User's Guide

The Ham That Drives Men Mad

The coin of the realm.Photograph by Melissa Hom
New York Magazine has gone Spain-crazy this week. Adam Platt sates his bottomless hunger at Boqueria, and Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld interview Spain’s most illustrious chef, Ferran Adrià of El Bulli. Let Grub Street pile on, then, with talk of the secret society of Spanish pork.

This society may be unofficial, but we belong to it. It is made of men and women who have tasted the meat of the celebrated pata negra, or black-foot pig, and will do anything for more. “Once you taste ibérico, you can’t compare it to anything else,” Bar Jamón chef Andy Nusser has said. The society’s holy grail, though, remains tantalizingly out of reach for Americans — even ones with a deep affinity for Spain.

That would be the jamón ibérico de bellota. It was approved for importation to America last year — but it takes three years to cure and age under the conditions dictated for its Stateside distribution. It’s the ultimate pork product. And no one in America can get it until 2008. “I have waited all my life for this moment. I will have tears in my eyes,” Eric Ripert told the New York Post recently.

Not everyone is content to wait. One august food-world figure had someone send him legal Italian proscuitto, into which a friend had shuffled the good stuff. A wine importer once kept slices of the ham, wrapped in Cryovac, rolled up inside a boot within a suitcase during a flight.

We are determined to taste this meat, by any means necessary. We will report back when we do.

Meanwhile, Grub Street has had some recent brushes with lesser but still mind-bendingly good types of pata-negra pork. The Underground Gourmet had occasion to sample a special kind of dry-cured pork sausage, salchichón ibérico de bellota, made from the same acorn-gorged black-foot pigs as the jamón ibérico de bellota but only aged a few months. At the recent “Spain’s 10” event, we got to try a lesser version of the salchichón. Its distributor in the U.S., a suave, long-maned fellow named Zeke Freeman, gave us a type from hogs that had rustled around in the woods, eating whatever they felt like. It was velvety and transporting, the most potent thing we’d eaten that week. Could the stuff R&R; had really be that much better? Yes, Zeke told us: “It’s big, rich, nutty, and musty, much more so than what you tried.” Just imagine, then, how the jamón ibérico de bellota must taste.

The Ham That Drives Men Mad