When the USDA approved imported Jamon Serrano for sale in the United States in 1996, Joseph Saracino was living in Spain, working for an independent company that was the first authorized business to sell this product in the U.S. The first hams were cured and ready to sell by 1997.
Saracino says initially Jamon Serrano was marketed where Italian Prosciutto di Parma ham was sold with messaging that emphasized its European origins rather than its Spanish-specific ones, using the phrase “a new specialty from the old continent.” He says Jamon Serrano immediately impressed those who tasted it.
“Anyone that tries it sort of walks away saying, ‘Wow, this is quite good,’” says Saracino, who now works with Maestri d’Italia, a Lakewood, NJ-based deli meat importer.
Today, Jamon Serrano largely remains a specialty item in the U.S. food market, but one that is seeing its profile grow as more consumers get to try its distinctive taste and the charcuterie market enjoys increasing popularity. Since it first came to the U.S., the evolution of the Jamon Serrano market in the U.S. has been “fantastic,” Saracino says. And the future appears to be bright.
“As people learn more about it and try it, we’re going to see a lot more growth,” says Claire Donohue, product marketing specialist with St. Louis-based food producer Volpi.
A Distinctive Taste
Saracino says Jamon Serrano is “a very popular and massively consumed product in Spain and in many parts of Europe.”
“It’s not necessarily considered a specialty food in Spain,” Saracino says. “It’s just considered part of the Mediterranean diet.”
Jamon Serrano is made from white pigs, the most commonly consumed pigs in the world, Saracino says. Spain also produces Jamon Iberico, which is made from black pigs with black hooves. Saracino says Jamon Iberico is considered a more high-end product than Jamon Serrano because of the comparative rarity of the pigs and a curing process that takes much longer.
“The raw material is more expensive [for Jamon Iberico], but the end result is absolutely spectacular,” Saracino says. “It has tremendous potential here in the U.S. It is more expensive, so it’s for folks with bigger purchasing power, but also with a much finer palate.”
Saracino says Jamon Serrano, which is more widely available in the U.S., often is compared to prosciutto, another high-end ham that is European in origin, but he noted there are some key differences—even though “the raw material is not so different.”
The salting process for Jamon Serrano involves immersing the hams in coarse sea salt for approximately 10 to 14 days as opposed to just salting the meat surface as is done with prosciutto. The curing process is uniquely based on the Spanish climate, Saracino says. In Spain, the curing starts in the mountains in winter when the temperatures are very low and the humidity is very high. The temperature is warm and the humidity drops through spring and into summer, when there are “very high temperatures and very low humidity,” Saracino says. The aging process ends in the moderate temperatures and humidity of fall and “what you have is a finished ham that’s gone through the four seasons,” Saracino says.
Because Jamon Serrano ultimately is a natural product, Saracino says, “no two slices are the same.”
Donohue says the heating of Jamon Serrano at the end of its curing process helps give it a different flavor from prosciutto—a flavor is that richer and more earthy.
“The heating at the end brings out something in the flavor that you don’t get with a regular prosciutto,” Donohue says. “The color almost darkens to a very deep, deep red.”
Saracino says Jamon Serrano is an obvious fit to be served on a platter with other meats and cheeses, giving guests at a party, for instance, a variety of options with hams, sausages and salamis from different origins. Jamon Serrano also works as part of a basic sandwich on rustic bread, rather than a grinder-type sandwich with lettuce and tomato. It also goes well with asparagus and potatoes, Saracino says, and it is popular in Spain as a key ingredient in fried croquettes. When pairing with a beverage, Saracino says a beer with a lot of body, a white wine or a sparkling white wine are the customary choices.
Traditionally in Spain, Jamon Serrano was sold as a large piece, typically a full leg complete with the hoof on it but starting 30 years ago pre-sliced Jamon Serrano began to grow in popularity. In the U.S., Saracino says, pre-sliced is the most popular option both for consumers and retailers. Pre-sliced is simpler and faster for the shopper and leaves less work for workers behind the counter, Saracino says. Finding entire Spanish hams in the U.S. remains difficult, though Saracino noted that Costco has found success selling entire Spanish hams as part of a kit that includes a carving knife and ham stand—though no hoof, as the USDA does not allow the hoof to be included in the U.S. Saracino says the practice is still in the novelty stage in the U.S., but he will be interested to see if it becomes more widespread in the coming years.
Saracino says it is challenging to educate customers about Jamon Serrano through the service counter and consumers could be reluctant to purchase something new that way, but the pre-sliced option with attractive packaging can entice customers to try it.
“Pre-sliced is the best way to explain the product and to present it for consumers,” Saracino says.
Donohue says to raise Jamon Serrano’s profile, it’s very important to encourage its inclusion in charcuterie sets.
“I would avoid the meat department, and I would go strictly to the deli,” Donohue says.
When pre-sliced, Jamon Serrano is located near prosciutto, it can encourage prosciutto-loving customers to try something new, Donohue says, adding that including recipe cards, shelf talkers, and pairing suggestions, such as Manchego cheese, almonds and cava sparkling Spanish wine, can appeal to shoppers considering Jamon Serrano for the first time.
Saracino says pre-sliced also makes sense because hiring skilled workers to put behind the deli counter can be a challenge. For both consumers and retailers, the slicing process is important to ensure “you’re getting your money’s worth.”
“The person slicing has to really know what they’re doing,” Saracino says. “They want to trim the product, but not too much. You want to remove the yellow fat but leave the white fat. All those little things that the service deli person should know.”
Building the Market
Donohue says Jamon Serrano still remains a product more often found in specialty food stores than supermarket delis. It’s moving into supermarkets but not yet at a fast pace, she says.
“If you go into a world market, you’ll see tons of different jamon there, but if you go into your local grocery store, you might not,” Donohue says. “But as more people ask for it, request it, see it in the news or maybe through their favorite influencers, then that push will come. We work with influencers, and we work with grocery stores local to us to introduce it to the market and get people tasting it.”
Saracino says the consumer base remains comparatively small for Jamon Serrano, and customers likely will not find it yet at groceries that largely cater to shoppers looking for inexpensive staples. Instead, it is more likely to appear in grocery delis with customers who look to expand their culinary experiences.
“If you don’t have a lot of those folks around, then it’s probably not a place to sell this product,” Saracino says. “The product is sold in those places where people say, ‘Oh, I’m going to buy something different.’ And more and more Americans are doing that.”
Saracino says “there is still a massive amount of awareness that has to take place,” but it helps that Spain already has a strong reputation for cuisine with American consumers.
“I think it’s something that will maybe skyrocket in the next couple of years because more people are showcasing it,” Donohue says. “More companies from Spain are bringing it to the United States for sale. You might even see a whole leg to be sliced as an option, in addition to pre-sliced like we do at Volpi.”
Donohue says Jamon Serrano’s profile clearly is growing among food sellers.
“Charcuterie, in general, is a high growth market right now, and it’s poised to continue double-digit growth through the next several years, so as more consumers demand unique items, such as jamon or other charcuterie items, these flavors from around the world will be making their way into your everyday grocery store, your Walmart, your Wegmans, you’ll see more of these options,” Donohue says. “It’ll be easier for the consumer to grab those items that they might have only been able to find at a world market before. As we add something new to grocery stores every year and more brands do the same, the charcuterie business will just keep booming.”
Saracino notes that consumers today instinctively seek cheeses and wines from a variety of countries and regions on a large scale, and he sees the same developing for ham. In that landscape, Jamon Serrano has already demonstrated its staying power and the qualities to thrive in the U.S. market.
“Sometimes specialty foods can get kind of trendy and be exciting for a while and then they go away when something new comes along,” Saracino says. “But Jamon Serrano is definitely here to stay.”