Monday, July 27, 2009

It Ain't Just Ham

Jamon Iberico is undoubtedly the world's most prized ham, the caviar or truffle of hams, and it's only been available in the U.S. for about 18 months. It's probably been available in the U.K. somewhat longer, and it was during my recent trip to London that I first sampled it.

Also known as "Pata Negra," Jamon Iberico comes from a black pig of Spain that is allowed to roam free for much of its time on earth and feed on acorns (the different grades of the ham depend on the length of the free roaming and pure acorn-feeding periods). For more specific details on grades of the ham as well as its history, follow the links in the first paragraph.

At El Pirata de Tapas, in the Bayswater section of London, an order of the Gran Reserva (the top-of-the-line acorn-fed "Iberico de Bellota") goes for 17 pounds (about $28 at the current exchange rate). I'd guess a full order is no more than an eighth of a pound. Luckily for me, since I was eating alone and did want to try a few other things, they were happy to make me a half order (see photo at top). It was rich, surrounded by and veined with fat, giving it an overall sheen, a little chewy, with a nutty, profound aged flavor. As good as Jamon Serrano (the Spanish ham that's similar to prosciutto, only better) is, this is a different animal, literally and figuratively. A little goes a long way. One savors it, one doesn't scarf Jamon Iberico.

But there's more to El Pirata de Tapas than just Pata Negra. I ordered two additional tapas. One was the Spanish national snack, the tortilla Espanola, the potato egg omelette/pie. Most tapas bars in Spain and the U.S. serve you a slice of a larger tortilla, but El Pirata makes an individual "runny egg" version.

To tell the truth, though I appreciate the care with which it was prepared, I actually prefer the firmer, more common form of tortilla (which is generally served warm, not hot, as it isn't cooked to order). The El Pirata tortilla was rather bland and required the addition of salt and pepper.

But the sublime seared sea scallops more than made up for any fault in the tortilla.

They were served with a delicious puree of artichoke hearts, augmented by Iberian pancetta, and garnished with artichoke stems (which are quite delicious themselves). This dish would surely make my tapas top ten. I had been waffling between the scallops and the pork cheeks, and maybe I should have pushed the limits of my hunger and gone for both. As I was paying my bill I told the waiter how fabulous the scallops were, and asked him if he'd tried them. "Yes," he said, "I've tried everything." I asked him what his favorites were. "The Pata Negra, of course, and the pork cheeks."

El Pirata de Tapas has a fabulous deal at lunch: two tapas and a glass of wine for only 9 pounds. But you won't find any scallops or pork cheeks on that menu. And you certainly won't find any Jamon Iberico.

If you find yourself in London and you're looking to pick up some Jamon Iberico for a lavish picnic, you'll want to stop by the Brindisa stand at the Borough Market, where the knowledgeable staff on hand can explain everything and give you a little taste. They carry a range of Spanish products and charcuterie. Just outside the market is their restaurant, Tapas Brindisa (they have other locations in London too), where you can have a sit-down lunch, or if you're there before 11 on a Friday through Sunday you can have a nice Spanish breakfast. When I went for breakfast I had the Joselito shoulder and eggs.

Joselito is one of the most renowned producers of Jamon Iberico, and the shoulder cut is less pricey than the ham (by about a third). The plate came with a generous serving, and along with the eggs provided proper fortification for an arduous session of food ogling (and sampling) at the market.


Blogger fredk said...

Jose Andres and Iberico pork -

1:34 AM  

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