Operation: Ham Fisted
I don't really get how certain foods reach near mythical status. Sometimes it’s a matter of price such as with luxury ingredients like kobe beef or black truffles. Other times it’s a n issue of scarcity. Up until recently, mangosteens, Sichuan peppercorns and raw milk cheese were verboten in the U.S. (I think we’ve loosened up on the first two). Jamon iberico falls into both camps, making it extra attractive for carnivorous thrill seekers.
Jamón Iberico de Bellota, essentially ham from black footed Iberian pigs that have been fed on acorns (bellota) is supposedly the shit. Americans are putting down $200 deposits now to get their meat hooks on FDA approved $1,200 hams that won’t be ready for eating until 2008. I’m not that crazy (or loaded). I am curious if it's indivuals or restaurants that are going this whole ham route.
I’m very much a non-foodie (is there a grosser word? Mirth and wound are also two uglies) or else I would’ve researched D.O.’s (denominaciones de origen) bought from a specialty shop like Jamonisimo. But the vacuum packed €84/kg jamon from Can Via at the Boqueria (above left photo) was sufficient for me. We got 600 grams, a little over a pound, for about $65, if I’m doing the math right. It’s not as if my palate is so advanced that it would shun a more pedestrian jamon.
The fun was more in deciding how we’d get our half kilo back to NYC undetected. Just tossing the plastic-clad lump of meat into a suitcase seemed like asking for trouble. And after the terrorist scare started hitting the news, we got more nervous. If even breast milk was suspect, what hope was there for an innocent ham?
We committed total blasphemy and butchered our little porcine prize with a 99-cent type store (who knew they had these Brooklyn staples in Barcelona?) pocketknife that we paid €3 for. Hand carving is prized over machine cut jamon—here’s the proper way to do it—but I don’t think our man handling would come recommended from anyone. Rather than nicely balanced sheer strips, we sheared off irregular wedges with fat blobs in weird places. I'm sure the hotel housekeeping staff loved us.
First, we ate a bunch with a loaf of bread. Not only am I not a foodie, I’m not much of a food writer either. I can’t describe how food tastes to save my life. I like writing about eating, but delving deeply into flavors and nuances of taste is tricky. I’m shallow. Yes, the ham was earthy–how about that for cop out food description shorthand? It’s better than “interesting,” right? There was a faint sweetness, jamon isn’t salty like prosciutto at all. As for the acorns that I was likely supposed to be experiencing, that’s debatable since I’m not sure that I even know what acorns taste like. Who’s eaten an acorn? Maybe nutty would be a better overarching term. Eating jamon iberico is like dealing with an annoying bug bite that you vow to only scratch one last time and then keep compulsively going back to. One slice will inevitably lead to four more. At least instead of resulting in raw, bloody skin, you merely end up full of ham.
Then we got to work stuffing the rest into 12” or so lengths of bread, simulating bocadillos that we’d bought the evening before from Bocatta, a fast food chain. We’d saved the sleeves the original sandwiches came in for this nefarious purpose. After sticking our hacked Spanish sandwiches into the paper wrappers, we had a close approximation of a store bought sandwich. James and I each wrapped one in a plastic bag and packed it in our own suitcases. Perhaps if one of us got nabbed, the damage might be softened by keeping the two separate, like how the royal family can’t fly in the same plane (is that even true?).
Operation: Ham Fisted was a smashing success. I ended up salvaging the porky bits and plastic bagging them up, which I’m sure also breaks some sort of purist rule. Ignorance can be bliss. I ate the last tiny remainder last night and relished it since it was the only souvenir I brought back from Spain. It was certainly beat an Olympic stadium magnet.