Plate with slices of serrano ham. Toya Legido/©ICEX
If any one product could be singled out to represent the essence of Spanish gastronomy, it might well be cured ham, the noblest of pork products. Anyone coming to Spain for the first time will immediately be impressed by the omnipresence of ham, not only in practically all food stores and catering establishments but also in the subconscious of Spaniards, where it takes on an almost mythical nature. In the opinion of many, Spain tastes of ham.
Although it was the Romans who extended pig-farming in Spain, pigs were already important amongst the pre-Roman settlers, as evidenced by the large stone sculptures that roughly represent boars and that can be found in various inland spots of Spain. Both pigs and bulls were considered in pre-Roman cultures to be theogonic animals, that is, created by pagan gods. We have documentary proof that these territories were already known for their pig production prior to the Romans, in the third of Strabo's Geographic books (1st century BC), the one on Iberia. This is just an indication of the fact that references to pigs and ham have existed throughout history in Spanish art and literature.
Spain's longstanding tradition for curing hams and other meat products is the result of a combination of geographic, climatic, historical, cultural and even religious factors because the massive adoption of the pig was one of the many legacies of Roman civilization throughout Christendom. At that time, hams were already being covered with salt for a number of days then cured in mountain air, whence the term serrano, meaning "from the mountains". This term is a general one for cured ham but today is reserved for those made from white pigs (those from Ibérico pigs are called ibérico hams, not Serrano), especially the Duroc, Landrace and Large White breeds, that meet the requirements of the Traditional Speciality Guaranteed Jamón Serrano (TSG) label.
Today, Spain has the largest figures worldwide for ham production and consumption. The proverbial need to stock up one's cupboards in case of hard times has been converted into a technique that has made ham production a powerful industry. Although many hams are still cured in the traditional, artisan way, the old, natural drying-chambers have largely been replaced by modern chillers that maintain the ideal temperature and humidity conditions throughout the process.
There are different levels of quality for cured ham depending on the origin of the fresh meat, the breed and diet of the pig, how it is tended and slaughtered, the skill and care of the producers and the duration of the whole process. The minimum curing period is seven months, but it may be much longer depending on the initial weight of the ham and other factors.
Some districts and towns have become renowned for the tradition and quality of their white pork cured hams and bear the corresponding quality seal - the hams from Teruel in Aragón (protected by PDO Jamón de Teruel), and Trévelez in the Alpujarra mountains in Granada, Andalusia, protected by PGI Jamón de Trévelez.
In view of their local characteristics, such hams should be known by their place of origin, for example, Jamón de Teruel and Jamón de Trevélez rather than using the general term "serrano" which is used exclusively for production following the TSG Jamón Serrano label regulations.
Flavor, Health and Passion
When cut, a good Serrano ham should have a shiny appearance, varying in color from pink to purplish red. The texture should be firm and not very fibrous, and the flavor intense, delicate, not very salty, smooth on the palate and with a very characteristic aroma.
Moreover, ham is rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals. Its fat content is moderate, with a predominance of unsaturated fats. The salt added during curing guarantees its microbiological safety, although new technologies have made it possible to greatly reduce the use of salt, achieving a healthier, more balanced product.
Spaniards are passionate about ham. It is consumed at any time of day or night and at every type of celebration. Sliced wafer-thin and served with good bread, it is the epitome of famous tapas. But it can be served in a multitude of ways - with fresh tomatoes, melon or other fruit, as a garnish for cold sups such as gazpacho and salmorejo or as an ingredient in salads and cooked dishes to which it always contributes its unmistakable personality.
List of food stores in Spain
List of food stores around the world
- Jamón de Teruel PDO
- Jamón de Trévelez PGI
- Jamón Serrano TSG
- Jamón SerranoConsorcio
1,700 (Source: Mercasa).