Jamón Serrano (literally sierra (mountain) ham) is a dry-cured Spanish ham, which is generally served raw in thin slices, similar to the Italian prosciutto, and is a source of great pride among Spaniards. From time immemorial in the mountains of Spain, they have rolled fresh hams in sea salt and hung them from their rafters to cure. The fresh hams are trimmed and cleaned, then stacked and covered with salt for about two weeks in order to draw off excess moisture and preserve the meat from spoiling. 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.
It is unlike the smoked and salty Virginia country hams, which have to be soaked and cooked. And it is even significantly different from Italian prosciutto, which is cured for a few months with a coating of lard. The Spanish jamon Serrano has distinctly more flavour, and significantly less salt than country ham and less fat than prosciutto.
Jamón Serrano is more than a delicacy in Spain; it is a normal part of every family’s life. Every tapas bar and neighbourhood café has their own hams. During the Holiday Season there are literally hundreds of them hanging from the rafters of major food stores for the holiday shoppers.
What is the appeal? Jamon Serrano is a flavourful, natural ham, cured in the country air. This extended curing transforms the ham, imparting a deep flavour and aroma. This lengthy curing also means it is much less fatty and has a firmer bite than Italian prosciutto. You can serve it sliced paper-thin with cheese and olives, or use it to flavour your favourite Spanish recipes.
The secret to jamon lies in its curing, recreating the effect of traditional techniques. This tradition is kept alive in rural areas where in early winter, family and friends gather to slaughter their livestock in preparation for winter months. The hams are placed in sea salt for a brief period of time – approximately one day per kilo – and then they are strung up. They are allowed to experience the changes of temperature as the seasons progress. The drying sheds (secaderos) are usually built at higher elevations, which is why the ham is called mountain ham.
The right time to eat them is when an experienced ham-master inserts a long splinter of cow bone and whiffs the jamon, like a connoisseur of wine who sniffs the cork.