The Serrano Ham, From Birth to Consumption.
The Serrano Ham is one of Spain’s most outstanding food products and one of the things that Spain is famous for. The word "serrano” in Spanish refers to the sierra, or mountains. Jamón Serrano is traditionally cured in mountainous environments where very cold dry winters, low humidity and an abundance of fresh air are a prominent feature. These conditions are essential if you want to produce a true Serrano Ham.
What exactly is a Serrano Ham?
Serrano ham is the cured leg of a pig and there are many types and qualities of Serrano ham.
The most famous names regarding the Spanish ham are the Jamon Serrano and the Jamon Iberico.
The varieties of ham come from the types of pig, how that pig is fed, its lifestyle and conditions of curing.
The best of the Spanish pigs is the Iberian pig. These pigs are very special indeed and produce the most famous of spanish cured hams. Only the hams that come from these pigs can be called Jamon Iberico. They are also known as "pata negra" which means black foot due to their special apperance and only make up around 7% of Serrano Hams.
The resulting cured hams from these pigs is the best in the world due to their diet, way of life and genetic make up.
Hams from the iberian pigs can be seperated into three categories; The “Jamon Ibérico de Bellota.” is the highest quality and has a distinctive nutty taste due to its exclusive diet of acorns. These pigs are also free range and live a life of luxury high in the mountains. Other types of Iberian ham are the "Jamón Iberico de Recebo" and the "Jamón Iberico" The main difference from the "Bellota" ham is that these pigs are fed on usual feed. Not as luxurious as the Bellota ham but still offer superb taste and texture.
The Serrano hams.
The serrano ham comes from the ‘white pigs’. The meat they produce results in a high quality ham, deep rooted in tradition. It is these pigs after all which provide the hams most likely to be found in bars, restaurants and indeed in the home. Although pretty mundane compared to their black footed cousins, the “common” Serrano ham provides that unique taste of the real Spain, not likened to anything else.
How is the ham cured?
From November the traditional “matanza” or sacrifice of the pigs takes place. After this the fore and hind legs of the pigs are prepared for becoming the Serrano ham. The first process is known as the salting where the hams are packed in piles of salt to aid the preservation process. The amount of time the hams remain in the salt depends on the size of the ham but it is generally around 24-48 hours per kilo. This first stage is regulated very carefully to ensure the hams are not left in the salt for too long.
The next stage of the curing process is called ‘asentamiento.’ This is when the salt is cleaned off and the hams are hung for an initial period of 1 to 2 months. During this time the temperature remains between 5 and 10 degrees with a humidity of 75-80%. This first stage is important because the moisture is dried out which means the ham and the salt infuse together to concentrate the flavour.
The hams are continued to be hung (traditionally on knotted rope) for a minimum of 12 months. During this time the hams begin to take on the "cured" qualities, yellow fat and dark red meat . The slow curing is essential to allow the hams to adapt to natural conditions which is why cold dry winters and low humidity are essential to create a perfect serrano ham. During the beginning stages of this process the hams will be covered in a mould which is essential to the curing process, enhances flavour and helps make the Serrano Ham what it is.
The final stage of the curing process is called ‘maduracion’ and takes place during the last month or so. During this all important last stage, temperature and humidity are increased considerably to allow the fat to filter evenly through the ham, further concentrating the flavour.
By the time the hams reach the final stage of the curing process, the meat will be perfectly cured and they will have lost up to 40% of their original weight.
Although now ready to eat, many hams are transferred to bodegas or cellars to be allowed to mature even more. Traditionally these “bodegas” were caves because the conditions inside are perfect for a maturing ham – constant temperature, airy and dry, indeed many hams even today undergo the whole curing process in a cave.
It is as due to this curing process, the names given to the Serrano Ham. A “bodega” or “curado” ham for example has been cured for 12-14 months; a “reserva ham” has been cured for 14-18 months and a “gran reserva” over 18 months. The various types of “Iberico” hams can be cured for up to an extra two years resulting in a melt in the mouth texture of deep red meat and an exquisite nutty flavour due to the acorn diet of the Iberian pig. A good ham is similar to a good wine, the longer the curing process, the more intense the aroma and flavour.
Storing your ham
When you buy a whole leg Serrano ham it will be covered in rind and usually protected by a breathable “ham sock”. The ham can be kept hanging like this in a cool place for about a year if you don’t need to carve it straight away. Once you’ve started cutting your ham it is best to eat it within six to eight weeks.
It is important to cover any exposed areas of meat to keep it fresh and prevent it from drying out. The best way to do this is to keep the strips of rind and fat that you cut off to start with and re-cover the exposed meat as you go along.
Another method is to smear a little olive oil over the meat before covering.
Always store and serve your ham at room temperature. Keep your ham somewhere cool, dry and airy. Serrano hams should never be kept in the refrigerator, even after carving has begun. Unless you have a huge refrigerator, it is simply not practical but the ham is supposed to be stored and eaten at room temperature. Apart from convenience, this is why in Spanish bars and restaurants the ham is always on display in its stand. If you do have to store your ham in the refrigerator you must remove it and leave it at room temperature to acclimatise before carving and serving. However the best thing about the Serrano Ham is that it can be kept in an accessible place, so it is always on hand when you fancy a slice or two!
Carving your ham
The only way to store and carve your ham is to place it in a ham stand called a ‘Jamonero’. This special stand ensures the ham is secure while you carve, very important from a safety point of view. Also this means your ham is always accessible and ready to carve at all times.
Place the ham in the ham stand and secure using the spike on the base and the screws in the holder.
Next, make a deep cut around five inches down from the hoof using a sharp strong knife.
First of all, remove the fat from the body of the ham depending on how much is to be cut. Only remove the section of rind where you plan to begin slicing. If you remove too much rind the meat can dry out.
At the edge of the exposed meat cut away the fat at a forty-five degree angle, this will leave you with a "ridge" of meat. Retain the fat for placing over the exposed meat when finished.
Once you’ve removed the rind, you can begin slicing. Again, using traditional Spanish “tools” is the only way to ensure the ham is cut correctly. The Spanish ham knife or “jamonero” (same as the stand) is long, narrow, flexible and very vary sharp. It is essential to use this type of knife to achieve the all important wafer thin slices of ham. You know you are on the right track when you can see the blade through the slices you are cutting.
Always start at the narrowest part of the ham as here there is very little fat so this is the part that will dry out first. Using your flexible ham knife, cut along the ham as straight as possible.
When you have removed the meat from this section, turn the ham over and repeat the process on the other side.
When both sides are finished you can work on the tip of the ham, always cutting along the length of the bone. The tip of the ham has a slightly stronger taste because while the hams are hanging during curing, this is where the fat and salt concentrates.
When you have removed all the meat you can also "scrape" the bone with a sharp knife to get the last of the meat from the fibula. The remaining bone can be used to make a lovely stock, ideal for soups and stews.
Eating your Serrano ham.
After carving, it is time to enjoy those wafer thin slices of your delicious ham. The best way is to serve on a plate with a drizzle of olive oil. Ideal partners to Serrano Ham are almonds or chunks of melon.
For more information on Serrano and Iberico Hams, go to: www.orceserranohams.com