Ham It Up

Wine Spectator


May 31, 2008

Owen Dugan

Learn these words: jamon lberico de bellota. They literally mean "ham from Iberico-breed pig that was fed mostly acorns." In terms of gastronomy, these Spanish hams represent one of the world's most coveted foods, and one that has not met federal import standards ... until now.

Iberico is prized for its depth and complexity of flavor. It's nuttier and gamier than prosciutto but sweeter than Serrano ham. The meat is a bit chewy, although the silken fat softens it. The acorns provide oleic acid (aka "good fat"), and the relatively greater amount of fat requires that the ham be aged longer-up to three years-which intensifies the flavor.

The pigs are essentially free-range, allowed to wander wooded plains and getting more exercise than lot-raised animals. They eat whatever they find, which includes the acorns. Eventually their diet is shifted to acorns alone, not unlike cattle that are grass-fed but finished on corn. The right breed, feed and lifestyle are the corner-stones of quality, and this ham benefits from all three.

This comes at a price. Soon the hams-whole cured hind legs-will become available in the States through www.jamon.com, which is associated with Spanish importer La Tienda. They'll cost almost $100 a pound; as they're only sold whole, that's about $1,500, give or take.

At the moment, you can get slices from the paleta-foreleg or shoulder ($34.50 for 4 ounces)-which cures more quickly but still has the characteristic flavor and texture. It seems expensive, until you taste it.

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