For those of you who are wondering if I had just one little bite of the best ham in the world, I did not. I stuck to my guns, because frankly, after 20 years of refusing meat, I don’t really have an interest in it, still I wonder if I am missing something….. maybe just a little something. Enter Jamon Iberico… The ultimate Spanish experience.
The truth is? I can’t really imagine a Spain without its beloved Jamon. You can’t imagine a Spain without it, because it is literally EVERYWHERE. From the moment you land at the airport those famous legs are hanging in every window. Think of all the curtains that could be hung instead! But seriously, there are stores dedicated to the thin slices of piggy heaven and even special knives to slice it just right and wooden ham holders that angle the leg just right for each cut. These guys cut this ham in thin slices identical to carpaccio. Did I mention that the hoof is always attached to the leg? Oh yeah it is. Those little black feet. I can almost hear the pitter patter of the hooves as they hesitate their way into slaughter, still somehow it is all palatable or acceptable or something like that. I suppose it is more honest if you do show the hoof – after all it is no secret that meat is the muscle of a once living animal right? I told someone that once. I said it just like that actually – “Meat is the muscle of an animal.” The person I told this to, was shocked. I asked them – “What else would it be?” and their response was. “Meat?”
Spain does not screw around when it comes to its cuisine. People know where this stuff comes from, knows what the meat is attached to and savor every bite. From manuels’ first sandwich to the end of the trip – I was confronted about very 5 minutes with the hanging ham and hoof.
First and formost, we are talking Iberico ham, NOT serrano ham, the difference is in the pig and the attached black hoof. Second, the Boar is black, has very little hair and are descendants of ancient boars that have roamed the Peninsula since we began writing it all down on CAVE WALLS! (Serrano hams are pink and hairy.) Third, in order to reach Iberico ham status it needs to go through a few steps to get there and Iberico ham is divided into 2 groups. Ones that eat traditional grass and corn and live a normal pig life called Jamon Iberico and and the others that eat grass, corns and ACORNS and live in the Oak preserves called Jamon Iberico de Bellota. The bellotas can double in price due to its intense flavoring of the meat (eating all those dam acorns). In addition, the acorns add a ton of delicious fat to the pig – which is a very important part of the curing process.
There are farms and families that have been growing theses boars over time. The process lasts a longer than I could ever expect. In the case of the Acorn easting pigs which I am most interested in, they graze all summer and at 10 months are let out to the mountainside to feast on acorns that have dropped from age old Oak trees protected by the government! The boars LOVE them and can double their weight in just a few months. It is not only the acorns that they feast on that enhances this special meat, it is the air, the land, the natural elements only found in the hills of Spain that boar farmers swear make all the difference in the world. At their time of slaughter, if it is a family owned farm, it might be that it is considered a sacrifice. Somehow, when an animal becomes a sacrifice, it becomes an honor for them to be killed and and honor for those to enjoy it. In the larger farms, it is not too clear how exactly they are processed but have heard that they do the best they can in the sacrifcing process, doing if quick and painless. (I don’t believe this somehow). Immediatley after slaughter most of the boar is processed into sausage and such, all the typical things you might think of, but it is the legs that are spared any kind of prcessing at all! They are salted immediately and the curing process begins. The regular hams for about 2 years and the “belotta” hams which means “acorn” for even longer. Whether on a small scale in a small family farm in a mountain village or a large farm, the hams at this point need to be hung outdoors (with a roof) to start the process. Fresh air must be present and the hams are hung to literally transform. Fat drips off and as the meat heats and cools and heats and cools. In most cases the leg will lose over half its weight and in the case of the belottas, due to the acorn antioxidant and the curing process, the saturated fats are actually turned into health mono – unsaturated fats that are high in oleic acid. The only other fat that has higher olei adid is actually OLIVE OIL! Holy shit! and the Ham is healthy too????
I could go on, but you get the drift in short: The ham is fucking good. The economics of this sliced meat is daunting for a country the size of Spain. Forests are protected so that the acorns can be eaten. Wooden ham holders are produced, knives are invented and so on. Even more interesting is the ham was illegal to bring into the US for decades. The US decided that the spanish slaughterhouses were not up to USDA standards, (probably becuase there was not enough bleach on the premises) and Spain even built factories to meet those standards (which we are know in the US are despicable) for some reason I don’t think it could be worse. Rumors that maybe the slaugher houses in Spain had dirt floors instead of cement or wooden processing chambers instead of stainless steel. Still the new factories were built for US export. I find this a little weird, since hams have it WAYYY better in Spain than in the states. I am going to get to the bottom of this one. Even the fact the Boars graze on about 4 acres of protected land per animal and never go to FEED LOTS is a start! – hardly a factory farm conditions. Anyway, in 2005 the US approved that that years batch would be approved for entry into the US in 2008 and did so. They arrived with the black hoof attached but the US immediatley decided that the feet were unsanitary and insisted that they start arriving with the hoof cut off. So if you do get Iberico ham in the US it is sans the foot. Loses the romance entirely doesn’t it? I would think that the Spanish air in a Spanish city like Barcelona puts the cherry on top of the experience entirely. If you want Iberico Ham, come to friggin Spain.
In celebration of the ancient Ham I said a small prayer for them at the basilica. Whether you are in favor of it or not there is no dispute that the Iberico Ham is here to stay for for that I wish them the most painless and happy life and quick death. Still you never know. With the recent ban on bullfighting in the Catalonian state, things actually might change! That is what am writing about next!