With the whirlwind holiday season behind us, I find myself reflecting on my most delicious moments of 2013. Here at Formaggio Kitchen there are plenty to choose from. As someone who works mostly on the bakery and produce side of our Cambridge store, my highlight of the year was getting out of my usual routine to check out what is arguably the most sought after ham in the world – Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.
Back in November, Cambridge staffers were lucky enough to have a special, after-hours visit from our Jamón Ibérico producer Cinco Jotas (5J). 5J representatives Bryan and Paco spoke with us about the heritage breed “pata negra” (black hoof) pigs from southwestern Spain, which are raised for Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. These pigs are a unique example of the value of free-range, heritage breed meat production. The exceptional flavor of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is a direct result of both the unique breed of pig (Ibérico) and their humane, healthy lifestyle foraging acorns (bellota) in southwestern Spain’s cork and holm oak forests. This diet also gives the ham a high oleic acid content, making it perhaps the only charcuterie product to help reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering “bad” cholesterol and helping promote good cholesterol.
As we tasted this remarkable jamón, Maestro Jamonero Paco shared with us his own journey to 5J. Although his family is from the same region as Ibérico de Bellota, Paco’s interest in jamón wasn’t piqued until the shut down of the small Spanish government outpost he worked at in Miami, followed by a casual invitation to hand-slice ham for a friend in the US. Slicing ham is a Spanish tradition, like American backyard barbecuing, but Paco had no idea he was actually being asked to demonstrate ham-carving technique to a score of America’s top chefs. Seeing his region’s tradition of hand slicing meat in a new light, Paco set to work refining his technique, leading him finally to work with Ibérico de Bellota at 5J.
And, what a difference hand slicing makes! Always best served at room temperature, the carefully cleaved diamonds of ham that Paco cut for us were simultaneously hearty and delicate. Fitting perfectly on the tongue, Paco’s slices gave you a full flavor profile from the start as they practically dissolved in place — a beautiful example of a traditional food culture at its zenith.
Tasting was a real treat, but an added perk of this visit was the chance to try your hand slicing Ibérico under Paco’s careful eye. After talking with us about the different knives used for hand slicing a leg of jamón (for example, one for peeling back the protective outer layer of fat and one for navigating the crook of the bone), Paco gave us each a chance to slice a piece or two with his knives. While it’s certainly a stretch to say any of us were Maestro Jamoneros, slicing your own Ibérico is definitely an experience worth sharing.
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the assistant tea buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.