March 11th, 2013
On the Southwest coast of Spain, tuna is cured and preserved in a similar way to making ham. Fresh tuna loins are washed then salted for for several days. Next, they are washed again before being hung up to air dry slowly. The loins hang for between 1 – 3 months (depending on weather and their size), shrinking and becoming hard like ham. This process can also be applied to large mackerel.
The process dates back to the time of the Phoenicians, perhaps three thousand years ago. The name mojama comes from the Arabic musama – to dry. Like Jamón Serrano (Spanish air dried ham), the point in drying is to preserve the ham or tuna, so that it will last for a long time without spoiling. Nowadays we have refrigeration to keep food fresh, but the salting and drying gives the meat and fish a distinct flavour and quality, therefore the ancient methods have continued.
I bought this piece of mojama in Barcelona, back in December, from the Brandada Lady at the Boqueria – it’s on top of the pile at the front. It was shrink wrapped so I took it home and put it on the kitchen table, thinking I’d eat it within a week or two… Suddenly it was March and I did wonder if 3 months in plastic was OK? I wasn’t worried about the age, the whole point of curing food is to make it last for a long time. Good jamón is, after all, aged for several years before eating and years ago people took dried fish and meat on long voyages because it doesn’t go off. Salt is remarkably good at inhibiting bacteria.
I talked to several Spanish friends who assured me that once cured it lasts for years, even in plastic, though it would probably be best hung in a cool larder or wrapped in muslin. I was told to open it and smell it – it smelled normal, mildly of tuna. I waited for a sunny day before opening it, in order to show the way sunlight passes through it, as if it were a precious stone.
Mojama should be sliced thinly and served on bread or toast with a drizzle of olive oil. To me, served this way, it really brings out the flavour of the olives. The fish itself has the texture of Jamón Serrano and tastes of slightly salty tuna. Some people suggest soaking the slices in olive oil for a couple hours before serving on bread – I tried it like that but prefer it dry with the oil on the bread. It can also be chopped up and sprinkled on salad. Serve as a tapa with a glass of chilled Fino sherry.