Sunday, April 06, 2008

Jumping for Jamón: A Conversation with Caty Salas of The Spanish Table

WARNING: This interview will make your mouth water. Not recommended for pre-mealtime reading.

For what seems like more than a year, food publications have been touting the arrival of Jamón Ibérico—Spain’s most prized cured ham—to the United States. It’s a big deal because it took years of behind-the-scenes work to get the United States to approve the import of this particular ham. And even then only one producer has received the blessings to do so. But it’s mostly big news because of its rarity.

I’ve tasted jamón (pronounced HA-mone) while traveling in Spain, and loved it like how I love any paper-thin sliced ham such as prosciutto or speck. But the jamón I had in Spain was the everyday Serrano. Still good, but not the premium Jamón Ibérico.

The first Jamón Ibérico arrived to the States last fall, and was quickly picked up through pre-orders by restaurants. But it’s now starting to trickle its way to retailers specializing in Spanish goods, so that means we regular folks can now go get a cash withdrawal from the bank to buy this precious ham. And I’m not kidding. This is such premium ham that a 4 oz. package can run between $34 to $36.

The Spanish Table, a specialty gourmet shop that started in Seattle but has a location I often visit for my Spanish fix in Berkeley, got its first shipment of Jamón Ibérico about two months ago. I visited the store last week and chatted with manager Caty Salas about Jamón Ibérico, the different varieties, and what makes it one of the most desired pork products in the world.

The following are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Chef Ben: Maybe if we can start by explaining what is jamón?

Caty Salas: Jamón, in general, is a salted, dried cured ham. I was lucky enough to go to the company where our regular jamón comes from (in Spain). I got to tour the facility and it’s really low-tech. They get pig legs and they pack them in salt for a few weeks in these big vats of sea salt and then that draws out a certain amount of moisture and salt goes into the meat, which is the only preservative. And then they basically hang them up to dry.

In the old days you would have killed your fattened-up pig in the fall and the weather would be cool and it would dry all winter. It might get progressively colder and drier. Then it would start to warm up again when spring came. So they would try to mimic that when they’re making them for mass production.

They start out with pretty fresh legs hanging in a really cold meat locker and then they just keep track of the moisture content. And after they’ve been in a super-cold locker for awhile, they move them into a not-as-cold locker and cure in there for awhile. So they’ll keep moving them. There’s just this series of meat lockers. Different grades of ham take different times. The (jamón Serrano) that we have is 18 months. The longer they cure, the more rich and developed the flavor.

A typical Spaniard buys one around Christmastime and just keeps it in the back room under a towel and just shaves parts of it off whenever they want a snack. Any bar you go into, there’s a leg of ham on the counter, there’s more hanging up above the bar with little cups under them because the fat continues to drip out.

CB: In Spain, how long will a leg of jamón last for a family? Do they keep it the whole year and just snack on it throughout the year?

CS: They kind of snack on it all year, but it really isn’t going to last all year. (laughs) Spaniards use ham in everything. I mean they eat it as tapas, as snacks, as sandwiches. It flavors so many dishes it’s incredible. … Sometimes it can be a bit of a problem when people come in (to The Spanish Table) and look for vegetarian recipes. I’d go to a few of our cookbooks but so many of our things are primarily a vegetable dish but it’s flavored with ham. It’s everywhere.

CB: Is there a certain time of the year when there’s a big abundance of jamónes? Is there a season when they’re released because you were saying they usually start preserving the pigs in the winter?

CS: Well, that was before modern production capabilities. Now it’s year-round. There are a few artisanal producers who do it the old-fashioned way. But they cost a fortune and there aren’t very many of them. It’s still traditional to buy one at the beginning of the year, but they’re available constantly.

CB: There are different types of jamónes, so what determines the variety? Is it the type of pig used or how long it takes to cure them?

CS: It’s both. There are two primary kinds of pigs. For the longest time the only ones allowed to be imported here were the more typical domestic white pigs. And the ones that are available now are from the black Ibérico pig, which is also called the pata negra because it has black feet. The pig itself varies in color but it’s generally a black, very dark pig. The meat from that animal is different than the meat of the white pig.

CB: In terms of jamón sold in the United States, has it mostly been Serrano?

CS: It has been mostly Serrano. Serrano is just your basic, dried cured ham. It means “mountain ham” because ham was traditionally produced in the mountains where it’s drier and colder. You can’t dry cure things down on the coast where it’s wet, hot and humid. So jamón Serrano is kind of your basic, generic ham.

CB: How long has Serrano been available in the United States?

CS: For about 10 years. And even that was a project. The U.S. didn’t approve of any of the slaughtering facilities in Spain so the hams that were finally accepted for export to the U.S. were white pigs that were raised and slaughtered in Denmark and then those legs were sent to Spain and processed to be jamón.

For the Ibérico, they’ve approved that one company from start to finish. (NOTE: Only one producer in Spain has received the United States’ blessings to slaughter, produce and import Jamón Ibérico to this country. That company is Embutidos Fermín, run by the Santiago Martín family in the mountain village of La Alberca in Spain.)

CB: Why wasn’t the Jamón Ibérico available earlier?

CS: It’s a native pig (to Spain). They don’t have those pigs in Denmark. I guess they could have sent them there and raise them. … In Spain, the pata negra is just a much more prized product. There’s just more flavor in it, which is probably why they didn’t go through the complicated Danish route because they were perfectly happy to keep all of it for European consumption.

At this point in the interview, Caty goes to the store’s refrigerated section to pick up some packets of jamónes to show me. She comes back with three 4 oz. vacuum packs containing two versions of the Jamón Serrano and one of the Ibérico.

The Ibérico is actually known as “Paleta Ibérico de Bellota.” This is the prized Ibérico that’s been raised with acorn. Regular Jamón Ibérico comes from the black pigs raised on a normal diet of grain. Caty was actually waiting for her shipment of the regular Jamón Ibérico to arrive, so she didn’t have any to show me.

Looking at the jamónes, Caty points out how the Ibérico had a more marbled look to the ham from the fat compared to the leaner Serrano. And like they always say, fat is flavor.

CB: So why is this known as “Paleta Ibérico” instead of “Jamón Ibérico”?

CS: Paleta is cut from the front leg. Jamón is the back leg.

CB: Are there different varieties of Jamón Ibérico?

CS: Pata negra has a couple of varieties. There’s your regular jamón pata negra, which is black pigs raised on a regular diet of grain like a regular pig. But it’ll certainly be more marbled and more flavorful than the regular. The really special kind is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. That is the pig that has been finished on acorn. This pig is native to an area called a “dehesa,” a scrubby meadow. Pigs that are going to become Jamón de Bellota, those pigs spend the last four or five months running around out in those meadows gorging on acorn.

… They put on half of their weight during that finishing time. Because it has more fat in it, it takes longer to cure the meat. The leaner meat is drier so you can’t cure it as long because it’ll dry out and lose its flavor. This is so fatty, it takes much longer to cure. The flavor develops and gets more complicated than regular jamón.

CB: Why is the Ibérico so prized? Is it because there’s fewer production of it?

CS: Especially the bellota. They can’t raise nearly as much because they need the open ranges. There’s just a limited amount of space for that and there’s just a limited amount of pigs designated to finish that way. It takes twice as long. This is a minimum of 24 months whereas top-of-the-line Serrano is 18 months and most Serranos are 12 months.

CB: Do the jamónes Serrano and Ibérico taste different?

CS: What’s different is the nature of the fat. Because (the Ibérico) ate so many nuts, the fat is different chemically. It has a lower melting point than normal. … You want to keep it at room temperature because generally jamón you don’t want to eat it cold because it loses a lot of its flavor. But when you bring it to room temperature, it’s totally shiny and glisteny, and when you put it on your tongue, it melts.

CB: Oh wow.

CS: It just melts all over your mouth. And the flavor is this incredibly sweet nuttiness from the acorn. Even the conventionally raised Ibérico, like regular jamón not fed on acorn but still the black pig, even those has a definite different flavor. A lot of that is because it had to be cured longer because the fat is all interwoven in there. But once you take that pig and feed it acorn in the last part of its life, then the flavor is just completely different.

Paleta is the front leg of the Ibérico. The back leg is so much bigger that it takes them several months longer to cure than the front legs. So they’re actually not even available until the fall because they’re just not finished yet.

CB: Which is the one coming in the fall?

CS: That one is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. This is Paleta Ibérico de Bellota (pointing to the packet in front of us that’s now available). Paleta is a minimum of 24 months. The Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is probably more like 30 months.

CB: How different will the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota be from the Paleta de Bellota?

CS: I would expect paleta because of the nature of the cut it tends to be gamier. So it’ll be milder. The reason we have paleta is so that we have something that is de bellota, the acorn. Because the regular Jamón Ibérico is delicious, but everyone always ask us is this the one that ate acorn? Is this the one that ate acorn? Right now, this is the only one we have that ate acorn. The other (regular Jamón Ibérico) is fantastic but we can’t say it ate acorn. It is pata negra but it’s not de bellota.

So in Spain, they sell mostly paleta at holiday time because it’s a lot smaller and a lot cheaper comparatively speaking. It’s not cheap, this is $36 for a quarter pound. I expect the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is going to be at least $50 for a quarter pound. This is a less desirable cut because it’s tougher and gamier, whereas the jamón will be much more tender. Not just will the fat melt in your mouth but the meat melts in your mouth.

CB: Mmm, that sounds so exciting. Going back to the fat because there’s so much of it, I read it’s supposed to be a healthier fat?

CS: Because it has so much more unsaturated fat, it’s almost like the pig is half olive oil. It comes from eating all the nuts.

CB: So it’s not too bad if you eat a lot of it? Because it does look like a lot of fat.

CS: It is different than your average pig fat. That’s the acorn one.

CB: So do most people in Spain eat this as is, or do they actually put it into their cooking? Seems like it’s so expensive you don’t want to heat it up like how you wouldn’t heat up quality extra virgin olive oil.

CS: You would serve this just at room temperature on a plate. Maybe with a little bit of olive oil drizzled on it, but really I wouldn’t even do that. What’s so extraordinary about it is the nature of its own fat. And so, it would just be sliced paper thin. Just have it by itself where you can really enjoy it.

We walk over to her store computer to look up something about the one producer of Jamón Ibérico and Caty shows me photos of her trip to the jamón producer. There’s a photo of her standing in front of racks and racks of hanging pig legs. She says the rows of jamónes never seemed to stop. It’s like jamón heaven.

We went to the refrigerated section and The Spanish Table had one jamón Serrano hanging as a full leg. This is how jamón would typically be displayed in the Spanish market, but because The Spanish Table doesn’t have a deli license, they can’t slice into that full leg. Instead, they sell the prepacked jamónes.

Caty says the whole legs are often sold to Spaniards living here who wants the whole leg to cut up at home. It’s also sold sometimes to restaurants, and recently they sold a couple to the Pixar employee cafeteria. A whole leg of Jamón Serrano runs about $300. You can special order a whole leg of the Jamón Ibérico, which may run as much as $800. Caty says she doesn’t even want to guess how much a whole leg of the Jamón Ibérico de bellota will go for when it’s available in the fall.

CB: What’s the difference between jamón and prosciutto?

CS: They’re definitely related. Prosciutto de parma, their diet is different. Those pigs get to eat the leftover parmesan cheese. So they’re eating whey and dairy products so that’s why they taste so good. Also they’re covered in a layer of lard on the outside of the leg on purpose as part of the curing.

… I’ve done taste tests between prosciutto and jamón Serrano and to me Serrano is sweeter.

CB: What has the response been like for Jamón Ibérico? Has there been a lot of people wanting to buy it?

CS: When I first got word from my supplier that I could order some, I sent out an email and these are people who responded to that email. (She shows me a clipboard of a couple of pages of names of Ibérico-hungry eaters.)

Now we’re gong to be keeping it on stock. We’re not going to have a lot of it on hand. There’s a limited number of people who can afford to buy this stuff. But we do want to have it as long as we’re able to get it from our supplier. We’ll always have something on hand.

I couldn’t resist, so I bought Caty’s last packet of Paleta Ibérico de Bellota, which normally sells for $36 for the 4 oz.-pack. In it, you get about 8 to 10 thinly sliced Ibérico.

I have to admit, I was a bit suspect of how different the acorn-raised Ibérico could be from say a good prosciutto. But after letting it sit out at room temperature for awhile, I could see the Ibérico start to glisten, transforming into a luxurious state, almost like silk. Then I picked up a slice and ate it and was wowed by the tender texture, which felt like velvet oozing into my mouth and down my appreciative throat.

There were some bits of tough parts, probably because this is the cut from the front leg, but they were very tiny and didn’t detract from the overall luxury of eating Jamón Ibérico. Sure, it worked out to be almost $4.50 a slice, but it was a
splurge worth doing because everyone should be able to taste this at least once in his or her lifetime.

Special thanks to Caty Salas for taking the time to chat with me about jamónes, especially since she just got off of two weeks working a special event for The Spanish Table at Macy’s. By the way, the store is a great place to find those special Spanish ingredients and supplies like paella pans. So if you’re ever in the mood to cook Spanish, or feel the hunger to try the Jamón Ibérico, visit The Spanish Table in Berkeley.

The Spanish Table, 1814 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. PH: 510.548.1383. Open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Web site.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

my gawd I tried to leave a comment and my whole system freaked out! then I forgot about it and here I am again looking at that jamon. That really looks incredible, I have to go check it out.