The best hams from Italy and Spain are reach­ing our ta­bles, thanks to new im­port rules, writes Ju­dith Elen

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

YOU could say pork is the flavour of the mo­ment. Ironic, re­ally, for such an an­cient food. There are a hand­ful of rea­sons for the sud­den spot­light. The most di­rect is a change in im­port leg­is­la­tion. The Span­ish have been cur­ing ham since an­cient Ro­man times, as have the Ital­ians (Cato wrote about it circa 100BC), and now we are al­lowed to savour Ital­ian and Span­ish hams in Aus­tralia.

The sig­nif­i­cant re­lax­ation of our im­port laws — first for some un­pas­teurised cheeses such as ro­que­fort, in 2005, last July for Span­ish ja­mon and since Novem­ber for Ital­ian pro­sciutto — comes in a cli­mate of in­tense in­ter­est in tra­di­tional foods and their au­then­tic orig­i­nals. The de­mand had to be there for a small num­ber of im­porters to work hard and for the laws to fi­nally be soft­ened.

Such changes have not hap­pened overnight. In­flu­enced by travel and im­mi­gra­tion, Aus­tralians are knowl­edge­able and de­mand­ing about foods of the world, a self-ed­u­ca­tion that has been de­vel­op­ing for more than 30 years. Add to this the West’s hunger and thirst for re­gional, hands-on food prepa­ra­tion in re­ac­tion to a glob­alised world of fast food, same­ness and mass pro­duc­tion. What could be more rus­tic than tra­di­tion­ally farmed pork?

Stephane Rey­naud’s bib­li­cal tome Pork & Sons , a paean to the pig in its myr­iad man­i­fes­ta­tions on the plate, also came out here ear­lier this year, stir­ring in­ter­est in pork’s rus­tic Euro­pean tra­di­tions and feed­ing the deep nos­tal­gia so many of us have for time-hon­oured ways of eat­ing.

There is no dis­crep­ancy, by the way, be­tween the no­tion of re­gional food (which is about fresh­ness and sea­son­al­ity) and the prac­tice of im­port­ing spe­cial­ties. Both Span­ish and Ital­ian hams have pe­cu­liar­i­ties that can­not be re­pro­duced with dif­fer­ent pigs, in dif­fer­ent cli­mates, us­ing dif­fer­ent tech­niques.

The Span­ish ja­mon we are able to buy here is of two kinds: ser­rano (moun­tain ham) and iberico (Ibe­rian), and the best of th­ese is ja­mon iberico de bel­lota (acorn iberico) from pigs fat­tened ex­clu­sively on acorns.

But let’s go back to the be­gin­ning. The first thing that makes ja­mon iberico unique is the Ibe­rian pig, found only in the Ibe­rian Penin­sula. The prime re­gion for th­ese prod­ucts is south­west­ern Spain and small ar­eas across the border in Por­tu­gal.

The pigs are of­ten black, giv­ing this supreme ja­mon its familiar name in Spain: pata ne­gra , or black hoof. They are 14 to 20 months old when killed and weigh 160kg to 170kg. They have led a rel­a­tively long, calm life, rang­ing freely and eat­ing well. This is the sec­ond point about the Ibe­rian pigs: their diet.

Iberico ham is graded in three cat­e­gories ac­cord­ing to the pigs’ diet. From our point of view they start at lus­cious and range to the sub­lime: ja­mon iberico de pienso is fed en­tirely on grain; ja­mon iberico de re­cebo has a free-range diet of acorns, grain and pas­ture for­ag­ing and is fat­tened to its fi­nal 20kg to 30kg with grain; and ja­mon iberico de bel­lota, the pin­na­cle of Span­ish pork, is fed in its fi­nal stage, from 90kg to 165kg, on acorns and nat­u­ral pas­ture.

The Ibe­rian pig is a spe­cial race, ac­cord­ing to Javier Degen, of Broad­way Gourmet in Syd­ney, im­porter with his wife Emily Tsang of iberico de bel­lota. Orig­i­nally a lean pig, its acorn diet, free-range habits and age en­able it to fat­ten and for the fat to be­come stri­ated through its flesh and in­fil­trate the mus­cles. It is a ge­netic qual­ity, Degen tells me, the flesh en­cased in a layer of fat, the first stage of stor­age, and then the mar­bling process be­gins.

The acorn diet gives the meat a sub­tle nutty flavour and the mar­bled fat in­flu­ences taste and tex­ture. Iberico de bel­lota seems to dis­solve on the tongue: it is a rich, rosy colour, threaded with fine fat, and with its light salti­ness tastes to me, at mo­ments, like an ex­tremely sub­tle blue cheese.

But what of that fat? It’s so fatty, iberico de bel­lota has an in­verted ‘‘ um­brella’’ sus­pended be­neath it when it’s hung to col­lect the fat, which drips like oil. How­ever, the Ibe­rian pig trans­forms a large pro­por­tion of its fat into oleic acid (mono-un­sat­u­rated fatty acid, sim­i­lar to fish or olive oil). And there is also the way the ham is eaten: the pa­pery slices in which it is served are del­i­cate and sub­tle on the tongue and light for the body to digest.

Ja­mon ser­rano is pro­duced from white pigs raised in the moun­tains and has spe­cial qual­i­ties be­cause of this. The ham is cured by bury­ing it in sea salt for 14 to 22 months, then hang­ing it in the rafters in the pure moun­tain air. Ser­rano is con­sid­ered sec­ondary to iberico de bel­lota, but the dis­tinc­tion is sub­tle.

The best ja­mons, Degen says, are served at room tem­per­a­ture with noth­ing but good bread, a lit­tle olive oil and per­haps a glass of Span­ish sherry.

Mean­while, Ital­ian pro­sciutto has been en­thu­si­as­ti­cally wel­comed here for the past six months, not least by our ac­tive Ital­ian com­mu­ni­ties. At the Syd­ney Ital­ian Fes­ti­val (end­ing on Mon­day), chef Mas­simo Spi­garoli, visit­ing from Parma in north­ern Italy, gave a se­ries of pro­sciutto work­shops at Ven­tuno restau­rant at Dar­ling Har­bour, where par­tic­i­pants tasted pro­sciutto di parma and pro­sciutto di san daniele, both avail­able here.

Spi­garoli’s great-grand­fa­ther, in the 19th cen­tury, pre­pared pro­sciutto for com­poser Giuseppe Verdi (also born in Parma). I watched him slide his rapier-thin knife across the sur­face of the pro­sciutto, pro­duc­ing pale curls of pink ham that fell in soft piles. Like the Span­ish ja­mon, pro­sciutto must be im­ported into Aus­tralia with the bone re­moved, not the tra­di­tional way of serv­ing it. (‘‘The bones are left in Italy’’, the chef ex­plained: our im­port reg­u­la­tions are not en­tirely re­laxed.)

Pro­sciutto-pro­duc­ing pigs eat maize and whey. The flesh is pale, moist and sweet, san daniele slightly darker and a lit­tle drier to the taste than parma.

They are both pro­duced and pro­cessed ac­cord­ing to the strict reg­u­la­tions of their con­sor­tium. Like ap­pel­la­tion con­trolee wines, they are re­gional. Parma is in Emilia- Ro­magna, be­tween Tus­cany and the Veneto. Parmi­giano-Reg­giano cheese and bal­samic vine­gar also come from this re­gion. The 13th­cen­tury lin­tel above the main door of Parma’s cathe­dral traces the months of the year, the slaugh­ter of a pig for the month of Novem­ber.

There are im­por­tant iden­ti­fi­ca­tion marks on a leg of pro­sciutto. Stamps im­pressed into the skin of the ham (on the back of the leg for parma ham, for san daniele on the front), show the date pro­cess­ing be­gan, the con­sor­tium of the com­pany that pro­duced it, the breeder of the pork and the re­gion, and where the pig was butchered. Even the live pig is branded af­ter 20 days, iden­ti­fy­ing it as a pig that will be pro­duced ac­cord­ing to the strict reg­u­la­tions of the con­sor­tium.

The best way to taste the pro­sciutto, Spi­garoli says, is to eat a slice whole, meat and fat to­gether. The heavy skin is care­fully re­moved from the leg be­fore slic­ing, but not the fat, which has the best flavour.

At the chef’s work­shop, we eat pro­sciutto on wood-fired piz­zas, but the ham is piled in fine curls on top of the cooked pizza. Like ja­mon, the best pro­sciutto should not be cooked but served at room tem­per­a­ture, when it is soft and filmed with fat, its del­i­cate flavour fully de­vel­oped.

Our first taste is with sliced melon and a glass of Italy’s fruity, sparkling prosecco. We taste a fig wrapped in pro­sciutto with gor­gonzola, a salad of raw ham with herbed chick­peas and an­other with pear and rocket.

Ital­ian pro­sciutto, Degen says, can ‘‘ reach the best ja­mon ser­rano’’ in qual­ity but can­not equal iberico. A fel­low par­tic­i­pant in the pro­sciutto work­shop, a Si­cil­ian, tells me that when pro­sciutto sold out in her city del­i­catessen, she was of­fered, and bought, ja­mon in­stead. What­ever your taste, both are wel­come ad­di­tions to the tra­di­tional foods avail­able to us, part of the process that is in­clud­ing us at the ta­bles of the world.

And watch out next year for Spi­garoli’s cu­latello di zi­bello, which is go­ing through im­por­ta­tion pro­ce­dures. It is said to be the Fer­rari of prosci­ut­tos. Ask your del­i­catessen for Ital­ian and Span­ish hams. Parma and san daniele prosci­ut­tos avail­able in Vic­to­ria, South Aus­tralia, NSW and Queens­land. Im­porters and dis­trib­u­tors:

Qual­ity Cen­tre Food Ser­vices, 9 Short St, Auburn, NSW Vec­chiet Small­go­ods, Lis­more, NSW Gulli Whole­salers, Kemps Creek, NSW Imma & Mario’s Mer­cato, South Aus­tralia Visco Se­lected Fine Food, Queens­land Sa­pori In­ter­na­tional, Vic­to­ria For ja­mon iberico de bel­lota in NSW, Vic­to­ria, Queens­land and West­ern Aus­tralia: www.broad­way­gourmet.com.

Ham­ming it up: Sam­pling pro­sciutto in Parma, top; plenty of fat, plenty of flavour in pro­sciutto, above left, and ja­mon, above right

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