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