Approximately 3.7 million pigs perished or disappeared in the earthquake of Szechuan, China in May. This statistic greatly saddened me, as I realized the agricultural and economic toll it took on villages and farmers (the Chinese are the world’s largest consumer of pork). And, honestly, I really adore pigs. They may be loud and may prefer mud over human companionship, but they’re noble creatures, and gentle most of the time.
Now let’s imagine if this magnitude of loss had happened in Southern Spain, the home of the famed black-footed pigs, that are turned into prized hams- jamón ibérico de bellota. Unlike their American counterparts, who are strictly fed grains and other feed, these Spanish piggies are let free to roam outside, feeding primarily on wild acorns that are indigenous to the region. As a result, their flesh retains a high degree of marbling of fat, attributing to its nutty and meaty flavor. Can you imagine the financial losses?
I had the occasion, not to mention the luck, to taste the rich and fatty cold cut last summer in southwestern Spain. My dad unveiled a small package wrapped in butcher paper, purchased at a local specialty deli. He and I oooed and ahhhed at the thin, streaky slices of meat while my mom took a peek and turned her nose at us, asking “what’s the big deal about ham?” More for us. And thus our lunch that day consisted of 8 slices of jamón ibérico de bellota, duck pate, crusty white bread, and some local beers.
The flavor was like nothing I’ve ever had before, barely even reminiscent of prosciutto di parma. It was deeply nutty, with obvious hints of woody acorns and hazelnuts, very little salt, and a subtle gamey finish. The streaks of fat seemed to melt on my tongue, while the leaner portion was surprisingly toothsome. It was like the first time I tasted Kobe beef or my first bite of fatty toro– divine. And thus is the innate human response to fat. We like it. Dad and I tried to devise plans of sneaking a pound of two back through Customs, but never had the wit or balls to do so.
Never fear, this much sought-after jamón, as of this week, has been approved by the USDA, and is available in the U.S. through a small number of purveyors. At specialty online stores like La Tienda and HotPaella, enthusiasts were allowed in previous weeks to put down a deposit of $150-$199 to reserve their 15-lb full-size hind leg, with the final cost totaling to $1400. That works out to be about $94 per pound. You can also purchase in store, at specialty butcher shops and delis (like Dean and Deluca, but not through their online store) and certain restaurants as well.
Personally, my purse pockets are no where deep enough to support such a diet, but I do recommend everyone to at least have a taste. At the bare minimum, you can say, with confidence, that you’ve eaten the world’s most expensive slice of ham.