential English ham. Dry cured and matured over a period of at least ten weeks, it develops a wonderful depth of flavor and a firm yet succulent texture. The curing process means that the York is somewhat drier and saltier than the Wiltshire. This mild-flavored ham has delicate pink meat which is a favorite in Spanish tapas bars. In England, it is traditionally served with Madeira sauce.
HOW TO SLICE AND STORE YOUR JAMON
Jamón ham is the culinary treasure of Spain and Spaniards enjoy more ham per person than anywhere else in the world. In Spain it is common to see a whole ham resting on a stand in the family kitchen, ready for anyone to cut a thin slice for a snack or a treat. A whole jamon can easily be stored in your kitchen and used daily as needed for as tapas or in recipes.
Storing Your Ham
Store your whole, bone-in jamón in a cool, dry and ventilated place, either resting in a holder (jamonero) or hung by the rope.
To preserve the freshness, moisture and flavor of your ham as it is consumed, always cover the sliced area with plastic wrap or a bit of the removed fat layer after slicing. If the meat has been left exposed to the air for some time, discard the first slice of the exposed area, as it will be dry and tough.
On the other hand,your boneless jamón needs to be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in butcher paper. If it arrives vacuum packed, be sure to remove the original plastic casing. Boneless hams can be divided into pieces, or can be sliced on an electrical slicer. Serve the jamón at room temperature.
Slicing Your Ham
Remove the layer of fat from the top and the sides until the meat is exposed. Trim the fat as you slice. Cut small, very thin slices, including some of the marbled fat if your ham is an Ibérico.
Slice downwards with your free hand behind the knife. If you plan to have the entire ham in a day or two, you can remove the skin and fat completely. If not, it is better only to to remove the skin and outer fat layer from the area to be sliced that day.
To enjoy the flavor and texture of a fine jamón, slice the ham with a long sharp knife in the following order: first the rump half, then the rump end, and lastly the shank.
The meat nearest the bone is difficult to slice well, and can be cut into small chunks for use in soups and stews. The ham bone itself is also excellent for flavoring broths, soups, and stews, and may be cut and frozen for later use.
Ham should be consumed at room temperature, when it will have a lustrous appearance. When too cold, the fat will appear opaque.
Any ham that is cut should be consumed immediately, or covered in plastic wrap, to avoid prolonged exposure of the ham to air. In addition, each time you slice the ham, you should protect the cut area with butcher paper, a cloth m,oistened with olive oil, or with a bit of the trimmed skin and fat layer, so that the cut area remains fresh. To further protect the ham, you may cover it with a clean dish towel.
Your Jamóns Appearance
You may notice natural molds and bits of salt on the surface of the ham these occur naturally in the curing and maturation process. In fact mold is an indication of a properly aged ham. It is best to remove it from around the area to be cut to avoid their rancid flavor.
Mold: A thin layer of mold may appear on whole hams. This penicillin-like mold is completely harmless. It can be removed with a clean, damp cloth, with a cloth and olive oil, or a vegetable brush.
Small white spots (thyroxine): These are small "chalky" granules that form between the muscle fibers during the curing process. They vary in shape, size and location. They are amino acids found in aged meat and cheese products and are perfectly safe to eat.
Iridescent sheen: This effect can be seen on the cut surface of the ham and in certain parts of the meat. The coloring sometimes has a metallic appearance. It is insignificant as far as the quality of the ham is concerned.
Salt: Sometimes salt may form on the surface of the ham in dry conditions. This inorganic salt does not affect the flavor of jamón and can be brushed or wiped away.
White film: This may be seen on the cut surface of whole or boneless hams. The film is mostly thyroxine (same as the white spots). Simply discard the discolored slice.
Fat: Whole hams tend to be rather fatty, which protects the meat and helps it keep longer. Remember the old axiom: 'Fat is Flavor."
GLOSSARY OF JAMON TERMS
Añada - The crop or vintage of hams coming from pigs who shared the same montanera and were sacrificed at the same time. Each añada has its own characteristics and organoleptic properties.
Babilla or contramaza - The rump end of the ham, where the meat contains the most fat. This part is exposed for slicing when a whole ham is placed in the holder with the hoof facing down. La babilla is the part delimited between the femur bone and the coxal, and contains less meat than the part of the maza. It is recommended to start cutting ham in this part in order to preserve and to take advantage of the ham piece
Bodega - The curing cellar where Ibérico hams hang to mature in an environment of controlled temperature and humidity level.
La caña has the same texture and flavor characteristics as the jarrete. This part of the ham is normally used in gastronomy to make small cubes.
Cebo - A grade of Jamón Ibérico that refers to the pigs finishing period if it only consists of a diet of commercial cereal feed.
Cerdo- Castilian for pig. Cerdo Iberico is the Iberian pig
Chacina - Macerated pork used for the production of sausages.
Chorizo - A dry-cured pork sausage that has a dominant flavor of pimentón de la Vera smoked paprika. Spanish chorizo is a different product than Mexican, which is a fresh sausage with hot peppers an vinegar as ingredients.
La Contramaza The opposite part to the maza, is the narrowest part of the ham and therefore the most cured, is the part that contains the least proportion of fat.
Dehesa - The unique forested grassland of Southwest Spain which is the pasture area for the Iberian pig.
D. O. (Denomination of Origin) - A designation of quality assurance issued by specific regions for products whose origin and preparation are strictly monitored and meet the designation standards.
Dry Cured - The old-fashioned way to preserve meat, where the meat is not cooked, but preserved with salt and other processes.
Ham knife - A long, flexible knife with a narrow blade, used to cut ham into paper thin slices. Otherwise known as a jamonera.
Iberian pig - Refers to any pig native to Spain,and is not specifically the indigenous breed of pig of the southeastern Iberian peninsula. Depending upon its usage it may be a deliberately confusing term.
Ibérico - Means from the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal. Specifically it refers to the age-old strain of free range pigs, Cerdo Ibérico which have populated the peninsula for thousands of years. Also refers to ham and other embutidos / sausages / charcuterie that are made from the meat. Ibérico pigs are characterized by their adaptation to the Dehesa, marbled fat,long,slender legs and black hoofs.
Jabugo is a generic term referring to Jamón Ibérico. It derive from the legendary hams produced in the rural village of Jabugo in far wester Andalucía close to the Portuguese frontier.
JJJJJ / Cinco Jotas - Refers to the famous hams produced in the small town of Jabugo in western Andalucía by Sanchez Romero Carvajal.
Jamón - A generic term used to designate ham - the pig's hind leg cuts ("jamones").
Jarrete - This mellow part of the ham, located between the tibia and fibula, is served in small chunks. This part of the ham is located between the tibia and fibula, The meat is hard and fibrous with a concentration of flavor.
Lomo - The loin of the animal. After the fat is removed, the loin is marinated for a day or two in salt, Pimentón de la Vera - Spanish smoked paprika, as well as other condiments such as garlic and oregano, according to individual recipes. Then the marinated loin is made into a sausage with a natural casing and cured in the drying room for a period ranging from 12 weeks to 4 months.
Marbling - The veins of fat in the meat that impart complex flavors to the ham. In Ibérico Bellota hams, a majority of this marbling is healthy mono-unsaturated fat. It includes volatile compounds that impart flavors and aromas from the acorns and herbs that the pig consumed while grazing on the Dehesa forest meadow.
Matanza - Literally means "the killing". The matanza is a Spanish harvest tradition that takes place once a year in the early winter, when an extended family gets together to sacrifice the pigs they have raised during the year and chorizos,loins and sausages are made for the family.
La Maza - The thicker, rump half of the ham, where the meat is most lean. The rump half of the ham is exposed for slicing when the whole ham is placed in a holder with the hoof facing up. La maza is the part where ham has more meat, is the main part of the ham, the richest and juicy, and contains more quantity of loin
Montanera - The period from autumn to the end of winter during which Ibérico pigs reach their final weight dining on the grasses and acorns of the Dehesa.
Organoleptic - The four properties that can be perceived by the senses: color, texture, flavor and aroma.
Paletilla - The shoulder cut of the pig..
Paleta - The shoulder of the pig, in contrast to the rump which is called a ham or jamón.
Pata negra - "Black hoof" is an informal name that refers to the Jamón Ibérico because the hoofs of the cerdo Ibérico are black. Interchangeable with "Jabugo" and Jamón Iberico.
La Punta or hip is the opposite part of the hoof. This part has a lot of fat and therefore Is one of the more tasty parts of ham. Fat is flavor.
Reserva - The designation for the category of finest premium hams, conveyed annually by the Producers' Association of the Denomination of Origin.
Salchichón - A dry cured pork sausage similar to the Spanish chorizo, but omitting the pimentón de la Vera smoked paprika and replacing it with vinegar and black pepper.
Secadero - A natural drying area designated for curing of Iberico hams, where ventilation is controlled only by opening and closing windows.
Serrano - Refers to the mountains. Jamón Serrano is a country ham cured in the mountains of Spain.
Sweating - The diffusion of marbling fat through the ham that appears as tiny droplets on the surface at room temperature.
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ABOUT JAMON IBERICO
The Finest Ham in the World
The story of Jamón Ibérico ham is steeped in mystery and romance. The ancient oak pastures of Spain, the noble black Ibérico pig, the mountain air which caresses each ham as it magically is transformed into one of the worlds most exquisite foods - all play a part in this uniquely Spanish phenomenon. Without each ingredient the recipe is disturbed. Greatness can only be achieved with patience, skill and adherence to traditional methods.
The origin of the Iberico pig goes back millennia, even to the time of the cavemen who decorated the caves of Spain with their art. These are the original swine of Spain, tamed over the centuries. Only in the last couple of hundred years have the pink pigs of our imagination invaded their territory. The Iberico hog is big, with slender legs and a very long snout. Iberico pigs are black, with very little hair. They have black hooves as well, which is the source of the phrase pata negra which describes the black hoof that remains on the ham throughout the curing process and distinguishes it from a Serrano ham. They are also much fatter animals with veins of fat running through the muscle of the pig. This, along with the large amount of fat layering each ham, allows the Iberico hams to be cured much longer, resulting in a much more complex, intense flavor, with a note of sweetness that is unparalleled.
Here we must make a very important point not all Iberico pigs win the Jamon Iberico lottery and live free in the Spanish countryside. Most Jamon Iberico is made from Iberico pigs who live normal pig lives eating corn and other feed. It is still an excellent ham, benefiting from the noble lineage of the Iberico pig. But for the ultimate ham, you must add 'bellota', or acorns. As an indication of the difference, Jamon Iberico de Bellota can cost twice as much as a normal Iberico ham. So note well the difference between the two main types of Iberico ham: there is Jamon Iberico, and then there is Jamon Iberico de Bellota, or acorn fed.
If they are lucky enough to be destined for Bellota status, the Iberico pigs finish their lives on the Dehesa (more on this later), in small family clans, until their day of sacrifice arrives. The favorite pastime of Iberico hogs is rooting around the pastures in the Dehesa, foraging for acorns as well as herbs and grasses. All this running around feasting, especially during the acorn season, does more than make for a well rounded, happy pig. It makes for exquisitely marbled raw material, packed with natural antioxidants a key ingredient for extended curing of the ham.
The Dehesa and the Acorn
Which brings us to the humble acorn, known as the 'bellota'. Many centuries ago, the rulers of western Spain decreed that each town and village should create pastures studded with oak trees, called the Dehesa, for the long term stability of the region. This forest/pasture continues to serve many purposes. The Holm and cork oaks provided firewood for the people, shade for the plants and livestock, cork products, and acorns (bellota) during fall and winter. During the spring and summer cattle and sheep graze the fields. During the fall and winter, when the acorns are falling from the trees, the pigs are released to fatten up. This ancient human-created ecosystem survives intact to this day.
An aside: with the construction boom in modern Spain there has been pressure on the owners of the Dehesa to convert it into real estate for homes and apartments. The renaissance of the Iberico ham, which began less than thirty years ago, is a major ingredient in preserving this jewel of Spain for future generations.
Iberico pigs love acorns. I mean they really love acorns. Each pig can eat ten kilos of acorns a day. When the pigs destined to be Bellota hams are released onto the Dehesa at the age of about 10 months they weigh in about 200 pounds each. The once svelte young pigs become gleeful plump pigs, gaining up to 2 pounds of fat each day. After 3 to 4 months of the period known as the montanera each pig roughly doubles its weight. In the winter, once they have reached a certain weight, their time has arrived for the sacrifice
(Both male and female pigs participate in the montanera. All are neutered and spayed; the males to protect the quality of their meat, and the females to protect them from the attentions of wild boars from the mountains.)
The Curing Process
The 'matanza', or sacrifice, has traditionally been a family affair. A pig would be slaughtered and the whole family would gather to preserve the meat for the rest of the year. Chorizo, salchichón and morcilla sausages would be made on the spot. Choice cuts would be set aside to be eaten fresh. And the fatty legs would be packed in sea salt and hung to dry in the cool winter air.
This process still continues in some towns as it has for thousands of years. And over the last century, family factories have begun curing these hams in large quantities using the same methods. The hams are left to absorb the salt for a few weeks. Then they are hung in factories that still have open windows to allow the mountain air to circulate around the hams.
Iberico hams cure for two to four years. Iberico hams usually about two years, Iberico Bellota hams for longer periods. This extraordinarily long curing process is possible because of the huge amount of fat on each ham and, in the case of the Bellota hams, the antioxidant quality of their diets. Over the curing period they loose nearly half their weight as the fat drips away.
An incredible transformation occurs as the winter moves to spring and summer. The salted ham starts to sweat. Because of the salt, bacteria cannot take hold, but massive chemical changes occur. The meat becomes dryer, and cools off as the second winter commences. The special aspect of Iberico is that it can go through this cycle two or three times. The result is a build up of complex, volatile molecules in the ham that transform it from a piece of pork into an orchestra of flavors.
With the Bellota hams, the most miraculous transformation is of the fats. Through this period of heating and cooling, salting and drying, the fats are broken down. Because of the antioxidants in the acorns and the unique curing process, the saturated fats are changed into healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid. The only fat higher in oleic acid is olive oil.
The ultimate result is long, thin leg of ham with a deep golden hue to its fat. The meat is dark red, marbled with veins of fat. We had an incredible experience in the city of Caceres. There Pedro Lancho, the owner of Encinar de Cabazón, served us a feast fit for a king. The highlight was when the professional waiter at his favorite restaurant brought out plates of his Gran Reserva Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. It was served in paper thin slices on a plate that was warmed to about 75 degrees. At that temperature the fat literally melted onto the plate.
On first bite, the flavor of the ham was incredible. Sweet, nutty, and not too salty. Then the complexity of ham flavors increased. An essential part of the flavor and mouth-feel was the way the fat melted away, releasing flavors that told the story of the noble Iberico swine, of the Dehesa forest pasture, of the years of careful curing, and of the countryside of Spain itself.
ABOUT JAMON SERRANO
Jamon Serrano With a Quality Guarantee
Jamón Serrano is produced and served in every Spanish province. Although some regions have a longer tradition of producing Jamón Serrano than others, the production of Serrano ham is not limited to a certain geographic area.
The production of jamón has become ingrained in the customs and traditions of all Spanish regions. There may be small production variations or subtle contrasts, depending upon the area and the manufacturer. But it is all Jamón Serrano.
A bit of history
Since antiquity Spaniards have produced dry-cured hams. The first written references date back to the Roman Empire. From the very beginning, production of this type of ham has been uncomplicated - taking what nature provides in order to preserve and enrich pork: nothing more complex than sea salt, the correct environmental conditions, and time.
Historically speaking, fresh ham was cured in mountainous areas with moderate climates that are warm and dry in the summer and cold in the winter. Mountain, or sierra (serrano), air favored gradual aging of the meat. This was aided by a preliminary application of sea salt.
Ham processing started during the first weeks of November, at the start of the winter. For centuries families sacrificed and butchered the pigs that they had bred and fattened domestically. This ritual is called the matanza; an occasion for a celebration in which all family members participated. Note that the Spanish word for "to slaughter" is sacificar to sacrifice reflecting quite a different concept of respect for the animal than the English word slaughter suggests.
The hams were initially covered in sea salt to begin the curing process. After several days, the hams were washed and then hung in curing sheds with sufficient ventilation. There the hams receive the mountain air, whose qualities vary as the seasons change.
After about a year this process yielded dry cured Serrano hams that were sufficiently cured for consumption, without any kind of additive or additional handling.
What has changed nowadays?
Today, Serrano ham is produced by artificially replicating the traditional methods with modern technology that systematically ensures high hygiene and quality. The goal is to offer the same ham as always by following traditions that have been handed down through the centuries, but achieving a higher standard of quality, uniformity and safety.
For this reason it is no longer common to see hams cured by mountain air in natural curing sheds. There still remain production plants and curing sheds in areas close to the Spanish mountains, but there are also controlled curing sheds located any almost any part of Spain, because technology allows climate conditions to be reproduced in any location.
When one encloses curing sheds or installs semi-natural ventilation systems the result is a condition for more stable and safe production. It is no longer necessary to be at the mercy of unforeseen climate changes or the whims of Mother Nature.
The Serrano ham production process includes four phases:
The European Union protects the process of Serrano ham production thanks to the certification T.S.G., Traditional Specialty Guaranteed. This protects the authentic taste of Serrano ham and insures to the consumers that it refers to a historical, authentic and genuine product.
How do you recognize a high quality Spanish Serrano ham?
The only way to recognize it is to verify that it bears the label of the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español with an individual control number. The S in the shape of a ham branded as a seal on the skin of the ham is the guaranty that the Serrano ham has passed the rigorous standards of the Consorcio.
In 1990 the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español was established to bring together Spains principal producers/exporters of Serrano ham. They all have the same objective: to guarantee the quality of Spanish Serrano ham and to offer a high quality product for export.
What is it that a ham must have in order to earn the quality seal of the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español?
Inspectors of the Consorcio ensure that the private standards of the Association are properly applied. These established standards consider various points, thereby characterizing the ham as follows:
The Consorcio authorizes various presentations of the final product which may be whole with the leg, whole without the leg, boneless or sliced. If the hams pass all the controls, the seal of the Consorcio is branded on the skin, and a numbered control label is attached. It cannot be mistaken: an intense purple-red color, shiny fat and a unique flavor!
The group monitors final minimum weights (6.3 kg. or 6.1 kg.); the absence of inappropriate aromas or flavors; the proper texture; and the appropriate levels of salt and dryness.
Throughout the various processing phases of deboning, slicing and packaging, the Consorcio ensures that all established standards of hygiene, temperature and humidity conditions are respected.
ABOUT OTHER HAMS
Dry cured hams have been the staple of many civilizations. Prior to the advent of refrigeration this was the primary way to preserve meat, other than packing it in salt. Two prominent examples of dry cured products in Spain are mojama, dry cured tuna, and the emblematic Jamón Serrano (Mountain Ham), AND Jamón Ibérico, free range Cerdos Ibéricos.
We, on our website, present some of the finest expressions of country hams in Spain. They are a reflection of an age-old art practiced in the Iberian Peninsula stretching back to the time of the cavemen of Altamira.
Before the era of refrigeration in Spain, there were essentially two ways to preserve meat and fish. First, was to pack them in salt. Codfish from the Spanish fishing fleets was a staple of the Spanish diet, especially in Lent, and so salt cod (bacalao) became synonymous with cod. The other way to cure fish and meat was to dry cure them hang them up to dry, usually applying salt for a short period of time at the beginning.
To round out our presentation of historic of hams, we have included representative examples of dry cured ham from other countries, each one reflecting the unique characteristics of the region. For example, Virginia ham is cured at sea level in an extremely humid area, therefore, in the initial period of the cure the use of salt is extensive. Prosciutto di Parma is made from an animal which has feasted on the curd of Parmesan cheese, made in the same area.