Hamming It Up
We were in Paris in October - W primarily for work, me ostensibly for a spot of les puces trawling in Saint Ouen. One afternoon, after a particularly brisk walk in the bracing cold, we returned to the hotel room and were greeted by the most surreal of sights.
There, propped up against the window sill, was an entire leg of jamón ibérico de bellota from that hallowed institution for hamlovers, Bellota-Bellota. For the hamlover, a visit to 18 rue Jean Nicot is akin to dying and going to cured piggy heaven. Inveterate hamlovers that we are, the vision of the leg jacketed in the signature blue-and-white zippered bag was swoon-inducing.
"Is this my early birthday present?" I asked tentatively as I planted an affectionate kiss on W's cheek.
"Nope; the concierge must have sent it up by mistake. Tell no one! We shall keep it!" replied W, half in jest.
Upon closer inspection of the attached card, it turned out to be an extravagantly generous gift from a good friend of W's. The card very simply and cheekily read "I laugh to imagine how you will bring it back...!!!" Thank you very much R, we have never had the pleasure of resolving a happier problem.
As we were departing for London early next morning, the only solution to that not-small conundrum was to buy extra luggage. Immediately. We legged it out of the hotel room pronto, practically sprinting, lest the shops close for the day on us, which they would do if we didn't hurry.
The ham made it home safe and sound in a new suitcase. The wonderful gift, however, was to remain untouched until Christmas, cocooned in its sleeper bag in a cool dark corner of the two-door refrigerator (all the shelves had to be removed from one side to accommodate the 7.75 kg behemoth).
You see, it dawned on me too late that quite aside from a new suitcase for carting the ham home, another essential bit of kit would be a ham stand, a jamonero, without which carving up the leg would be virtually impossible. To rectify this proverbial cart-before-horse scenario, the ham would have to wait for the ham stand; fortunately hams are good at waiting so long as they have a good resting spot.
Now, while I am as gleeful as the next kitchen gadget freak to have the perfect excuse for acquiring yet another new plaything, and I am not unresourceful when I want to locate something, this one proved more elusive to come by in this neck of the woods. After a fair bit of homework and asking around, my heart was set on the Jamotec J4P for various reasons, and a local importer of Spanish food products very kindly agreed to letting me place an indent order. To cut a long story short, the concurrent spate of Spanish airport troubles saw to it that my J4P never made it to me in time for the holiday season. Thankfully, the importer loaned me a spare jamonero they had (the one in these pictures) in the interim.
Since Christmas, we have been slowly but surely making inroads into the big and beautiful leg of jamón ibérico de bellota. Wont as I am to have eyes much larger than my stomach, even I realized it would take much more than the hearty appetites of two fully fledged greedy folk - try as they might - to demolish the ham, much less do the delicacy from Jabugo true justice. And so the plan was hatched - weekend after weekend of delirious jamón binges with friends coming over, fuelled by copious champagne and other libations, until the leg is spent and the bones can be lopped up for the stock pot.
As a result, we have had quite a bit of practice using a long slender ham knife at getting the slices right - very thin, and no more than 3 inches wide, all the better to savour the special taste and succulence of this prized cured meat. I must say the experience of a freshly rendered slice, all comely glisten, is vastly different from the conveniently pre-sliced, the pré-tranché, from a vacuum-sealed bag, good as the latter can be. And for the host, the other huge plus is being able to compare the gustatory qualities unique to each section of the jamón - chiefly, the maza versus the babilla versus the punta. How salt, time and the art of controlled spoilage can yield such tremendous complexity in what once used to be a mere leg of pork, albeit a black-hoofed one of noble pedigree, is truly magical. Maza slices have a delicate exquisiteness that's almost floral in character, while slices from the babilla have a nuttier taste, have a bolder, more muscular quality. As for slices from the punta, I am at a loss for appropriate superlatives, they are that astonishing.
The trick to keeping the jamón in good nick if you won't be able to finish it in one sitting is to pare off only as much skin and fat as surrounds the area you plan to slice. The fat should also be set aside and used to blanket the exposed/cut surface before assiduous clingwrapping to prevent drying out.