“I’m invited to a tasting/launch of some of the first offerings of the world’s greatest pigs served in America, appearing only now for the first time because of years of stupid policy by the FDA? Count me in!” is what I said. To be fair, it was presented as, “Through cooperation with the USDA, one of the oldest and most respected purveyors of Cerdo Ibérico (those famous black footed Iberian pigs) will be bringing the beautiful products of Embutidos Fermin to America in association with José Andres. Come sample the first release of their charcuterie.”
So here’s what all that means. For some reason recently in American history our government saw fit to protect us from eating products made from these pigs just as they did with the pork of Parma, Italy, because thousands of years of people eating them without incident still wasn’t a good enough guarantee for us plus the fact that their diet leaves them second to only to olive oil for oleic acid. We far prefer it when our meat is so sloppily butchered it needs to be sprayed with a boiling bleach solution and then irradiated to remove any doubt that all the things our industrial processing screwed up in its haste,have been removed with the flavor and the beneficial oils (long ago thrown out on the factory farms). No way could we trust artisanal producers making food that cultures have thrived on for years. Better to destroy individuality and taste… but there I go again, ranting about the least common denominator approach to safety our government supports when my intention here is to bring good news.
So take 2….Action….So here’s what all that means. After years of work and some foreign companies jumping through our bureaucratic hoops, some people (José Andrés, and the Martin Family of Embutidos Fermin, in this case) have gained the right to bring products made of the black footed pigs of Spain (considered by many, yours truly included, to make the best charcuterie in the world) to us.
At the event we tasted three types:
Lomo: made from the loin, this is kind of the show-off piece for people that cure pig meat. Inherently the loin is a very lean cut, and since fat is what covers up the mistakes in cured meats a great luomo is sweet and soft, while a bad one is jerky. The flesh of these loins is so red it seems paprika must have been involved at some point along the way even though it probably wasn’t.
Chorizo: the famous paprika sausage of Spain (this one needs no cooking, not to be confused with Mexican Chorizo, which is raw) it is wider in gauge and therefore more moist than the chorizos I have had before in America, pointing out the way the fat studding it translates the piquantness of the cure.
These were good examples of what you make from the other parts of a pig, those excluding the legs and shoulders. As tasty as these sausages are, though, they are not the hams of the pata negra (the black footed pigs). Clearly the work of an artisan and representational of a skill rather than a place, sausages are not what America has been missing, it is the hams. For the months leading up to slaughter, these Spanish pigs feast on acorns fallen from trees and double in weight, and the hams made from their legs are probably one of the most beautiful representations of a place and the flavor of savory there is. They also take a long time to cure, averaging around two and a half years.
In addition to the diet of acorns, another contributing factor to their flavor is the fact that the Iberian hams are cured on the bone with the foot attached. This affects the taste in two ways. First, by not cutting the ligaments at the ankle the meat stays taught and thinner during the cure, affecting the amount of water evaporating. Second, the meat cannot be cut on a machine which is of the most importance – rotating blades cause friction which causes heat and heat changes the flavor profile of the product, so perfection in any cured ham is thin, hand-cut slices from the leg. [Note: some day I’ll discuss Berkel slicers.]
Since the ok to import the Iberian products happened recently, these faster-curing sausages are here now. But for the be all end all in cured pork, we will still need to wait until spring/summer ’07 as the hams complete their cycle.
To illustrate this, our hosts brought in the “greatest ham guy in Spain” to slice a Serrano ham, not from the Cerdo Ibérico. Quite a show: a tawny gentleman with white hair set about using a fantastic collection of specialized knives (including one of the longest, thinnest, most flexible, slicing knives I have ever seen) to remove the protective fat and then began producing slices of cranberry red flesh so good I went back about four times, and this wasn’t even the ham made from the black footed pigs.
Besides these samples and the promise to regroup when the actual pata negra hams are ready, there were a collection of Spanish cheeses, Marcona almonds, tiny green olives, a very refreshing cocktail made of sherry, lemonade, and a float of Sprite, and a collection of local chefs, mostly those interested in new Spanish cuisine (like Wylie Dufresne and Wesley Genovart) and authentic product (like Zach Allen and Peter Hoffman).
The journey of a thousand miles starts with the single step. Getting these sausages indicates the promise of the hams, and the hams would seem to say to an optimist that there is hope that our food choices will not always be dictated by bureaucrats with poli- sci degrees and judges with law degrees, but rather by consumers with desires to have the best available product and producers with instincts to earn the money those people will pay. Maybe soon I’ll have raw milk from grass-fed cows at the Greenmarket. Till then, I’ll dream and appreciate being invited to cocktail parties as fun as this.