rom the country hams of Virginia to the legendary hams of Spain, the preserved hind leg of a pig is one of the foods that inspire cookbook authors and diner cooks alike.
Originally a way to cure and store the hindquarters of a slaughtered pig to last the winter, the process of curing ham has evolved into something akin to art. Much like bacon, ham can be cured in a variety of ways.
- Fresh hams are cut from the pig, cleaned and hair removed. They can be cooked just like any fresh cut of pork.
- Wet-cured hams are injected with a curing solution (usually with water, sugar, honey and preservatives), or are rubbed or tumbled in the curing solution. Wet-cured hams are often uncooked, partially cooked and smoked, or fully cooked and ready to eat. The wet-cured ham is the classic American ham, glazed and roasted for a holiday meal.
- Dry-cured or country hams are like Italian prosciutto, salted and air-dried for long periods of time, often over a year. Spain is famous for its dry-cured ham, called jambon, which can age for up to 3 1/2 years, intensifying in flavor the entire time.
One of the most extraordinary Spanish hams, the Mangalica ham, is born of a recent partnership with Hungarian farmers and heritage breed preservationists. Their indigenous Mangalica pig is an Old World breed with a thick coat of curly hair and lots of subcutaneous and intramuscular fat, making it ideal for the long air-curing process perfected in Spain. The Mangalitsa (spelled Mangalica in Spain) was once the most popular pig in Hungary, used for traditional sausages and creamy lard, but by the 1990s was nearly extinct. A group of farmers determined to preserve this precious curly-haired, heritage breed, and today the Mangalica is enjoying a revival on small farms, both in Europe and the United States. The Mangalica pig is not well-suited to intensive farming as it is unable to thrive in tight confines. In Hungary, Mangalica pigs are often raised on pasture in the Hungarian Steppe, an expansive grassland ecosystem, where they forage and root for their food.
Jamon Serrano, or Serrano ham, meaning literally “mountain ham,” is aged in the fresh mountain air of Spain for a minimum of 18 months with only natural Mediterranean sea salt. Most Serrano ham is made from Landrace breed pigs, or a mix of Duroc breed, Large White and Landrace. In Spain, Serrano ham is a part of life, served in bars, restaurants and found in virtually every home.
Serrano should not be confused with Iberico ham, which is much more expensive, and made from the Black Iberian breed, which is related to wild boar. The pigs are raised in pasture and oak groves in the southern regions of Spain, eating grass, herbs, roots, acorns and cereals. Due to the acorn diet, the fat of the Iberico ham is a monounsaturated fatty acid, associated with balancing cholesterol. These hams were known as a delicacy even in the days of the Roman Empire, and they are still hand crafted by traditional methods. Master ham makers use traditional air curing methods to create these famous Iberico hams, curing them for more than two years. Iberico ham has golden and highly aromatic marbling, a nuanced flavor, and is so tender it liquefies at room temperature.
Not to be outdone, the French have contributed the Jambon de Bayonne to the world library of cured pork products. The Bayonne ham is an air-cured, salted ham that takes its name from the ancient port city of Bayonne in the far south west of France, in the cultural region of both Gascony and Basque country. Jambon de Bayonne enjoys protected status, and as such there are regulations to guarantee that the ham is cured in Bayonne, France, and the meat used comes from one of eight defined breeds of pigs raised in a specific area. The diet of these pigs is strictly controlled (no antibiotics, steroids, fish oils) and each animal is identified with a tattoo. Even transport, slaughter, size and weight, minimum fat content, and post-slaughter storage temperature are all regulated. Thus the name Jambon de Bayonne can only be used on ham that meets all these criteria.
There is, however, a specialty-meats company in New Jersey that uses the name Jambon de Bayonne on their ham produced in the United States. Perhaps it is cured in Bayonne, NJ, and is thus spared the wrath of Le Consortium de Jambon de Bayonne, tasked with the responsibility of controlling ham production.