An education in ham
A LEG of ham used to be a noche buena staple in my grandmother’s home, and I remember it fondly as a whole leg, bone-in, ornamented with pineapple and cherries sweetened in thick syrup and harvested fresh from a can. An incision would be made on the brown skin covered with caramelized sugar, the knife cutting past a thin layer of white fat to reveal the soft, pink, tasty meat inside that carried hints of cinnamon, star anise, and other spices thrown into the pineapple juice used to boil the ham in, which was done to remove the salt and saltiness that went into its curing. Grown-ups referred to this as jamon de funda, referring to a time when imported hams did not come in plastic packaging but in a cotton sack, making them, more correctly, jamon en funda.
Although my mother was a Tagalog, she learned the ways of her Kapampangan in-laws, eventually outdoing them, knowing that the way to her husband’s heart was through his stomach. We had other hams in my mother’s pantry, like the tough and saltier Chinese ham. On trips to Hong Kong, I often accompanied her on the ferry trip from Kowloon, to wade into a maze of streets in Central that led to what she called the “Red China Store.” Here she bought the annual supply of pork and duck ham; my father preferred hickory-smoked Virginia ham, so that was always in ready supply.
During my first trip to Spain, my mother made me carry a whole leg of ham, bone-in, that she said was jamon Serrano, although I overheard her asking the butcher for “pata negra.”
All these childhood memories of ham came back very much like Proust, whose taste of a Madeleine at the tip of his tongue, filled a novel of seven volumes. My memory was exercised by a learning experience in Txanton, which claims to be the only jamoneria in Manila today. Txanton is not a restaurant; it is a Makati ham and wine store that serves and educates customers into the rarefied world of Spanish ham.
At Txanton we were served samplings of six types of jamon: reserva, iberico, guijuelo, extremadura, huelva and pedroches. Even before you tasted a slice, you could see distinct differences in color, aroma, texture and the flecks of intramuscular fat we know by a better name—marbling. And to test the quality of the ham, you take a small amount of fat and roll it between your fingers—if good, it melts into liquid; if bad, it forms a ball like “kulangot” which is best discarded with a deft flick of the index finger and not consumed.
The samplings included three types of Spanish ham. While labeled reserva, the jamon Serrano, made from the white pig and cured for 18 months in high altitudes or mountains (sierra), was lowest in the quality scale. (Those labeled gran reserva passed through at least 36 months of curing.)
Much better was iberico, which was from a black Iberian pig cured for 24 months.
But the best was the fancier iberico de bellota which was made from a black Iberian pig that fed on acorns (bellota), and cured for 36 months. The ugly black Iberian pigs look different from the white local ones we slaughter for lechon, and from the cute ones that starred in the movie “Babe.” The ibericos are the kontrabida in Disney cartoons; they have darker skin, and black feet (pata negra), and they resemble their ancestors the wild boars.
Txanton provides four high-grade hams that are of denominated origin. The jamon iberico guijuelo from Salamanca in Northern Spain has well-marbled fat, is slightly sweet, soft and oily, which I liked best. The iberico bellota extremadura (from a place bordering on Andalucia) is the most aromatic; it is salty and mild. The iberico bellota huelva from Jabugo in Western Spain has grit and the sharpest flavor; it also leaves a lingering aftertaste. Finally, the iberico bellota pedroches from Cordoba in Eastern Spain, the least known in Manila, has a long-lasting finish; it made me feel I was part pork, part human after dinner.
The label jamon iberico de bellota assures that the ham was made following a long and rather complicated process that begins with piglets being fattened on a diet of cereals, till they are 18 months old; then, from these piglets a group is chosen to graze through the last three months of their lives in oak and olive groves, where they feed on acorns during the montanara or acorn-dropping season from October to January or March. To be certified as jamon iberico de bellota, it must come from a pig that must weigh a minimum of 160 kilograms. Strict regulations in some regions prescribe that no more than two pigs should graze per hectare to assure that they consume 6 to 7 kilos of acorns. Like olives, acorns contain the oleic acid that gives the ham its distinct flavor, such that some Spaniards refer to the iberico as “olives with legs.” So revered are these pigs that they are not “slaughtered”; in Spanish, they are “sacrificed” in a way that spares them the least stress.
In the past, my sole criteria for a good ham was the oiliness and the sheen on the meat when expertly and manually carved paper-thin from the bone. After the jamon-tasting at Txanton, I will never look at Spanish ham the same way again, and will now eat it with reverence and appreciation. Only hind legs go into jamon iberico de bellota.
My next food research will look for the rest of the pig parts and the food products made from them. I was mistaken to think sushi was the most refined and the most complicated of foreign food; now I have jamon iberico de bellota to my ever-growing list of culinary experiences.
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