High-End Ham Has Its Heyday
by david hagedorn
If you think it strange to be awestruck by a piece of pork, you’ve never laid eyes on a fresh Ibérico de bellota rib chop in its raw state. Forget those ridiculous notions of “white meat” that Madison Avenue would have us believe; the only thing white about these pork chops is inch-thick caps of creamy fat and veins of lavish marbling that adorn the bright red flesh at their centers.
Ibérico pigs, also known as pata negra (“black hoof”) are a heritage breed indigenous to the south central Iberian Peninsula, particularly southwestern Spain. The finest of them, the Ibérico de bellota, live free-range, eat naturally occurring foods (like wild herbs and mushrooms), and spend their final months on the dehesa (oak forest pasture) eating only acorns. (Bellota is the Spanish word for acorn, hence the name.)
Chefs like José Andrés (Jaleo, Minibar, America Eats Tavern, Oyamel, et al.), Victor Albisu (formerly of BLT Steak), Javier Romero (La Taberna del Alabardero), and Haidar Karoum (Estadio, Proof) wax poetic about the highly prized and priced Ibérico de bellota pork, awarding it the same rarefied status as foie gras, Kobe beef, and otoro tuna.
Andrés teamed up with Santiago Martín of Fermin, the only producer of Ibérico ham in Spain with a USDA-approved slaughterhouse, to bring Ibérico pork products to the United States. Cured ham from Spain became available here just five years ago, but its reputation preceded it; the sought-after delicacy now figures prominently on restaurant charcuterie listings all over town, costing roughly twice as much as other prosciutti.
Fresh Ibérico pork, which became available here in 2007, is less widely known among chefs, but with Andrés, Albisu, Romero, and Karoum piping about it, others will surely follow. They speak in reverent tones about their favorite cuts (see sidebar) and of Ibérico de bellota’s richness, its resemblance in color to beef, and the need to cook it slowly and simply to medium rare so that the layers of intramuscular fat, rich in oleic acid, melt gently into the meat.
“The fat [produces] a pleasure in the mouth that compares almost to olive oil,” says Andrés. “You cannot say that about anything else, except for maybe foie gras.” Romero uses the same reference. “To me, it is the foie gras of pork,” he says. “And the cheeks, too. Braised for a long time, they become so tender, with the gelatin melting into the meat and thickening the sauce.”
Albisu speaks with the same kind of enthusiasm about the rib chops: “I love to herb-smoke them. I dry sprigs of rosemary, oregano, and thyme above the stove, then put them under the chop right after it has come off the grill. I light the herbs, put a bowl over the top, and let the smoke infuse the chop. The level of flavor that the smoke imparts is incredible.”
Expect to pay a premium price for Ibérico de bellota whether you purchase it in a restaurant or from Wagshal’s market in Spring Valley, its local distributor. The simply grilled secreto (shoulder) at Jaleo goes for $50. (The menu says it serves two to six people, but we say two.) That same cut goes for $28 a pound retail at Wagshal’s, where chops go for about $25 a pound and loin is in the $30 range. Even at those prices, butcher Pam Ginsberg creates new converts every day.
“There are people out there who have an appreciation for things that are really good and that they can’t find just anywhere,” she says. “They see all that fat in the Ibérico de bellota, and they think, This must be good. Once they get a taste of it, they’re hooked.” You will be, too.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY WILLIAM BRINSON; IBÉRICO HAM COURTESY OF WAGSHAL’S
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.