These names are regularly banded about (and confused) in supermarkets, on the internet, in restaurants and the like, so we thought we’d look to clarify it once and for all. You’ll be interested to know that, in fact, the only significant differentiating feature is to do with the ham’s geographical origin.
In other words, the big difference is that:
- Jamon Serrano is from Spain,
- Prosciutto di Parma, or Parma Ham, is from Italy,
- Jambon Sec or Bayonne Ham is from France and
- Presuntois from Portugal.
All four are dry-cured – that is to say, are hung and dried for a period of months. In fact, the etymology proves as such: the word ‘prosciutto’ comes from the Latin pro, meaning ‘before’, and exsuctus meaning ‘to suck out the moisture’. The Portuguese word ‘presunto’ has exactly the same etymology. The Spanish word ‘serrano’ can be similarly interpreted, ‘serrano’ which can be translated as ‘de la sierra’ or ‘from the mountains’, refering to the mountains up which ham is, at least using traditional methods, dried in the cool mountain air. ‘Sec’, as you might have guessed by now, means ‘dried’ in French. They also use a salting process which helps to dry the meat out.
In short, these are linguistic differences!
It’s worth mentioning here that Parma and Bayonne ham are more well known, but actually they refer to specific regions. In a more general sense the names are Proscuitto in Italian, and Jambon Sec in France.
Also note that no Spanish ham is smoked, neither is Prosciutto di Parma or Bayonne Ham. However, this is the case for some varietes, for example from Speck dell’Alto Adige in Italy. This of course gives the ham a different flavour, and is not directly comparable.
Are there other differences?
Yes, there are, and all producers will be crying out right now for us to say this! One is the regional appelation that some hams receive, distinguishing them on the basis of their regional origin and the quality of the processes which this implies, usually indicating a special microclimate.
Examples in Spain include Teruel, Trevélez, Guijuelo, Los Pedroches, La Dehesa de Extremadura, and Huelva.
In France, it includes the Ardennes, Auvergne, Bayonne, Laucaunes, Najac, Savoie, and Morvan regions.
In Italy, it includes Parma, San Daniele, Modena, Toscano, Veneto, Carpegna, Norcia, Speck dell’Alto Adige, Sauris and Cuneo.
Click here to learn what the regional appelations mean.
Does this lead to a change in taste and texture?
Given that all dry-cured hams are salted and then air dried, the flavours are somewhat similar. However, for the connoisseur (and even for them it’s going to be hard to tell) there are some interesting nuances in taste.
Differing microclimates of each area will affect the amount of wind and foodstuffs that the pigs feed on. For example, pigs with the Parma appelation gorge on chesnuts, giving them a distintive nutty flavour. This is similar to jamón ibérico de bellota pigs, which gorge on acorns. This is therefore highly affected by the regional appelations.
The curation times vary from ham to ham. Spanish hams, especially the ibérico variety, are cured in general for a longer period of time – for example, the best iberico pigs are cured for up to 5 years, where as due to the lower fat content (something which keeps the iberico legs juicy even if they are dried for longer) this isn’t the case for the rest of Europe where white-skinned pigs predominate. This gives iberico ham a much richer and more intense flavour than their other European cousins.
Serrano ham is cured for longer – some serrano hams are cured for up to 18 or even 24 months, whilst for the Italian or French hams it’s much more common for the period to be 10-12 months. These curing times have an effect on taste and texture. Parma ham is known for it’s smooth, lightly-salted taste, whilst San Daniele has a sweet-salty flavour. Bayonne ham is known for it’s milder flavour as compared to it’s Spanish counterpart.
Furthermore, this is an artisanal practice that, at least according to registered history, goes back a couple of hundred years. This is to say that the individuals and businesses curing the ham have their own traditions when it comes to the processes. This will lead to a change in flavour too.
All in all, there are slight differences, all in the context that pigs are of similar European breeds (apart from jamon ibérico, or Iberian ham, which is descended from European wild boar) and are salted and dried in the same manner.
So the big question – does it matter wheter I buy jamon serrano, prosciutto di Parma / Parma ham, jambon / Bayonne ham or presunto?
This is of course a difficult question to answer. As always is best, why don’t you buy two packets and try for yourself.
As for the wordy answer, as explained above, dry-cured hams in many senses are very similar in the sense that the hams are dried, similar European pigs are used all over Europe and the processes are similar. This is why we’ve now Chinese (or Jinhua) ham on the market which can be substituted for the more expensive European variety. To anyone who tries to tell you they’re completely different, you can now confidently tell them that they’re telling porkie pies!
That said, as we highlighted there are differences. Microclimates differ, the quality of the processes changes, something protected by the Geographical Indications mark, the quality of the pigs can change (there are always unscrupulous sellers out there) and regional food sources differ.
Some people might develop a taste for a certain type. Some may have a cultural or historical affinity, which could be our case given the Spanish connection. We take a much more philosophical approach – we love all types of ham!
The Hamazing Team
Are there more hams we should know about?
Actually there are a whole variety of dry-cured hams across Europe and the World: Wikipedia, of course, explains that well to us!
- Prosciutto - various types of Italian ham
- Presunto in Portugal - Its name also derives directly from the Latin perexsuctum, like prosciutto.
- Bayonne ham, from the French Basque country
- Jambon de Pays as called in the rest of southwestern France, in places like Tarn, Aude, Aveyron and Haute-Garonne and all over most of Occitania. It is usually darker and saltier than Bayonne ham and cut in thicker slices when served. The Occitan word is Cambajou.
- Elenski but, made in the town of Elena in Bulgaria
- Jamón, Spain
- Njeguška pršuta, from Montenegro
- Užička pršuta, from Serbia
- in Croatia:
- Dalmatian dry-cured ham (dalmatinski pršut), from Dalmatia in Croatia, especially from the area of Zagora - may be more or less salty, with darker and drier meat. The ham from the town of Drniš is one of the best known.
- Istrian dry-cured ham (istarski pršut), from the Croatian peninsula of Istria; its saltiness and dryness is between Karst dry-cured ham and Dalmatian dry-cured ham.
- Karst prosciutto (kraški pršut), from Karst, Slovenia is generally less salty, less dry and with a gentler taste.
- Littoral dry-cured ham (primorski pršut), from the Littoral region, Slovenia
- Jambon, (Jambon afumat, if smoked), in Romania; mostly referred to as Şuncă in Transylvania.
- Jinhua ham, from China
- Carmarthen Ham, from Carmarthen in West Wales – local legend suggests that the Romans took the recipe for Carmarthen Ham back with them and this is the origin of Parma Ham