When is a sandwich no longer a sandwich?
Posted on March 16, 2008 by Aun
When it is made with Jamon Iberico Bellota. If you’ve been fortunate enough to have had some of this stunning and expensive ham, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t been so lucky, you have no idea what you are missing.
Jamon Iberico Bellota is also often called Pata Negra, which translates as “black hoof” in Spanish. This is because the ham is made from Cerdo Iberico, or Black Iberian pigs. Most of it comes from Spain; there is also a small amount hailing from Portugal. There are actually 3 grades of ham made from these pigs. The lowest, simply called Jamon Iberico, is made from pigs that have been fed on grain. The middle, called Jamon Iberico de Recebo, is made from pigs fed on cereals and acorns. Jamon Iberico Bellota is the highest. These free-range pigs are first reared on corn and barley and then taken to forests to feed solely on acorns (hence the name — bellota means acorn). When most gourmands speak about Pata Negra, they are usually only referring to this highest grade of ham.
That said, only 5% of all Spanish hams qualify as (one of the three grades of) Jamon Iberico. Jamon Serrano is much cheaper and more common. While you often need to go to a gourmet purveyor or specialist for Jamon Iberico, you should be able to find Jamon Serrano in most supermarkets.
I first tasted this luxurious delicacy about a decade ago. A friend of a friend had brought some back from Spain and generously offered to serve some to us. Of course, back then, I didn’t know what it was. So, when he placed a plate of sliced ham on the dining room table, I was a little disappointed. Given how much our host had hyped his acquisition, I had expected something that looked a little more spectacular. Then I tasted it. And was totally blown away.
Since then, S and I have been hooked — one might even call us obsessed. The silly folks at the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore have still not approved the importation of Pata Negra, i.e. we can’t get it here in Singapore. That means that the only time we get to have some is when we travel or our friends travel. Fortunately, we have a good network of friends who love the stuff as much as we do and are always happy to carry back a pack for us.
Jamon Iberico Bellota is beautiful. It’s savory, sexy, slightly oily, and sinfully rich. Sliced thinly and served with some vintage Champagne, it is the perfect starter to an amazing dinner. Or plate it with some crusty bread and it’s a great and very special lunch.
My favourite place to eat (and buy) Pata Negra is Bellota-Bellota in Paris (18 rue Jean Nicot, 75007 Paris, Tel: 01 53 59 96 96). I really like that you can sample various versions of this prized ham from different farms and regions in Spain. What constantly amazes me is how different the hams taste. They come from the same breed of pigs, yet the hams have noticeable distinctions. Some are nuttier than others; others are a bit sweeter; while others are saltier or oilier.
Another amazing place to eat Jamon Iberico Bellota is L’Atelier de Robuchon. I once had lunch in the Paris branch and was witness to the most amusing exchange. Sitting to my left (at the counter) were three distinguished and mature gentlemen. The one in the middle was obviously the host. He was ordering for both himself and his friends. To start their meal, he had ordered a large platter of Pata Negra. When it was served, his friends were eager to tuck in right away. The host, however, had other ideas and quickly stopped his friends, explaining to them in the most serious manner that ham this good could only be enjoyed with the very best Champagne. He signalled to the restaurant’s sommelier and asked for a bottle of Dom Perignon. Glasses were placed on the counter and a bottle produced. The sommelier poured out a small taste for the host to sample. The gentleman’s guests kept staring at the Pata Negra. I swear that I think I saw one of them drool just a little. They were ready to pounce the second their glasses were going to be filled. But then, horror of all horrors, their host proclaimed that the DP wasn’t chilled enough. We would have to wait, he told his companions. And wait they did, for a good 20 minutes or so, while the bubbly reached the right temperature. Those 20 minutes must have been torture for the two guests. The Pata Negra platter was sitting in front of them the entire time, tempting them mercilessly. If it were me, I would have said, “cold Champagne be damned” and stuffed my face with the ham.
S and I have been very lucky recently. We’ve received several packets of Portuguese Pata Negra from some very dear friends who now live in Macau. This morning, we decided to devour one of them. S had bought some excellent, par-baked, French sesame-seed baguettes from L’Organic (pop them in the oven for 10-15 minutes at 220 degrees Celsius and they are ready). We spread some yummy beurre echire on the baguette and stuffed it with the Pata Negra and some capers (to add a touch of acidity). S had wanted to create a slightly more upmarket version of the ham and butter baguette sandwiches that she insisted on eating every morning on our last trip to Paris.
On a final note, S and I are really quite excited because we’ll soon be making our very first trip to Spain. We’ve just been asked by some good friends if we wanted to join them for dinner at a certain, very special restaurant in Catalonia. We can’t wait. Not just for the meal but also to visit La Boqueria in Barcelona. We’ve been told it’s arguably the coolest market in the world. And a great place to pick up as much Pata Negra as we can carry back.