Jamón Serrano is one of those delicacies that could only have come to be over the course of history. The way it was originally made could only be the result of many happy accidents in the quest to figure out how to save meat for longer than a few days. Though today the Spanish can more safely and consistently produce this famed cured ham, each hock truly represents centuries, perhaps millennia, of the back and forth between tradition and trial and error.
While we only have written records as far back as the Roman Empire, it is clear that Spaniards have cured ham for much longer. Originally, they used only the native and semi-wild puerco iberíco. Today, producers use modern species of pig, such as Duroc or Landrace, which mature much faster and have larger litters. In many places, they still allow the pigs to forage for acorns, giving the meat a nutty flavor famous the world over.
In antiquity through to today, families have treated their hogs as part of the family, yet understood the importance of their meat for both survival, and as a much needed pleasure in their hard lives. For this reason, the Spanish word use the softer, more nuanced word “sacificar,” or sacrifice, rather than slaughter. They performed ceremonies to honor the pigs, and were sure to not waste any part of the animal.
Traditionally, mountain air and the changing of the seasons sufficed to cure the ham. In fact, the word serrano, or “sierra,” references the importance of mountain air in the process. The curing process was very simple. No extra spices were added, only first sea salt for a couple days, then cool weather through late fall and winter, then warmer air into summer. Modern production follows this same patterns, but with optimal humidity and temperature control.
As is often the case throughout Europe, certain specialty foods and wines go hand in hand. Rioja and jamón serrano certainly fit this bill. The earthy tobacco and rich cherry notes of the wine complement the nuttiness of the jamón. The fat of the jamón eases the structure of the tannins in Rioja. Truly a gorgeous pairing!
So next time you grab some jamón from our shop, take a moment to marvel at how lucky we all are to be able to enjoy this miracle of history, nature, and human curiosity.