A vacation should be a vacation, don’t you think? I just got back from a trip to Spain where I spent two weeks eating solely>"/>
A vacation should be a vacation, don’t you think? I just got back from a trip to Spain where I spent two weeks eating solely for pleasure, with no thought of having to document a single bite. However, every vacation needs a few goals, and mine were naps, walks, and jamón ibérico de bellota.
Jamon ibérico is a kind of ham produced from black-footed pigs whose meat is air-cured for anywhere from two to four years. Jamon de bellota, the most expensive -- and yes, most delicious -- variety of jamon ibérico, comes from hogs fattened on autumn acorns for a few weeks before they are slaughtered. The process sounds so poetic you’d think it was a stunt cooked up by the National Ham Marketing Association of Spain.
You can’t buy jamon ibérico in the United States yet -- the American feds distrust the centuries-old process for curing the meat -- and when the first USDA-approved Spanish supplier begins exporting the ham to the states later this year, a leg of the acorn-fattened kind is projected to cost $1,200, once again turning the peasant food of Europe into an only-for-the-rich status snack.
In Spain, air-cured hams are everywhere, and just about every restaurant and bar has a few pork haunches hanging from the ceiling or displayed on stands, hoof up, which the cooks whittle down to order.
I had ambitions of taking a day trip from Seville to Jabugo, center of Andalucia’s jamon de bellota production, but my trip was quashed due to a screwup involving a European car rental website (here's a travel tip for you: stick to the major rental companies). I compensated by eating slices of jamon ibérico meticulously arranged on plates or served on toasted bread, in sandwiches, in croquettes, sautéed with beans, and just about every other way you can think.
It wasn’t until I went for a tasting at a ham boutique in Barcelona called Jamonisimo that I discovered that true connoisseurs don’t just differentiate between black-footed pigs and black-footed pigs fattened on acorns. There are even regional differences in the black-footed pigs fattened on acorns: The Andalucian ham that I tried in bar after bar in Seville had a pungency to its fat akin to the magnificent barnyard overtones of a raw-milk cheese. Salamanca hams are the mildest, with the most marbling of fat amid the meat. And the plate of jamon de bellota from Extremadura that the owner of Jamonisimo hand-sliced for me (from the "maza" section of the leg, I was told, and not the "bebilla" or the "punta" -- yes, they’re that specific) had the most distinctive acorn fragrance. It took me a good half hour to meditate my way through a small plate of Jamonisimo's jamon de bellota, each slice a prism of sweet, salty, meaty, nutty, musty flavors that dissolved and reappeared over and over again.
Most meat stores in Spain sell flats of shrink-wrapped sliced jamon ibérico that I've heard fit very nicely within a stack of books in one’s suitcase and even, it would appear, make it through the U.S. customs service’s X-ray machine if one gets shunted through the agricultural inspection station because one has idiotically declared that one has brought chocolate into the country.
But even that last ration of ham is likely to disappear within hours of making it back from the airport. As my own last bite melted on the tongue, I took solace in the fact that Seattle has some of the nation's most innovative, talented charcuteries. I may never have the chance to eat acorn-perfumed cured ham again, but a plate of mole salami is just a few blocks from the office.