Serrano ham is a raw, cured ham, somewhat similar to Parma ham.

If you've ever been to Spain, you've probably come across serrano ham. The Spanish love pork, and the kind of pork they seem to love the most is this cured ham. You can find it in bars as a tapa, in sandwiches and in inventive recipes and in specialty shops called " Museo del Jamón" ("Ham Museum") that are shops, restaurants and museums all rolled into one... Actually, those last are only found in Madrid and they are a curious sight to see. But the hams, they're everywhere!

In places where serrano ham is served, it's usually found in a prominent place. For instance, in a tapas bar that serves a lot of serrano, you will find several whole hams hanging from the ceiling. On the bar itself there will be a special stand, supporting a ham in perfect cutting position. From this ham slices are carved, and the carving is considered to be almost an art form. Serrano ham is never cut with a machine, but always with a knife.

Outside of Spain, serrano ham is not nearly as famous. This is because in the seventies Spain's pigs were suffering from a disease that greatly decreased the amount of livestock and resulted in an export ban. The ban wasn't lifted until 1990. Since then the popularity of Spanish ham outside of Spain has been increasing.

"Serrano" means "from the mountains". The ham has this name because its origins lie in the mountains: in the time before refrigerators and such, curing was the way to preserve your meat.

To make a true serrano ham, you take a nice fat pig's leg and you rub it with salt. Then you hang it somewhere to dry, at first in a cool place, increasing the temperature as the curing process continues. Traditionally, the making of serrano ham started in autumn, after the slaughtering of the pigs. The ham would be hung out to dry in a place where moisture was minimal but where wind could reach the ham. By summer the curing process would be finished: about a third of the original weight of the ham would have disappeared. To get a good ham, the pig should be nice and fat. Too skinny a leg and the curing won't work: some spot will dry out.
Nowadays most of the hams are cured in industrial drying installations, where temperature is controlled by computer.

Pata negra
The most exclusive of all serrano hams is the pata negra ("black leg"), also called jamón ibérico or jabugo. These hams are made from the Iberian pig, a race that used to be the predominant one in Spain, but has nowadays mostly been replaced by other races. Iberian pigs are descended from the mediterranean wild boar. They live in a specific part of Spain and Portugal called the dehesa. Iberian pigs are black, hence the name pata negra, and they have a finer bone stucture than other pigs. They tend to build up lots of fat in autumn, at the same time that the oaks in the dehesa lose their acorns. Their diet of acorns (in their fattening period just before winter, the pigs can eat up to ten kilos of acorns a day), gives their meat a special taste. This is what makes jamón ibérico so special.

If you want to taste serrano ham for yourself, try looking for the following:

  • Jamón serrano: cured ham;
  • Jamón ibérico: serrano ham made from Iberian pigs;
  • Jamón ibérico de bellota: made from pigs that were raised on acorns.
Serrano ham is best eaten on its own, with a glass of wine or sherry. It should be served at room temperature, in thin (but not too thin!) slices.

The Museo del Jamón really exists! See the site for more information. The site is in Spanish but if you click on "museos" and then on the addresses, you will find pictures :)

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