Ibérico Ham & Sherry
I blagged my way into a tutored tasting of Ibérico ham in the Spanish Embassy earlier this week. On arrival, I discovered it was aimed at food journalists rather than mere wine scribes. However, it was a great event, featuring two of the finest products known to man – Sherry and Ibérico. The tutor was carving expert and all-round good guy Mario Hiraldo Regalado, whose family run a jamóneria down in Andalusia. You can see him at work on a short video from the TV3 AM show, where, unbelievably, nobody actually tastes the wonderful ham!
Mario took us through the raising of Ibérico pigs (not all are Pata Negra apparently, some have brown or even pink hooves) in the oak forests of Spain, and the process of ageing. There is a narrow strip of land running from the south of Spain along the Spanish border with Portugal (Portugal makes its own very good equivalent Presunto) where the large cork oak forests are found. This is where much of the cork used as wine closures comes from. The highest grade of Iberico ham is Bellota, made from pigs that have spent the last 3-4 months of their lives grazing in these forests, with one hectare allowed per animal.
Mario spent much of his time explaining the different parts of a full Jamón Ibérico, and how an expert will make the most of this expensive piece of pork. There are no less than six different ‘cuts’ that should be carved in order, each with its own specific flavour. The marbling changes, as does the fat content. Remember all of those hams you see hanging in Spanish bars? The fat is slowly migrating southwards to the bottom end of the Jamón, finally collecting in those conical dishes you see under every ham.
We tasted our way down the ham; each did taste distinctly different. A wafer-thin piece should be a complete cross-section of the ham, and the size of a credit card – perfect for eating in one bite. At one stage we laid a strip of ham across the back of our hand to warm it up a little. At a slightly higher temperature, the flavours were even more heightened and complex.
The first cut, the Caña, is a hard meat and generally used in cooking; the Jarrete was nutty and sweet and full of fat, the Maza is the piece we are most familiar with, the juiciest yet leanest strip from the loin. The Babilla lies between the two bones, the Contramaza lies opposite the Maza, and is the narrowest and most cured part. The La Punta is the strip opposite the hoof, full of fat and therefore flavour – mushrooms and nuts. Lastly we tried a chunk of Taco de Jamón from the tougher side part is used in Spain as a cooking medium., ‘an Oxo cube’ Mario explained. I found it good enough to eat.
Mario was talking to the converted. I have believed for many years that Jamón Ibérico is one of the great foods of the world. Add in a glass of good sherry and you have one of the most perfect ways to start any meal. Deep red in colur and heavily marbled with fat, it has the most complex flavour, salty one minute, nutty the next, mushroomy, sweet and so much more. The fat melts in your mouth giving the most wonderful creamy texture and lingering finish.
We then tried various pieces of ham with three different sherries. Mario explained that the alcohol in a sherry will ‘melt’ the fat, creating a taste sensation. Take a sip of the sherry first, either fino or Oloroso, and then the ham to experience an explosion of flavour.
Two things worth remembering; serve your Ibérico at room temperature. At fridge temperature you will lose all of that wonderful flavour. Serrano ham, available at cheap prices in our supermarkets is nice but it is not the same thing.
If you can afford the €300 or more for a full Ibérico or Bellota ham, it will keep for several months. Use the first strips of ham, largely fat, as a cover to prevent oxidation. One day, when the lotto comes in, I will purchase a full ham. A good carver can get 800 pieces of Iberico from one ham – makes it seem cheap really. Lastly, in case you are worried about all of that fat, Ibérico is a health food, containing a high level of healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid, and therefore very good for you.