Spain's Millennial High-Performance Fare: Serrano Ham

Article from Spain Gourmetour Magazine #63. By Anke van Wijck. Above photo by Juan Ramón Yuste © ICEX

No need to ham it up. This ham can stand its own. Already coveted by the Romans, Jamón Serrano is one of Spain's enduring gastronomic essentials. But the word is being spread anew and increasingly this flavorful and versatile dry-cured ham is making its way to tables around the world. From France to Japan, from the Netherlands to Mexico or the United States, consumers in over seventy countries worldwide have come to appreciate its fine taste and texture, its health promoting qualities, its variety in culinary uses, its excellent shelf life, its affordability, and particularly the fact that Serrano ham is the product of a natural process.

Yet unlike the high-end Ibérico ham (jamón ibérico) from south-western Spain, this ham comes from the more ubiquitous white (or pink) pig raised in commercial breeding facilities. This allows for year-round slaughtering and processing and consequently for a much more affordable price. Borrowing its name from the mountainous areas (sierra in Spanish, adjective serrano) where Pink Pig used for Serrano HamPink Pig used for Serrano Hamconditions are optimal to dry-cure ham to perfection, today Serrano ham is produced throughout Spain although still mostly in the traditional dry-curing areas. And even though to a great extent in the hands of small and medium size family businesses, Spain has become the world's leading producer of dry-cured ham.

The Four Seasons

The dry-curing process of ham is typically one of the rare occasions when technology does not interfere with or substantially alters a traditional process but merely optimizes it. While the principles of the traditional dry-curing process following the natural seasons have remained unaltered, today the latest technology allows it to be greatly rationalized simply by controlling temperatures, humidity and air-flow, and maintaining them at optimal levels in the course of the various phases of elaboration. In most cases, Salted hams, drying on racks: Photo by Félix Lorrio ©ICEXwhenever exterior climate conditions are suitable, systems automatically switch off and nature takes over. Upon arrival at the dry-curing plant, hams are first selected on weight as this bears importantly on the ensuing salting process, and are provided with a stamp stating year and week of receipt. They will be refrigerated for one or two days to obtain a homogenous temperature of 1-3ºC/ 33.8-37.4ºF before starting the crucial salting process.

Hams are covered with a layer of humid sea-salt and stacked in stainless steel bins where they will remain at the rate of one day per kilo (2.25 lb) of raw ham. By osmosis moisture is gradually drawn from the ham and salt penetrates. Hams are then brushed and washed and afterwards gently squeezed and molded both to eliminate residual blood and salty solutions and to give them a more uniform shape. Now they are hung on huge racks and enter “winter” the resting or post-salting period that takes up to 40-60 days. In “spring” or the secado or drying/aging phase, temperatures are gradually raised to about 22ºC/ 71º F and humidity is lowered to 65%.

Rising temperatures produce a fusion of fat that will slowly impregnate muscle tissue, a process that characterizes Spanish hams and that is to be considered a definite sign of quality. Simultaneously hams slowly develop their distinct organoleptic properties (flavor, texture, aroma), a process that intensifies when “summer” arrives and temperatures are kept ideally at 28-30º C/ 82-86ºF. The minimal requirement for Serrano ham is to be dry-cured for approximately seven months, but most hams will be allowed to continue the process through “autumn” or in bodega when temperatures are brought back to about 15ºC / 59ºF and humidity is kept steady to consolidate final quality.

When Only the Best is Good Enough

And of course quality is key when wanting to share this outstanding ham with the rest of the world. In 1990 the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano (Serrano Ham Consortium) was created to promote exports of prime quality Serrano ham. Yet first they pioneered a series of binding quality standards in fulfillment of which the selected hams receive the characteristic branded-in Consorcio seal. This seal and its corresponding sequential number will only be granted if the end product is in full compliance with the stipulated standards in regard to uniformity, internal and external aspect, taste, aroma and texture. Last year some 656.000 pieces successfully passed the exam.

Since its creation Consorcio has spared no efforts in promotion abroad. There is general agreement that top markets are countries like Germany, France, or Belgium that have their own tradition of cured hams, and thus some affinity to the product. Yet there is also considerable demand in, for example, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands. In Belgium the food-distribution sector even declared June 2004 “month of Jamón Serrano Español.” Consorcio is carrying out direct promotional campaigns often in conjunction with similarly emblematic Spanish products like cava or sherry in several European countries. They aim at making consumers aware of Serrano ham's distinctive qualities through leaflets and posters, but especially through point of sale tastings, in the awareness that the memory of taste remains. Yet eyes are now also set on emerging markets like Asia, the United States and Latin America.

Serrano Ham with a Foreign Accent

Exporters are keenly aware that now is the time to profit from the momentum the Mediterranean lifestyle in general and Spanish gastronomy in particular rejoice. And exports everywhere are on the rise. In regard to the considerable sales potential in the United States increasingly facilities in Spain are being adapted to adhere to USDA regulations. Additionally Latin-American populations both in their native countries and in the US, as part of the cultural heritage, are natural consumers of such Spanish products like Serrano ham. But the differentiating characteristics of Serrano ham (a very savory yet smooth natural product, requiring only a small quantity to provide satisfaction) also perfectly suite Japanese taste and eating habits. And Japan, as all are aware, is the gateway to Asia.

A Companion for Life

Indeed what makes Serrano ham different is that it is pleasing to all. Its flavor is intense yet smooth and has a subtle sweet and lingering after-taste, its aroma is pleasant with at times some nutty notes, and its texture is firm yet delicate. So while it has fulfilled its role as a loyal food companion longer than memory spans, jamón Serrano also falls in ideally with a modern approach to food. This means that it should be savory, healthy, easy to manipulate and to keep, requiring little or no preparation, offering full food security and allow a variety of uses. All this of course at a reasonable price and Serrano ham presents an excellent quality/price ratio.

Sandwiches of Serrano Ham: Photo by Ignacio Muñoz Seca ©ICEX
But it suites new lifestyles in more than one way. Serrano ham also offers a myriad of applications that require little or no preparation. Be it on a sandwich, a piece of toast, or a crispy baguette, this ham is ideal to be taken to school, into the office or on excursions. Because of its very low moisture content, it performs extremely well at room- or even at beach temperatures, as compared to for example tuna salad or cooked ham. While Serrano ham retains all its goodness where taste, color and texture are concerned, alternative products require to be kept cool. No runny or smelly sandwiches anymore, no greenish hues or greasy fingers. At the same time, Serrano ham allows for an endless array of culinary creations ranging from the everyday to the sophisticated. A small quantity does wonders and Serrano ham combines well with both cold and warm dishes even of great complexity.

Serve Yourself

While traditionally hand-cut on the bone, producers are swiftly responding to new life-styles and new consumer demands. Increasingly hams are boned to facilitate uniform machine slicing and therefore come conveniently molded in rectangular bricks and are vacuum packed either whole or in halves, fourths or even eighths. Much in demand, especially abroad, are ham centers. External fat is removed so that pieces become one hundred percent usable. And for those who do not want to stand in line, an array of pre-sliced presentations has been launched that come in different types of packaging and suitable portions. Needless to say that all this contributes to a considerable increase in both consumption and production.

Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG)

Precisely in view of the significant growth in the sector, time had come to endow Serrano ham with a basic quality certificate. In 1999 Serrano ham was granted the European Community TSG certificate. Since then it is the role of the Fundacion del Jamón Serrano, the corresponding regulatory council, to see to the enforcement of the TSG's quality standards of its one hundred fourteen associates, to denounce undue use of the qualification Jamón Serrano and to promote the hams carrying their quality labels. If until not so long ago Spaniards were more brand-oriented when looking for quality ham, now the TSG seal warrants an excellent product at all times.

And not only Spaniards benefit. Over fifty million tourists visit the country each year and the number of foreign residents rises steadily. There is little doubt that they not only best spread the word about ham culture in Spain, but as numbers tell, many now also actively practice it back home.

Anke van Wijck is a sociologist and has a Master's degree in gastronomy from Boston University. Her articles have appeared in the Boston Globe.

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