Friday, October 12, 2007
How to Pick a Good Ham
Before I left for Spain, I had a friend say to me, “You know, my friend So-and-So didn’t really like the food in Spain.” To which I replied, “But she doesn't eat pork!” And my friend had to agree that So-and-So would probably not be the best judge of food in Spain.
Spain is famous for its jamón, or ham, giant hind legs of the pig, complete with hoof, that you see hanging everywhere. The hoof, I’ve learned, is attached to the leg for an important reason, but I’ll get to that later. The first time I saw them displayed, I got very excited and started taking pictures, but the sight of them is almost passé to me now. Eating them, of course, will never be passé.
Anne and I arrived in Barcelona on Monday afternoon and stayed in Barcelona proper for two nights before heading to Vilafranca del Penedés, a town of about 35,000 people an hour outside of Barcelona, where our friend Mao-Mei lives with her Catalan husband, Isaac. (I’m going to have to go back and write more about Madrid.) Barcelona immediately felt very different from Madrid—warmer, both in terms of temperature and attitude, and very open, with its Paris-like wide boulevards as beautiful and as striking as the medieval warren of streets of the the Barri Gotic. The Moderniste architecture by Gaudi and others adds an immediately whimsical feel to the city, but Anne and I may also like Barcelona so much because after all the churches and castles of Madrid, we took a bike tour and a cooking class in Barcelona.
The cooking class included a market tour of La Boqueria, the oldest market in Barcelona and the most famous. Located right off the Ramblas, the main thoroughfare as touristy as Times Square but more attractive, La Boqueria draws a lot of tourists as well. But it’s also a real, functioning market. I saw one butcher showing off pictures of her granddaughter to a regular, and as Bego, our teacher pointed out, you could see the changes in Spanish society by the new stands focused on Asian or Latin American ingredients. I even saw a Korean stand called “Macitta,” which means “delicious” in Korean, though they seemed mainly to sell a lot of prepared food and instant ramen.
For an American who glories in gory food, La Boqueria was heaven. There were chickens with their heads still on, heads of lambs complete with eyeballs, and skinned rabbits laid-out with their little butts facing up, like darling little sunbathers.
And the seafood! My God, when I think of the fish stands of your average American supermarket and how you can’t find a freakin’ whole fish. I saw big octopi with their tentacles spreading like blooming flowers, shiny little herrings, entire stands devoted to bacalao or salt cod, and funny fish heads that I almost wanted to talk to.
But the highlight of the market tour, to be sure, was when Bego explained how to pick a good ham. First, you get what you pay for. Second, the “pata negra” or the black hoof belongs to the best pigs, the black ones who feed on acorns and wander free-range in the Extremedura. This is what is called jamón iberico, and as it’s the priciest, you need to make sure that you are truly getting jam from a black pig. Show me the hoof! One seller we saw had a flat-screen TV showing his pigs, presumably, frolicking in the meadow.
Once the ham has been sliced through, you can look for things like a thick, white rather than yellow layer of fat around the ham. There should also be small white specks in the red part of the ham itself, as that indicates that it has been well-cured.
Once you have such a fine ham, Bego advised that it had to be served correctly, always at room temperature. If vacuum-packed, the ham should be opened for at least half an hour before serving.
When I asked how long a ham would last, Bego smiled and said, “It goes very fast.” But if you ration yourself, your ham can last as long as three months. You can leave it hanging out at room temperature, using the outer layer of fat to cover the cut area. I instantly had a beautiful image of a ham hanging from the ceiling in my Brooklyn kitchen, but can you imagine me trying to squeeze a giant leg of ham into my backpack? Dreams, sueños, dreams.