Why would celebrated Southern Chef Linton Hopkins be leading an Ibérico Ham slicing demo? These were my first thoughts as I stepped into the 9:00am workshop at this year’s Star Chefs ICC. Country Ham, certainly, but after all, there were a myriad of renowned Spanish chefs in attendance at the event—wouldn’t one of them perhaps be better suited to explain the intricacies of this product?
These sentiments play directly into the concept of authenticity, which as of late has been at the forefront of debates within the food community. Nation’s Restaurant News’ Food Editor Bret Thorn recently weighed in on this topic stating, “Specific ingredients, in my opinion, have virtually nothing to do with authenticity.” After witnessing Chef Hopkins’ demo and the message behind his culinary philosophy, I’m inclined to agree.
“There is no border between Georgia and Spain when we talk about sharing ham—distance doesn’t matter.” It was with these words that Chef Hopkins described what he dubs “connected cooking,” his interpretation of the now ubiquitous “farm to table” moniker. Connected cooking is the personal tie that each chef finds to an ingredient or food culture. For Linton, biscuits and ham represent great family memories, ones that he wished to incorporate into his professional life. “Things go on to my menu because it’s who I am. It shouldn’t be too intellectual.”
This led him to Spain, a country which he believes to have the richest tradition of ham in the world. Upon countless trips to research the centuries old technique behind the practice of slicing, and discovering the Spanish guild of Ibérico ham carvers, Linton wanted to introduce these methods to his restaurants as a model for Southern and U.S. artisans. He founded the Fellowship of Country Ham Slicers, whose mission is to celebrate the craft of slicing country ham by hand and serving it in its unadorned, uncooked glory.
First and foremost ham is about knowing the pigs, from their diet to who’s raising them. As Hopkins notes, then it’s no longer about selling the product to guests, it’s telling a story. The pig is central to Spanish foodways and Hopkins purports that the Ibérico pig is the happiest animal on earth; they roam freely and feed on 16-20lbs of acorns per day. Acorns are rich with folic acid that turns into olive oil, which means that Ibérico hams contain healthy fat.
With this background Hopkins began the slicing demo. Two large hams sat on the table, propped up in a holder designed for carving. When you slice by hand, he explained, you’re targeting different muscles depending on where you cut; it’s like having several charcuterie items from one product. Based on how the animal walks, some parts are firmer and others are fattier. The center cut, for example, can resemble jerky in its consistency.
When working with a new ham, Hopkins recommends taking time to be aware of the bones and the structure of the product–he noted that this was actually his first time slicing an Ibérico shoulder. He stood back and marveled at the beauty of the slab of meat before him, carefully determining the best location from which to garner his first slice.
Before slicing, the ham should be soft and supple. If you must refrigerate it (i.e. when the health department pays you a visit), make sure the ham sits out for a least eight hours before serving to ensure that it’s come to room temperature. Hopkins sliced the ham slowly, creating beautiful small pieces. This “micro cutting” gives you more control with a ham, as opposed to trying to cut it in one slice like one would a piece of sushi. Hopkins’ ham slicing knives are a prime example of the cross section between authenticity and interpretation—instead of importing them from Spain, he had a set custom made for him in Charleston, SC.
Admittedly, after one taste I longed for bigger portions. The luscious Ibérico melted in my mouth—the perfect combination of salt and fat hitting the palate. “Everyone should just keep eating ham continuously,” Hopkins declared as his team passed out samples throughout the remainder of the workshop. It was never enough. The ham was paired with a robust Spanish red that proved to be a wonderful start to Monday morning. Hopkins described this as the “hospitality of the ham experience” – it makes it taste better.
Hopkins then took a moment to address the idea of cost, which in his mind has been skewed. Though Ibérico is largely considered an expensive luxury ingredient, he believes it should actually cost more. He explained that because he uses every part of the product, the price is ultimately far less than if he bought a boneless ham. The bones make a rich and flavorful stock, the fat can be used for pan con tomate, and a ham reduction combined with sugar makes a glaze for desserts at Restaurant Eugene. “Less is more–find the items you want to celebrate and go all the way with them,” says Hopkins.
Above all, it’s about preserving food traditions. For Hopkins, this means ensuring that his children will grow up with the taste memories he holds closest to his heart. Conviviality, bounty, warmth, hospitality–these notions transverse geographical borders and represent the true connection between all cuisines. Any prejudices I had about a chef from Atlanta leading a tutorial on Spanish ham were dispelled ten times over at the close of the demo. Authenticity is a set of principles; it’s a dedication to an idea or ingredient that respects its lineage while putting it into context.
That morning Hopkins left us with these infamous words from Mark Twain, which somehow summed up the spirit of his lecture: “If I can’t get to 70 without whiskey and cigars, it aint’ worth goin.” I’ll drink to that, Linton.
All photos by John M. Sconzo, M.D.