Although Spain is famous for its "Jamón" or cured ham, which in my opinion is the best in the world, there is also another cured meat speciality which is not as well known and as equally exquisite.
"Cecina" from León can be defined as a smoked dried and salted beef, which in a similar way to ham is taken from the the hind leg. The outer part of the Cecina has a toasted brownish colour which is caused by part of the elaboration process. It is similar to the Italian Bresaola.
The Cecina is a delicacy with a millennial tradition and even though it is a product which is very well known in Northern Spain, there are endless written references about Cecina going right back to it's origin. The word “Cecina” comes from the latin "siccus", which means "dry". Even in the IV century before Christ, in the Agricultural Treaty 55 by Lucio Julio Moderato Columela, a friend of Seneca, there is a description of the manufacturing process of the dried beef “Cecina”, which recommends that it should be cured during the last quarter of the moon, especially during the winter solstice. In the XVI century, "El lazarillo de Tormes" is published, a picaresque novel, where there is also a reference to the dried beef Cecina. It was also present in the discovery of America, since it was on the list of the supplies taken aboard the caravel Santa María, together with other salted meats.
Cecina, when it is cut, is a cherry-maroon colour, increasingly getting darker towards the edges as the maturing process advances. Similar to Iberian Ham, and if it should present some light fatty embedded seams running through the meat, which gives the Cecina that juicy flavour. It´s a meat with a characteristic flavour, lightly salted and with a fine fibrous consistency.
Every piece of meat is identified individually and is perfectly controlled at all times throughout the processing. When the meat is received it is weighed and analysed and if the weight, fat and other essential requirements are met following the guidelines of the Ruling Council, the meat will be labeled and stamped with the Designation of Protected Origin to guarantee it's quality before being sent off for curing.
After a minimum time of seven months, required for the whole manufacturing process, each piece of meat must pass the organoleptic and physical-chemical controls carried out by the Regulating Council before it can be finally certified and given the definitive quality label of guarantee.
If the product is put into circulation in portions or in slices which are vacuum-packed, the quality label will be visible on the packing together with a reference number which will inform you from which piece those portions or slices come from.
Cecina from León, as its name clarifies, can only be manufactured by producers within the province of León. The average altitude of the province of León (1500 m) together with a mediterranean continental climate and long winters with an average temperature of 2ºC and relatively low humidity followed by springs and autumns with a lot of rain, bring together the ideal climatic conditions for manufacturing Cecina.
The climate makes possible the slow process of drying out the meat, helping to get that peculiar aroma and taste that is characteristic. Only free-grazing local breeds are used to make this cured meat.
The process of manufacturing Cecina consists of a highly controlled process of transformation from the original cut to the final product. The aromatic and flavour characteristics will mature thanks to a biochemical and microbiological processes which occurs inside the meat. The processing is made up of different stages:
Shaping: the cuts are given the correct shape
Salting: the cuts are covered with coarse grain sea salt. This helps with the dehydration, the development of the aroma and perfect preservation. The time spent salting lasts approximately 12 hours per kg of meat and it´s done at 2-5 ºC and with a relative humidity of 85%.
Washing: The cuts are washed with luke-warm or tepid drinking water in order to eliminate all excess salt..
Resting: It usually rests from 30 to 45 days. This eliminates excess water and makes the salt penetrate equally helping to develop the characteristic microflora.
Smoking: Oak and Holm oak wood is used. This phase lasts between 12 and 16 days.
Drying and hardening/curing: This takes place in natural drying rooms or areas until the maturing is complete; the temperature (close to 11ºC) as well as the humidity (75-80%) is always regulated and controlled.
Cecina can be eaten as any other cured meat, on its own or with a drizzle of olive oil and shaved "Viejo Manchego" cheese as you would a carpaccio with parmasan. You can use it as an ingredient in a whole list of recipes, it is absolutely divine and a wonderful alternative to Serrano or Iberian Ham if you fancy a change, for example you can use it to make a Pan Catalana or better said a Pan Leonese.
I thought I would share this wonderfully simple and tasty recipe with you, a classic but with a taste of León. Similar to the traditional bacon and eggs but with a Mediterranean touch and lot less fat!
// Poached egg with crispy smoked Cecina from Leon and EVOO-Fried bread //
The first step is to make the crispy Cecina. Cut the Cecina into strips the size of streaky bacon and then crisp them. This can be done either in the oven at 180ºC for about 12 minutes or in the microwave (1000W) for about 2 minutes.
The next step is to prepare the poached egg and the EVOO-Fried Bread. Fill a pot with water and heat it up until boiling, now we want to prepare the eggs. A way I love to prepare poached eggs is by using "cling film", it makes for an almost perfectly shaped egg and avoids loosing flavour and egg white because of the water. Take a square of cling film and stretch it out on the work top, brush the inner surface of it with a little olive oil and introduce the cling film into a small glass (as in the photo),
now just pop in the egg, season with a little pepper and close the cling film and tie it up tightly into a little sack with a piece of string. Now it is ready to pop into the water.
But before that start heating up a non- stick frying pan, take a slice of country bread or the bottom slice of a baguette (cutting horizontally) and generously baste both side with a good fruity extra virgin olive oil.
Make sure the the water is boiling and the pan is hot, pop the egg into the water for 3 minutes, while the egg is cooking pop the bread into the frying pan and toast it in the pan on both side pressing down the bread with a spatula to remove the air in the bread. You will be left with a lovely crunchy fried olive oil bread, yes fried bread, but a healthy one!
After 3 minutes remove the egg sack from the water and carefully open it up, it should look like the egg in the photo! The white should be cooked but the yolk should be totally liquid.
Place the bread on a plate, create a Cecina lattice with the crispy strips on top of the bread and then finally place the egg on top. Listo and ready to serve. Enjoy!