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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bring me the Ham of Alfredo Garcia

Someone once asked whom I would want to “play me” in a movie, so I said the Marlboro Man. That's because I've always fancied myself a Porcine Cowboy of Love, a lean mean rasslin' machine short squat eating kumquat who prowls the prairies and plains of Flavor Country with a bacon lasso and pork chop pistols. And this time I've rustled up something mighty tasty for our Ham Of The Month: Jamón Ibérico.

Iberico is about as “hot” as hams get in a non-sexual way. The buzz started years back, propelled by the enthusiasm of top-shelf European chefs. But until recently the stuff was prohibited in America; you could only take the plunge overseas. Which I did. I got impatient and went to score a few slices in London and Paris last year... at the obscene price of about $200 a pound. Ugh. I think it tasted great, but it's hard to tell when you're not on expense account and a few bites cost the same as a decent bottle of wine. Which begs the question: is this a ham you really want to be eating?

Well good reader, your decision got a tad easier. High-quality Iberico has made its way to our fair shores, and Despana – New York City's finest purveyor of Spanish sundries – offers several grades at quasi-reasonable prices. So let's head down there, get to tasting, and see what the fuss is about!
Air Jamons: Mr. Iberia flossing the unique kicks

Before sampling, we should note that Iberico imports are still seriously limited. Despana stocks Fermin, the first firm to obtain USDA approval. Unlike, say, storied Spanish producer Joselito, they don't claim to produce “el mejor jamon del mundo.” But this joint venture with renowned chef and tapas trailblazer José Andrés still pitches themselves as (I quote) “a cut above.” Much of this has to do with the animals, habitat, feeding and curing standards that set Ibericos apart.

Let's start with the pigs: an Iberian heritage breed, obese descendants of the wild boar with hides the color of dark oak bark and telltale black hooves. Did I mention the size? These pigs are large and in charge. Three Tenors fat. Fat Joe fat. Fat Fatback's Badass Backfat Fat. Over “400 pounds at two years of age” Fat.
Come hither, fatty!

So goes life on the dehesa I suppose, rolling Iberian pasturelands where pigs lallygag and gorge on sweet Holm Oak acorns. This mild-exercise/extreme-girth lifestyle yields fantastic, marbled meat. But the real fun begins with a careful curing process: brief salting, then a gentle slumber in ventilated rooms from winter through summer. The breezes warm with the seasons, and allow the meat to develop a toothsome texture, aromatic mold and rich yellowed fat. Only then are the legs ready for their final cure, an additional 18-36 months spent in cool dewy Cellars (61-64°F, 60-80% humidity).

The ritual is long, deliberate, and reminiscent of wine-making. Ham vintages vary with the years, and hammakers are adept at adjusting to whatever conditions nature proffers. When all is said and done (and if the finished product meets the producer's standards), each Jamón Ibérico is classified according to the pig's acorn consumption. These range from pienso (none) to recebo or reserva (some) to the high and mighty bellota (all). Right now Despana offers both bellota ($169/lb., hand-cut) and reserva ($99/lb., hand-cut) so let's see what it tastes like.
T.O.N.Y.: Despana brings Spain's top hams hither

The first thing we noticed was the fat – the oh-so-sweet, creamy fat. It goes a long way towards answering one of Life's Great Questions (what would Pork Butter taste like?), and lingers in the mouth. The flesh itself has a hearty, oily flavor I associate with Spanish hams, yet lacks Serrano's musky edge. It's like drinking a mature (as opposed to young) cognac: spicy and full of character, but the flavors are mellow and well-rounded. Eat a slice and you can't help but appreciate. The overall effect is rich, elegant and vaguely sweet.

As to whether Iberico lives up to the hype, well... it depends on how much of a Ham Nerd you are, and how seriously you take things like “trendiness” and “European” and “expensive = good.” That said, this meat is making waves from London to Paris to Rome, cities not lacking in native cured delicacies. So if you are a ham-thusiast looking to broaden your ham-rizons, this is probably worth a quarter pound investment. And if you want to wade in slowly, Despana has a fantastic selection of Serrano, house-made chorizo, and delicious blood sausage. So head on down, and make merry Iberian style. Just don't forget to close your eyes and pay respect to those noble pigs who roam the great Spanish plains...

Flavor Country, indeed.

Despana is located at 401 Broome Street (between Lafayette & Centre) in Manhattan. Open 7 days, 11am til 8pm (Sundays til 5pm). When you go make sure to sample the meat-counter sausages, and a few of their pork-related tapas. They also have a nice selection of raw milk cheeses, including a fairly mild Iberian that pairs well with the ham.



Blogger Sarah said...

I just came across your blog in my search for info on the Red Hook ball field concession stands. I'm thoroughly enjoying reading your blog and am adding it to my reader. Thanks for the great info and the great read!

4:44 PM  
Blogger Thew said...

In praise of that which makes the pigs taste so good, let the record note that I think you mean holm oak (Quercus ilex).

2:00 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

thanks sarah, welcome aboard

and thanks for the catch thew, correction made/proofreader fired

8:59 PM  
Blogger Manger La Ville said...

After "Decoding Faran Adria", this ham reigns supreme. I was looking to try it without going to Spain, so thank you. Now I know where to go.

12:52 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

indeed - they even serve tapassssss

9:58 PM  

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