The Best Ham in the world
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The Best Ham in the world

Amid commercial plasticky slices, how do you get a ham that tastes of nothing else but the most delicately piggy flavour?

brunch Updated: Oct 27, 2017 14:09 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
ham,jamon iberico,Parma ham
The Spanish countryside, where the pigs run wild(Getty Images)

Do you find the term ‘ham’ at all evocative? My guess is that you don’t. Even if you are a non-vegetarian and not prohibited from enjoying ham for religious reasons, the truth is that Indians don’t really have much time for pork.

There are few great pork dishes in India’s Hindu cuisines (perhaps the pandi curry of Coorg is an exception), and almost every pork dish of note comes from Christian cuisines: the Portuguese-inspired sausages and vindaloos of Goa, the great pork dishes of Syrian-Christian cuisine and many delightful but sadly under-recognised pork dishes from the North East.

One consequence of this is that there is no market for good quality pork in India. With the exception of the Oberoi Delis, Indian pork sausages are uniformly mediocre. Indian bacon can be watery. And as for Indian ham, the quality is so poor that it may be the primary reason why the term ‘ham’ is not at all evocative.

Most countries have reduced ham to just a filling for a ham and cheese sandwich (Shutterstock)

To be fair, the problems with ham quality are a global phenomenon. All over the world (with the exception of parts of Europe and curiously, China), ham has become nothing more than a filling. You put cubes of ham inside an omelette. You place a slice of plasticky ham with one of processed cheese between two slices of bread to make a ham and cheese sandwich. And so on. Rarely, if ever, do you enjoy ham in its own or treat it as a delicacy.

The Chinese may well be the only Asians who understand ham. They invented their own centuries ago, quite independent of the West and they use ham to flavour many of their dishes. One way of making an outstanding fried rice is to use ham. The fat from the pork and the salt that was used to cure the ham will escape during the cooking process and cover every grain of rice with a casing of flavour.

One way of making an outstanding fried rice by the Chinese is to use ham (Shutterstock)

And then there are the hams of the West. I am not a lover of those American-style hams where a layer of smoke is thrust on top of the meat and an additional sweet flavour is introduced. I am sure many people like ham that is hickory-smoked, but I believe that ham should taste of itself, not of smoke and sugar.

So how do you get a ham that tastes of nothing else but the most delicately piggy flavour?

I am sure many people like ham that is hickory-smoked, but I believe that ham should taste of itself, not of smoke and sugar

Well, first of all, you have to understand the process of creating ham. The best (and some would say, the only real) ham comes from the hind legs of the pig. Centuries ago, humans discovered that while all meat can be spoiled by bacteria, you can inhibit the action of these bacteria if you use salt. Salt allows you to extend the life of meat (or fish) by years. It extracts the water from the pork and converts the proteins into amino acids. This transformation of the proteins creates the taste that characterises ham.

Most commercial hams are made quickly from any old pig and taste of very little except for salt and a vague sense of pigginess. But there are parts of the world where they take ham seriously. The English have Wiltshire ham. The Germans have their Black Forest ham. The French brag about ham from Bayonne. And the Italians have made ham from Parma world famous.

Italy’s Parma ham is quite famous but is vastly inferior in quality (Shutterstock)

But the best ham is the world has been, until a decade or so ago, largely unknown outside of its country of origin.

In Spain, ham is not a piece of cured meat. It is a religion.

There are many kinds of ham in Spain. The basic ham (jamon dulce) is a sandwich ham that is better than hams from most of the world but is not particularly special. Then, there is jamon serrano, which is what most of the world thinks of as Spanish ham, which is excellent. It is salt-cured for two years so that its flavours develop over time. Serrano is easily the equal of the great hams of Germany, France or Italy.

Spanish ham jamon serrano is the equal of the great hams of Germany, France or Italy (Shutterstock)

Spain’s claim to the world’s best ham, however, is based on what is called jamon iberico. This comes from a breed of pigs descended from wild boar who have black feet. (It is also sometimes called pata negra or black-leg ham).

An iberico pig is usually allowed to roam free through the countryside till its final months when it is fattened up on a diet of fallen acorns. Those final months are crucial: the pig gains between 50 to 75 per cent of its body weight during the last two months of its life. Pigs fed on a rigidly-supervised diet of acorns give us the greatest ham, jamoniberico de bellota. (The bellota in the name refers to the acorns.)

The iberico pig has a God-given ability to filter fat through its muscles. If you look at a slice of jamon iberico, you will note that it sweats the moment it is exposed to air – there is so much fat coming through. When you eat it, the taste is unusually complex: it is a little like normal ham with salt and sweetness but there is a deep flavour that is almost impossible to describe.

The country’s jamon iberico is claimed to be the world’s best ham and comes from a breed of pigs that descended from wild boar who have black feet (Shutterstock)

That flavour takes three or four years to develop during which time the legs of ham are kept (after salting) in special temperature and humidity controlled rooms. An expert will decide when each leg is mature enough to go out to the market. And ideally, a restaurant or a butcher will slice the leg just before serving so you get a thin slice of complex richness which has just begun to sweat its fat out.

So why is this ham so little-known outside of Spain? Till a decade or so ago, or so Spaniards claim, the French and the Italians kept it out of the world market. The US banned its import and only relented around 2004. And in much of the world, the phrase ‘Spanish ham’ usually means serrano.

But nobody who has eaten jamon iberico can forget the taste. The great French chef Joel Robuchon struck a blow for jamon iberico when he discovered it at the start of this century and began serving it as a delicacy at his restaurants. Later, when Spanish chefs became the new global superstars, they took their jamon with them wherever they went.

French chef Joel Robuchon discovered jamon iberico and began serving it at his restaurants (Getty Images)

Iberico is not cheap. Reasonable quality jamon iberico will cost around US $ 200 to $ 300 a kilo and prices tend to rise sharply for better qualities. This is around four times the price of Italy’s Parma ham, which is much more famous but is vastly inferior in quality.

Fortunately, you don’t need to eat lots of iberico. A packet of say, 100 grams, is more than enough for two people. Drink a dry sherry or a good wine (the Spanish drink red; I prefer white) with it and keep some bread (or toast with olive oil and garlic rubbed on it) handy. That’s all you need for a terrific foodie experience.

I am guessing you will get jamon iberico at good hotels in India. But it’s only a matter of time before people start importing it for speciality food stores and delis as well.

With ham this good, you would be crazy not to try it. The problem is: once you have tried it, all other ham will seem crudely inferior.

From HT Brunch, October 22, 2017

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First Published: Oct 21, 2017 22:36 IST