Quick Recipes and Easy

Why Spanish Ham Is The Best In The World

Upon their arrival in the New World, the men who sailed with Christopher Columbus looked out upon an impossibly fertile and untouched land and wondered to themselves “What the heck are we going to eat?” Surrounded by an incredible bounty, what struck them immediately was the fact that there were no pigs.

It’s hard to describe the way the Spanish feel about ham. For a people to have a food become such an integral part of their everyday lives that they can’t imagine a world without it and yet never take it for granted, never fail to hold it in the highest regard, is unusual to say the least. For this to continue over an extended period of time is more unusual still. But for countless generations the Spanish have been unanimous in their sentiment that becoming a Serrano or Iberico Ham is the most glorious fate that could ever befall a pig.

Pigs are relative newcomers to the New World, arriving with the Second Voyage of Columbus in 1493, but the Spanish have been raising pigs since earliest antiquity and they have gotten very, very excellent at it. Even through the Moorish occupation, when consumption of pork was outlawed on the Iberian Peninsula, the Spanish continued producing hams and pork sausages in monasteries and on out of the way farms, refusing to abandon what had become the staple meat of the region.

The process of making a Serrano or Iberico Ham starts shortly after the birth of the pig. For Serrano, white pigs from the mountainous region of Andalusia are raised on a diet of cereal (at least 50%), beets, sugar, sunflowers, and soy – the proportions vary depending on the farmer and play an vital role in determining the differences in flavor between different brands of ham. Iberico comes in two varieties – Belotta, or best quality, is raised on a diet of nothing but acorns, and Recebo, fed a mixture of acorns and grain.

The Matanza – the sacrifice of the pig – lasts 3 days and is traditionally held in November, to take advantage of cold weather and to ensure that there is meat for the winter. This is a time of celebration, for the usual reasons associated with times of plenty and also because it is scheduled to coincide with the feast days of local saints. Families gather and work together to prepare the meat that will feed them until spring. Nothing is wasted.

The hams are wrapped in cloth and pressed by hand to extract any remaining blood, and then placed in a trough and covered with salt. After a period of about 1 day per kilo, the hams are removed from the trough, the salt is removed, and the hams are hung in the bodega to cure.

After about 7 months, the ham is went from the curing house to the aging cellar. A Serrano Curado ham has been aged 12 – 14 months, a Serrano Reserva ham has been aged 14 – 18 months, and a Serrano Gran Reserva has been aged for more than 18 months. Jamon Iberico is aged for 2 to 4 years.

What’s happening to the ham during this time? Several things. Iberico and Serrano hams are often referred to as “olive trees on the hoof” because during the aging process the stout is converted into a “excellent cholesterol” stout, similar to olive oil. Mold forms on the outside of the meat (excellent mold, not harmful in any way), adding to the flavor. Water leaves the meat, further concentrating the flavors and making a denser ham.

What comes out of the aging cellar up to 4 1/2 years after the Matanza is nothing small of extraordinary. Serrano is finely marbled with stout, deep pink in color and amazingly dense. There is none of the saltiness or sharpness usually associated with cured hams, just a smooth and mellow flavor that can be savored like a fine wine, with hints of the flavors of the mountains of Andalusia. The stout is velvety and doesn’t taste or feel like stout at all. One taste and you will be sure that there is no better ham in the world, and you will nearly be right.

Iberico takes everything to another level. The meat is so red it looks purple. The stout is nearly liquid at room temperature, and nearly becomes a sauce for the meat. You can taste the oak forests of Western Spain in every bite. Among the hierarchy of foods, this is royalty.

Time to buy some ham. Iberico Recebo hams won’t be available in the US until April of 2007, and the top of the line Belotta won’t be here until 2008. Until then, you can delight in genuine imported Serrano Ham in a variety of ways. Packages of Serrano containing paper thin slices are perfect for tapas or a snack for a few people. Whole hams are sold bone-in and boneless. They will nearly always have mold on the outside, like any aged ham, so don’t worry about that. Boneless hams are more economical since you aren’t paying for the bone, but are harder to slice and might have a small less flavor. Bone-in hams are available with or without the hoof (the hoof assures you that your ham is the genuine article – Serrano Hams have white hooves, Iberico Hams have black ones). The bone makes slicing and serving the ham simpler, and purchasing a jamonera (ham stand) will help even further and makes for a fantastic presentation. Use a long, thin, flexible knife for carving.

Spanish ham isn’t served in large slices like American hams. Thin slices or small pieces are carved off and served as needed. The meat is fully cured, so it can sit out without a problem. Spanish bars typically have a ham sitting on a jamonera on the bar for their patrons at all times. If you won’t be doing any carving for the moment, a clean cloth draped over the meat is all you need. Mechanical slicers should never be used because the stout is so soft the heat of the blade can ruin your meat.

Serrano is also brilliant diced and used in your recipes. Sautéed, it adds fantastic flavor to soups, stews, and vegetable dishes. Use it anywhere you might use bacon or prosciutto for a richer, mellower flavor.

In the 500 years since Columbus returned to the New World, we haven’t come up with anything approaching the perfection of Spanish ham. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it, no one else has either and most have had a lot more time. But if you try some Serrano or Iberico ham you will know why Columbus brought pigs with him on the next boat over.

Copyright 2007 Matt Wasserman. All rights reserved.

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