In the second-greatest TV sitcom ever made (I keep the top spot open in case I change my mind), The Royle Family’s young Antony comes home with a vegetarian girlfriend. There’s consternation in the household – what to feed her? In the end it’s settled by Nana, who offers “very thinly sliced ham”.
In the hope that ham thus presented will appeal to all tastes, that’s what we’re testing this week: Ibérico ham from the black-hooved Spanish pig breed of the same name. These are the porkers that roam the woods in southwest Spain, feasting exclusively on acorns (bellotas).
In a matter of months the cosseted beasts almost double in weight, eating 15kg of acorns for every kilo of body weight they put on. Once dispatched, the legs and shoulders are immersed in barrels of sea salt and then air-cured for between two and five years. How do I know this? Because the London chef-restaurateur and food writer José Pizarro (JP) joined our panel. “These are happy pigs,” he says. “They have plenty of acorns and a hectare each to roam in.” Assisting this expert taster was the Gluttonous Pig (GP), the Digital Native (DN) and a debutant – a man whose job is to proselytise for the science community. He is the Science Evangelist (SE).
Ideally, Ibérico ham should be hand carved in front of you to ensure it hits the mouth in peak condition. But there are pre-carved supermarket products, so we tried both. Brindisa’s hand-carved Jamón Ibérico Puro De Bellota is four years cured and José felt it was a fundamentally good product. But this particular packet had a slightly peculiar flavour (“agricultural tang ” – GP). And Selfridges Food Hall, with Domecq Jamón Ibérico Bellota, was recently carved but had a slightly oxidised taste (“bitter, flat” – SE).
At about the halfway mark our attention was distracted by the rather beautiful bottle of Fernando de Castilla Fino sherry that José had generously brought along. So we opened it. An incredibly rich, slightly darker than usual, nutty brew of exceptional quality. It lubricated us for the rest of the task, complementing the salty meat as perfectly as fino partners salted almonds.
Waitrose’s Jamon Ibérico de Bellota had been cured for three years but we found it a bit uninspiring (“pigling bland” – GP). Although they responsibly recommend refrigerating the product and bringing it to room temperature before consumption, José believes good Ibérico should be kept cool but never chilled. Waitrose’s two-year-old alternative, Paleta Ibérico de Bellota, distinguished itself by coming third. And José distinguished himself by spotting in the blind tasting that this was the less-fancied shoulder cut (paleta): “sweet, creamy, soft” (SE); “grassy, umami bite” (DN).
Quality will out. Our second and first choices came from the same supplier: stand up and take a bow, Ibérica Delicatessen, housed in the Ibérica restaurants in London. The runner-up was their Alta Expresión from Los Pedroches carved the day before our tasting (they helpfully labelled the packet to tell us): “sinewy, sweet” (DN); “pungent, robust” (GP); “good but could linger longer in the palate” (JP); “sweaty – in a good way” (SE).
And the very clear winner: Juan Pedro Domecq Jabugo, Huelva. This had a pronounced streakiness to the meat, which denotes a pure acorn diet: “clings lovingly to the tongue” (DN); “sweet, intense – beautiful aroma” (JP); “nutty, meaty, complex” (SE); “luxurious fat, indulgent marbling – Diablo!” (GP).
There only remains one question: which is superior, Ibérico or Parma? We can take José’s views as read but his favouring of Ibérico is a firmly gastronomic judgment rather than a patriotic one. How did the rest of us feel on the question of the hour? We all agreed that we were very fond of good Parma ham but that Ibérico – hand-carved, well-cured and derived from a happy, acorn-sated pig – is the best ham in the world.
1. Juan Pedro Domecq Jabugo, Huelva
£180 per kilo
Whole leg £85 per kilo
100g would cost £18
2. COVAP Alta Expresión from Los Pedroches, Córdoba
Hand-carved £170 per kilo
Whole leg £75 per kilo
100g would cost £17
3. Waitrose Free Range, Spanish Paleta Ibérico De Bellota
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