Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jamón (Spain)

Many years ago I picked up a copy of a posh magazine, possibly Gourmet or The New Yorker, and read an article where the writer waxed nostalgic about the best meal he had ever eaten. In some house in the Spanish countryside, in some distant past, he had dined simply and divinely on only bread, red wine, and ham. Afterwards, he discovered that the wine just happened to be a select rioja from a great house from a great year, and the ham was the king of hams. His trek to discover the origins of the meal has stuck with me, and since moving to Spain, I wanted to experience such great food.

Even though "jamón" translates to "ham" in English, to even consider it in the same universe as ham (yes, even a honey-baked ham, Dad) seems shockingly disrespectful. Spanish jamón comes in two forms: jamón serrano from the white Iberian pig and jamón ibérico from the black Iberian pig. While jamón serrano is still yummy, jamón ibérico is in a league of its own.

The ancient Iberian breed has slender legs and black hooves (why they are also called "pata negra"). If they are going to be the best of the best, otherwise known as jamón ibérico de bellota, they will finish their lives roaming free on a pastoral woodland with ancient oak trees, scarfing down over 20 lbs (10 kg) of acorns a day. After slaughter, the legs are packed with sea salt and dried in the cool, mountain air for 2 years or longer. To protect and maintain the quality, there are even appellations like you have for wines.

After careful deliberation, we opted for a starter jamón. It was on sale... in a supermarket... and it came in a carrier that looked like one for tennis rackets... with the foot sticking out. Sure, it wasn't a "bellota," but it was still a jamón ibérico. Since one of the ways to ruin a jamón is in the carving, we didn't want to practice on something that, since its introduction in the U.S. in 2007, retails for over 90 dollars a pound! We named our jamón, Jorge. [Note: This is not a typical practice, and many Spaniards/Catalans were quite amused by the idea.] At around 90 euros (~ 115 dollars), Jorge still wasn't cheap. However, after getting 4 months of daily sandwiches out of him, he proved to be a smart investment.

Having honed our knife skills, this year we wanted to push the boat out. Ramón the Jamón is a bellota, and not just any, but a "gran reserva" carrying 3 J's on his label, out of a maximum 5 J's, from D.O. Guijuelo, an appellation in Salamanca. In the interest of full disclosure, Ramón is technically not a true jamón (made from the hind leg) but a paleta (made from the front leg). There's really little difference between them except size, and consequently, a paleta is marginally cheaper than a jamón. In this first week of eating, Ramón has truly surpassed his predecessor. He sports the hallmark deep red hue with marbling of golden fat that melts in your mouth. He's sweet, nutty, and not too salty with a complexity of flavor that puts Jorge to shame. We look forward to many more exquisite meals!

Finally, for you detractors out there, here is a funny little true story. A group of scientists at a European conference were arguing over ham. The Italians were proclaiming that prosciutto di Parma (a standard-bearer which many of you might be more familiar with) was the best in the world. The Spaniards vigorously championed jamón ibérico. Being scientists, of course, they came up with an experiment. At the next meeting, they brought a plate of each for tasting. In the end, there was some prosciutto left over, but the jamón plate was clean. Spain was declared the victor!

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