One of the first things W and I ever bonded over was a plate of thinly sliced saucisson sec and a wodge of profoundly funky epoisse. No vacation is considered complete unless we've plundered the depths of whatever artisanal cheeses and cured meats that happen to be on offer. Whenever he travels for work, he goes beyond bringing home the bacon by hauling back ham and cheese he knows I will like by dint of his liking it. Fortunately for both of us, his hunter-gatherer instincts are razor-sharp - he returned from a recent trip to Spain bearing jamón ibérico de puro bellota and serrano.
To say jamón is a national obsession in Spain would be an understatement. It's been the subject of many a learned study by leading jamón experts at the country's most prestigious universities and research agencies. Poets have waxed lyrical about it; Baltasar del Alcázar's Tres Cosas is as much a tribute to Inés as it is to jamón. It's even starred as both muse and metaphor in Bigas Luna's campy cult classic. Hamming it up as lethal bludgeon in the hysterical final scene, it's most tempting to surmise the moral of this farce - good jamón is truly to die for.
If ham is to pork what wine is to grapes, than jamón ibérico de puro bellota is to ham what Vega Sicilia Unico is to wine. Jamón serrano from the domestic white-coated pig is Spain's everyday cured ham (even so, its flavour and texture can be excellent). Jamón ibérico, which accounts for a tiny fraction of Spain's total cured ham production, is produced from the black-coated Iberian pig (most famously, from Salamanca, Jabugo and Sierra Morena amongst other towns) and what many experts and ham fanatics name as their swish spoilt swine of choice. The differences between jamón serrano and ibérico lie not only in breed and curing times (choice jamón ibérico is dry-cured for as long as 30 months), but also in diet. And within the jamón ibérico family alone, the various quality grades are in fact a direct reflection of diet during the montanera, the final fattening period in fall prior to slaughter - bellota (a diet of acorns), recebo (acorns and grain), and pienso (grain).
Bellota ham needs to be tasted to be understood. And if yet to be tasted, it alone is worth a trip to Spain. (Need more convincing? Read Peter Kaminsky's Pig Perfect, a gripping account of the author's quest for artisanal pork and sublime ham.) To eat it is to experience new meaning to carnal pleasures of the flesh. In appearance alone, it is distinctive, with a rich, deep red colour verging on mauve (thanks to the presence of myoglobin in the muscle fibers of the free-range pigs), generously marbled with a soft, creamy white and delicious fat. The aroma is almost resinous in its intensity, the complex scent of artful decay. With a remarkably sweet and nutty flavour, and a texture that's seductively supple, silken and melt-in-the-mouth courtesy of the luxuriant streaks of fat, it's not hard to see why Spaniards revere it with a fervour bordering on the mystical, spiritual and religious. It begs to be eaten alone, and if to be accompanied, by nothing more than a few fat oily olives, a handful of marcona almonds, a ripe fig or a luscious slice of melon, all washed down by a glass of fino sherry.
Jamón serrano, on the other hand, while delectable on its own, is also perfect for cooking, not least because of its less exotic cost. Below, a small selection of tapas or pintxos type things.Grilled White Peach with Mascarpone Foam & Jamón Serrano
The idea for this lovely number comes from Rick Tramonto's Amuse-Bouche; the original features grilled Black Mission figs topped with mascarpone foam (yes, yet another perfect excuse to go acquire that Adrià-chic iSi Gourmet Whip) and wrapped with a slice of prosciutto di Parma. It's a classic combination of sweet fruit, salty ham and fresh, young cheese found in many permutations in any ham-producing region. The genius touch is lightening the rich cheese into an ethereal foam - thusly, the mouthful of intense flavours is given textural interest.
A much-beloved classic tapas on which filling variations are endless - bound by a thick béchamel, use all ham or all chicken if you prefer, go for quail in lieu of chicken, add some chopped hard-cooked egg, shrimp or crab, enrich the milk with ham or chicken stock, sherry and cream, make the croquetas as dainty as wine corks or as robust as lemons. Any which way, it's very very good. The recipe I used is based on one from José Andrés' Tapas.
Favas (broad beans), artichokes or peas with ham can be found in many guises all over Spain. Reading Fiona Dunlop's New Tapas - a fabulous collection of essays on and recipes by Spain's most exciting chefs, tapas bars and restaurants today (and an indispensable guide to anyone planning a tapas-centric trip to the Basque country, Catalonia, Rioja and Castile, Madrid, the Levante or Andalucía) - will not only inspire you to buy a one-way ticket to Spain, but provide a wealth of easy ideas requiring minimal prep yet bursting with stunning flavours.
In the end, I decided to make a mixture not unlike the Roman vignole (an excellent recipe for which can incidentally be found in The River Cafe Cook Book), bringing together broad beans, artichokes and peas, and exuberantly flavoured with masses of mint. Matchsticks of jamón serrano add savoury meatiness, while a garnish of chopped hard-cooked egg both looks and tastes wonderful.
Greek Yoghurt with Condensed Milk & Oranges
No ham here. Nor is it a particularly Spanish dessert (unless the use of Valencia oranges counts). But certainly in keeping with the fuss-free spirit of things. From Tessa Kiros' Apples for Jam, orange juice, zest, and condensed milk are folded into thick Greek-style yoghurt. The mixture sets to a very soft and creamy pudding to be draped over fruit. Languorously piled into long-stemmed glasses and finished with more zest, there's no reason why something so simple should not be easy on the eyes as well.