The Other Spanish Cured Meat
Cecina in Madrid
It must be tough playing such a delicious second fiddle to jamón. Flocks of foodie tourists unknowingly stream past you in search of the cured ham that has become synonymous with the Spanish culinary experience. Or perhaps it pleases you to hold your secret safe. Perhaps you delight in the knowing of the very few. I must confess, I spent years as one of the ignorant. Alas, I did not know you.
I distinctly remember the first time I laid my eyes on cecina. The rich, ruby hue of the meat captured my attention in a way that jamón had not and I leaned eagerly into the bar, my interest piqued. The kind, distinguished gentleman serving me—surprised by my curiosity—was proud to provide me with a primer on this lesser known of the Spanish cured meats. Native to León, in northern Spain, cecina is cured in much the same way as jamón. The difference is that cecina is made from the beef of a cow, while jamón is pork.
León’s high altitude and dry climate make it an ideal location for the production of cecina, which consists of six, meticulously executed steps: perfilado (sectioning), salado (salting), lavado (washing), asentamiento (air-drying), ahumado (smoking) and secado (drying/during). The entire process, which has been overseen and protected by El Consejo Regulador de la Cecina de León since 1994, lasts approximately seven months. Traditionally a humble product produced in the homes of farmers of the region (it is referenced in Spain’s most celebrated novel, Don Quijote de la Mancha), cecina seems to be having a moment, as it were.
Most Madrileños are content to begin their day with una tostada y un cafecito. It is a simple and deeply soothing breakfast. And while I am generally happy to take part in this morning ritual, I have recently been in search of something a bit more substantial, something to complement the profound and often hidden beauty of the Madrid morning. It is one thing to watch someone toss a piece of bread on the plancha. It is quite another to observe the great skill and pride with which a leg of cecina is carved. Much like jamón, cecina is served in thinly sliced pieces. The slow and steady movements of the carver, combined with the wonderfully pervasive odor of air-cured meat induce a dream-like state. Each slice laid quietly on the plate offers the promise of deep flavor, the hope of something new. A drizzle of high-quality Spanish olive oil completes the plate.
If you find yourself in a hurry, cecina is likely not for you. Cecina invites lingering and pondering. Its nuances and smokiness deepen and change over time. Each piece provides new textures and new subtleties. One mustn’t rush something like this. We rush too much as it is, don’t we?