Last night we had a conversation over dinner about France being the classic, revered old-world haute cuisine, but no longer the top of the heap. The new giant, in my (Spanish) host’s opinion, is Spain. Clearly there’s some bias there, but I have to say that I am wowed, and am learning a lot in a very short time.
Last night’s dinner was at home, and simple. Rioja, salad, sliced bread, cheeses and dried meats. This was referred to as “cold cuts,” though I’ve never seen anything less like a cold cut in my life. And they key ingredient is the ham.
I’m in Salamanca, the Castille region, which is known for producing the very best ham in a ham country. In the market of about 20 booths, 12 to 15 sell dried meats, and all of those sell the iconic jamón ibérico legs that look about like a caveman club, and can cost up to 300 euros. The reason for the price? First of all, it lasts for months. Second of all, these black pigs are carefully raised, fed almost exclusively the acorns that grow in the region, and they run around happily in a field until killing time. The jam is then dried and cured for months or years.
It’s amazing. Not salty, not honey ham or slimy, not dry like sausage or chewy like jerky. It’s tender and has a robust flavor, and would pair as well with a fancy tapas dish as it did with our coffee table picnic. I don’t even EAT ham in the United States. This ham is so good that you can sign up for classes to learn how to cut it properly, but you’ll have to shell out 400 euros to do it.
Sadly, I cannot transport this magical treat to all my friends in the States. What I DO suggest is having a ham party worth spending $200 to ship some ham for a bunch of people. Or if you’re in New York, you can buy it at shops like Murray’s Real Salami and try it at the table at tapas joints like Pata Negra, another name for jamon iberico. Full rumor list here.