There is a very good reason that pork products made from acorn fed Ibérico pigs have attained the lofty reputation that they have – they are just so damn delicious! It’s true, even from lesser producers, jamónes Ibéricos and embutidos Ibéricos are nothing short of delicious. With the best producers, however, these products are absolutely other-worldly. Such was the case with the products that we were fortunate enough to eat and taste on our exquisite visit to the lands of the cerdo Ibérico.
What can I write about tasting and experiencing jamón Iberico de bellota that hasn’t been written before? With such a delicious product, not much other than to chime in with the praise that it deserves. The jamónes that we tasted throughout the trip starting with the Jabugo cut by the flamboyant master cortador Florencio Sanchidrián in Avila were all spectacular, but what I learned from tasting so many different in origin and production, is that like any other truly great food product is that there is plenty of nuance and yes, terroir.
Each producer and each region have tastes different from the others with similarities within the regions, but when even a single jamón has so many different flavor and texture nuances from one part of the leg to another, it becomes very difficult for a relative novice such as myself to describe those nuances. Like great wines, however, it is this very variety and changeability within an inherently delicious product that elevates it to something extraordinary. Throughout our trip, we were able to eat and enjoy as much of these products as we could eat and eat them we did. Somehow, this was something that never got old. I don’t believe that it is possible to tire of eating jamón Ibérico de bellota and that is because they are all different and they all have such varied nuances and personalities.
The same can be said of the embutidos, which in addition to the terroir reflected in the meat itself, also display the added production nuances of the spice and cure recipes that vary from bodega to bodega. Always, we experienced the underpinning of sensational pork with the bodega-specific variations in pimentón, garlic and other spices providing real product personality.
Within the sphere of Ibérico there are three major embutido varieties. Lomo is the pork loin taken off the inner spine. It is what would comprise the main part of the pork chop in the United States, but taken off the bones and left whole. It is marinated with pimentón, garlic and spices and stuffed into a casing, smoked then cured. It is the meatiest of the embutidos and magnificent.
Chorizo is flavored, produced and cured similarly to lomo, but instead of a whole piece of meat, chorizo is comprised of a variety of cuts as well as added fat. The depth and complexity of flavor is astounding!
Salchichón is the third of the classic Ibérico embutidos and is the one that most closely resembles in style and flavor profile, other dried sausages from the Mediterranean. With a salt cure and flavorings to include black pepper, nutmeg, white wine and other spices it would be the most familiar to other Mediterranean cultures. That written, to say that it is comparable to similar products from elsewhere would be like saying a Ferrari is similar to a Fiat. Both are means of transportation, but one gets there with style and greater pleasure (greater price too) than the other.
When the term Ibérico comes to mind, most people, understandably, think of the rightfully much lauded jamónes and embutidos. Few realize, however, that the fresh meat of the cerdo Ibeerico is also highly and rightfully prized. Fresh Ibérico, especially a few select cuts is to pork what Galcian and Asturian buey (oxen slaughtered at around 12 years of age or older) is to beef. That is, it has such incredible depth of flavor that elevates it to a level without peer in my experience of pursuing porcine pleasure. The meat enjoys superb fat content, but isn’t a pure fat bomb like true “Kobe” Wagyu beef.
There are four cuts in particular that garner the attention of Ibérico cognoscenti. The aptly named “El Secreto” is ironically the most famous. It comes from an area roughly akin to our pectoralis muscle, has plenty of intra-muscular fat and is inundated with flavor. It should be treated like good beef and cooked to a medium rare. My mouth is watering just thinking about my memories of having eaten it.
The solomillo is the tenderloin. Pork tenderloin, in general, is tasty and has more flavor than its typical bovine counterpart. Ibérico solomillo has more flavor yet, though, to my palate, is not quite as orgasmic as “el secreto” or the other two main fresh cuts.
“La Pluma,” which means, “the feather.” It is a cut that separates off the top of the loin or “lomo.” Anatomically, it is equivalent to our own rhomboid muscles in the middle of our backs under the shoulder blades. It also corresponds to the coppa in Italian butchery circles. In Italy, it is typically cured. In the USA, it is part of the Boston butt and is often used in pulled pork barbecue. These are both fantastic uses for this prime cut, but to my money, at least when from Ibeérico de bellota pigs, the absolute best use is grilled simply to a medium rare finish.
The last of the Ibérico super-cuts is “La Presa,” which comes from the shoulder blade and is also part of the American “Boston Butt.” It too is at its very best when grilled over a wood fire. Unfortunately, it is quite difficult (though not impossible) to find these fresh Ibérico cuts in the United States. Seamus Mullen, for example, serves “el secreto” in a dish at El Colmado that made my list of top dishes for 2013. My suggestion is to order any of these cuts whenever and wherever one can come across them and if in Spain, to make a point of finding them
I would like to thank Gerry Dawes, Florencio Sanchidrián, El Rincón del Jabugo (Avila), Bodegas Arturo Sanchez (Guijuelo), Bodegas Extrem Puro (Montanchez – Extremadura), Brasserie Puente (Mérida), Bodegas Lazo (Cortegana – Jabugo), El Camino (Jabugo), Bodegas COVAP (Los Pedroches – Córdoba), Clemente Gomez, La Puerta Falsa (Villareal de Córdoba), Madrid Fusión, Bodega 1900 and a variety of other spots through whom we received an invaluable experience getting to know los Puros Ibéricos and all of the products that come from them in all of their various and wonderful guises. We were guests at each of the bodegas and I wish to thank them for their incredible hospitality and willingness to share what they do. It was a truly extraordinary trip that I will remember for as long as I am able to remember.