Ham for the Holidays - Air- and Salt-Cured Hams from Italy and Spain Are Treasured Gifts with a Multitude of Uses

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Ham is a time-honored Christmas tradition in many American homes. To me, the ham most worthy of that feast is the prosciutto crudo of Italy and its Spanish counterpart, jam-n serrano. The demand for these hams doubles around this time of year in their respective countries, since they are considered a cherished gift reserved for a favorite relative or special friend.

Shopping in Madrid last Christmas, I witnessed the cured-ham rush firsthand at the Museo de Jam-n. Far from being a museum, this is Madrid's oldest and most beloved specialty food store, known for its cured ham. Rows upon rows of them, hooves and all, hang from the ceiling like so many bats. Customers had placed orders months in advance and now had come to claim them.

Highly distinctive in character, with enticing aromas, unique textures, and deep flavors, these hams are an entirely natural food, wholesome and nutritionally rich. Like prosciutto, they are national treasures, cherished in their country and sought the world over.

What makes these hams so special? Instead of being boiled or smoked, they are salt-cured and hung to mature until they are ready to eat--a process that may take up to twenty-four months. Producers must adhere to stringent rules of local consortiums, identified by an official seal embossed on each ham.

In the simplest terms, the hams must meet five basic requirements: a pig, salt, air, time, and care. The first three must be of the highest quality; the fourth must be carefully monitored; the fifth involves a combination of know-how, sensitivity, and respect for tradition. Beyond that, there are regional differences pertaining to the breed, their diet, weather, and the style of individual producers.

Preserving the hind legs of pigs in this way was standard procedure in certain parts of Italy and Spain. Many people used to raise their own pigs but did not necessarily slaughter them. For this, they relied on a traveling butcher, who would produce numerous cuts of pork, including the hind legs, possibly keeping one as payment for his work.

The legs were salted, washed, salted again, and then hung in the attic, catching the breeze and biding their time. Where that breeze came from played an important part in the ham's character. The warm breeze from the Adriatic combined with the cool air coming from the Italian Alps, creating a form of air-conditioning that was important in the development of prosciutto di San Daniele, while the breeze from the Mediterranean combined with that from the Adriatic to give prosciutto di Parma its unique flavor. The wind sweeping through the mountain regions of Spain was considered so influential to the ham's development that the local variety was named serrano, or mountain, ham.

The curing process has changed little during the past century. Today, that process is carried out in highly automated factories that duplicate all necessary conditions. Visiting one of these plants, I watched the hams' progress; after being salted, rubbed, washed, and dried at the start of their journey, they proceeded to curing and maturing chambers, where computer-controlled conditions simulated the yearly cycle. Escorted from cold to balmy chambers, I all but expected to hear Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" to cheer the hams on.

Before the hams get their seal of approval, they receive the "smell and tell" test, in which an inspector punctures the skin of each ham with a horse-bone needle and inhales the aroma. If it is up to snuff, the ham is branded with the consortium's seal and is ready to go out into the world.

That world includes New York City, where I encountered "my" hams again in the company of experts and friends. Nothing of the ham is ever wasted. The bone goes into the stockpot and flavors soups. Even leftover fat is put to good use: together with garlic, onions, carrots, celery, and fresh herbs, it goes into a food processor and makes prosciutto butter for braising meats. …