Adventures in Ridiculously High-Priced Ham
No, your eyes do no deceive you--this ham sells for $169.00 per pound, and I bought .13 pounds of it.
If you think Italians are the Europeans most obsessed with cured pork products, you'd be wrong. They can't hold a candle to the Spanish, who dry-cure an amazing wealth of hams and sausages. Some can be incredibly expensive. Step into Despana (308 Broome Street, 212-209-5050) and find a dozen cured hams, some of them still on a pig leg with the trotter attached, on carving stands that resemble medieval torture devices.
The torture device. Note the little metal cut-out of the pig under an oak tree.
Despana's most expensive ham is called pata negra (for its striking black hooves) or, more properly, jamon Iberico. The most renowned and costly of these is the jamon Iberico de Bellota, made from pigs who have feasted primarily on acorns in the southwest of Spain, and are a protected national treasure. Their hams are cured a whopping 36 months, which renders the flesh garnet in color, and the fat yellowish.
As you might have expected, jamon Iberico de Bellota was banned in the United States by the FDA, who are fond of banning completely wholesome products from other countries, while almost encouraging free-range salmonella here among American products. The ban was finally lifted in 2005, which is how I was able to buy this ridiculously expensive ham.
What does the ham taste like? Turn page to find out.
This is what $21.97 worth of ham looks like.
It's difficult to describe the flesh of the jamon Iberico de Bellota. After 36 months of curing, the flavor of the lean part of the ham unfolds in the mouth like a fine red wine--salty, funky, hammy, and sweet by turns. The real prize is the fat. It melts in your mouth like a pat of butter, leaving no residue but leaving a richness that makes you feel like you're standing under an acorn tree in Salamanaca. Splurge for an eighth of a pound of this ham, and you'll have a flavor experience unlike anything you've had before. And, of course, having spent the money, you'll have a story to tell your admiring friends.
Even a tiny swatch of the ham explodes with flavor. Note the fat striations and little flecks of fat.
Read about another high-priced ham, domestic culatello.
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