September 9, 2010

Jamón, Jamón

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I love it.  Yes I do.  Truly.  Jamón ibérico is hands down my favorite ham in the world.  There's nothing else quite like the ham that comes from the black-hoofed (pata negra) Spanish pigs which feed on acorns (bellota).  When I visited my friends Brian and Cow in Tokyo recently, I joked about their daughter's jamons since her thighs were amazingly plump.  They understood completely...

Courtesy of Brian

So I got an email from Susan, asking me if she could interview me on how I felt about jamón ibérico.  She asked: "Do you like it?  Do you eat it?..."  And here was my one-sentence reply:

"love it love it love it can't get enuf and definitely don't eat enuf"

Out came today's South China Morning Post, and my email reply became the opening line for her article...  I'm reposting part of the article here, while the full text is available here (requires subscription). 

Spanish jamon is the pork of the town

Susan Jung
Sep 09, 2010

I love it, love it, love it; I can't get enough," says Peter Chang. The Diary of a Growing Boy food blogger isn't raving about some illicit substance, but something that's becoming much easier to acquire in Hong Kong - Spanish ham. Not just any Spanish ham, mind you, but jamon Iberico de bellota (acorn), made from pure-bred Iberian pata nega (black-hoofed) pigs that were raised free-range in oak forests.

Before tasting jamon Iberico de bellota, Chang's benchmark for fine ham was prosciutto di Parma. "I still eat it, but it's nowhere near the same," he says. "Parma is softer and pale pink. Jamon Iberico is firmer and chewier because it's dried longer; the colour is darker and prettier, and, as for the taste, it's all about the fat. It's almost liquid, it melts in the mouth and coats the meat. The fat coating makes the meat so much better."

All that fat would seem like a cardiologist's nightmare. But Oliver Win, managing director for Olivier Pacific, which supplies jamon to Estudio Iberico, a jamon and tapas bar in Great Food Hall, says it is healthy fat. "With this type of jamon, there's [fat] marbling in the muscle. The Iberian breed of pigs, fed on a diet of acorns, means a high amount of oleic acid. It's about 67 per cent similar to olive oil."
Win's company sells about 14,000 legs of jamon a year to restaurants, hotels and private clubs, with sales divided almost equally between jamon from Cinco Jotas, a company that's been in business since 1879, and the far less-expensive jamon Serrano.

"Spain is the centre of gastronomy and it revolves around jamon," Win proclaims. "I love the whole idea of the purity of the Iberian breed - the diet, range and the oleic acid. It's a speciality animal from Spain - Iberian pigs are black pigs and you can tell Iberian jamon from the marbling. The leg is elongated and narrow; Serrano is rounder and shorter. Only a small percentage of pure Iberico jamon is available, with some, it's a crossbreed, and they aren't all fed solely on acorns. Only a few producers have enough money to manage the selection process."
"The Pata Negra House concept is that we buy jamons made in limited quantity the old-fashioned way," says Saint-Raymond. "We buy jamon from different areas of Spain, from different suppliers. We have a wide range of Iberico ham - 10 to 12 types.

"Jamon is not as famous as French jambon," the Frenchman adds. "But it has a specific taste that's not found in other types of ham. The Iberico breed is only grown in Spain and Portugal. The pigs are raised in the forest and eat acorns and grass. The acorns give the fat oleic acid, which gives the jamon a long-lasting flavour."

Not all jamon is created equal. "Basic Spanish jamon is jamon Serrano, made from Duroc, a special breed of white pig, and it's aged for 20-plus months," says Saint-Raymond. "It's still good quality pork but it doesn't have a special acorn diet. The jamon from the white pig has a plainer flavour, it's not as long lasting on the palate and the fat isn't as healthy.

"Some Spanish ham can be aged for more than 50 months. We have two legs that are 50-plus months. It's of limited quantity. You have to start with a bigger pig. With drying and time, the weight is reduced so if it's starting off small, it will be too dry. With ageing, it becomes more intense, with more flavour. It's like wine - more flavours develop."

However, Win feels that too much emphasis is placed on ageing.

"I'm fed up with everyone talking about age," Win says. "At Cinco Jotas, they stop ageing it when it's right. In Spain, they don't talk about ageing; the important thing is the feed. It makes sense that the bigger the leg, the longer it's aged. A Duroc pig is fed on formula and can weigh more than 200kg; Iberico, fed only on acorns, weighs about 180kg."

Although it would seem to make economic sense for producers to increase the number of pure-bred Iberian pigs and let them range freely to feed on acorns, they can't, says Saint-Raymond. "There's not enough land. For top-quality Iberico, there's a limit by law - each pig must have one hectare of forest. And the area of forest isn't growing."

Win says one reason the sliced jamon is so expensive is that there's only a 40 per cent yield on each leg. But the remainder isn't wasted. "The bone is used for soup, the fat is used to fry omelettes and scraps are used for croquetas and scrambled eggs."

Richard Ekkebus, culinary director at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Central, used to serve jamon in traditional thin slices at the hotel's outlets such as Amber and the Mo Bar. But it's so popular he prefers to serve it in other ways.

"We still love the product but we use it in a less obvious way - like a salty element in the dish. We grate it with a microblade, and love to use the bone as the Chinese would with Yunnan ham in soups, where it adds flavour but it's not obvious. We sometimes sweat vegetables with it, and the trimmings - not the skin, because it's bitter, but the dried parts - we'll infuse them into sauces.

Ekkebus' favourite jamon is the Joselito brand, available at the Bon Bon Bon shop in Central.

Chang doesn't have a favourite - although he'd jump at the chance to sample a few more.

"When I was in Spain four years ago, I went to Jamonisimo in Barcelona and bought three of the top-end jamons, the ones based on the source. I also bought regular jamon Iberico without a premium rating. Unfortunately, I didn't taste them side by side, so I couldn't tell you which one I like best. But I'd definitely like to taste more."


From Spain

I still remember my visit to Jamonísimo.  The place is literally a temple of worship for jamón lovers.  I didn't even hesitate before buying 300g each of the 3 "reserves" - Salamanca, Andalucia and Extremadura.  I would have bought more, except that they needed to be sliced by hand and it simply took too long and too much effort.  Each pack of 100g consisted of about 20 slices of 5g each, all sliced by hand with a long and thin blade.  The lady kinda got a little tired in the middle of slicing, and when the owner walked in he decided to take off his jacket and relieve his staff.  I knew I was in good hands.

My friends and I actually contemplated buying a whole leg, but realized we would have to buy a jamonera...  The combination would be a little too much in itself, not to mention that we were heading to El Bulli and didn't want the hassle.  I did take home an additional 1kg block of "regular" jamón ibérico, which helped satisfy my cravings for a while.

I drink Sherry with my jamón, and switch between drier versions (González Byass Del Duque, an amontillado muy viejo) and the sweeter styles (González Byass Metusalem, an oloroso dulce muy viejo).  I'm sure I could just as easily pair the jamón with something simpler like Tio Pepe, but... I am who I am.


Unknown said...

I remember the old lady in the shop. We bought about a dozen of the 100g packets and it took her quite awhile to slice but she was pretty efficient. She couldn't speak a word of English and I only had my tourist phrase book but she was very friendly and helpful. We still have some left in the fridge. yeah baby!

Jon said...

Yep, ham bone in soup is excellent!


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