While chronicling his adventures in the capitol of Spain for his television show No Reservations, the often irreverent, but wholly entertaining Anthony Bourdain gave food enthusiasts and fans of the show a moment to ponder on for weeks. Even for the man who likely coined the term “food porn,” this was a scene of such sensuality and gastronomic lust, for just a moment, it left me feeling strangely empty, underprivileged, and deprived for never having experienced the same Spanish delights being presented to Mr. Bourdain at that moment. In this segment, Bourdain is ushered into the dimly lit recesses of a humble Castilian restaurant, where he is set in front of a whole, cured hind leg of pig, fastened and secured in a contraption resembling some medieval torture device, placed upon a table dressed in red-and-white checkered cloth. A strapping, young Spaniard with a long, sharp knife slowly shaves off paper-thin slices of the cured meat for Bourdain and his dining companion, a small circle of onlookers watch intently in the periphery, as if the eaters are taking part in some dark, forbidden ritual. What they are eating is jamón ibérico de ballota, a ham produced only in a particular region of Spain. But they are not simply eating…they are indulging. Bourdain closes his eyes, tenderly massages the ham between his fingers, holds it to his nose and inhales deeply, taking in its sweet smell. He rubs the fatty pork around on his lips, then gently places it on his anxious tongue. Moans of delight abound, lips are loudly smacked with the greasy remains of the fatty ham glistening across their surface. Bourdain goes back for more, the thin slices seem to never run short as the server replenishes the plate. He declares the Spanish ham “enlightenment in a mouthful.” As I watched, my own mouth now swimming in saliva, I immediately determined, at some point in my life, I simply had to make a trip to Spain. After watching such an ordeal, I was committed to sampling this ham. However, my chance to lay lips on jamón ibérico would not have to wait for a trip to Europe, it would come from within the walls of Little Rock’s own palace of pork, Hillcrest Artisan Meats. It was an experience I will not soon forget.
Jamón ibérico is produced from a premium breed of pigs known as pata negra, which are only raised in the Iberian Peninsula of Spain. These pigs are distinguished by their jet-black hooves, which are typically left on a displayed ham as a testament to its authenticity. These pata negra have a higher percentage of intramuscular fat when compared to more ordinary breeds (such as Serrano hams), producing a richer, smoother flavor and also allowing these particular hams to tolerate longer curing times. More specifically, the most distinguished form of jamón ibérico is known as “jamón ibérico de bellota,” from pigs allowed to wander freely through forests filled with trees specifically cultivated to produce large quantities of acorns. These acorns become the sole diet of the privileged porcine residents as they are prepared for slaughter. As the pigs feast on acorns, a diet rich in fatty acids, they gain an average of two pounds per day, producing the characteristic marbling found only in these Iberian hams. You might consider jamón ibérico de bellota to be the ham world’s equivalent of Wagyu beef. After the hams are slaughtered, the meat is salted, rinsed, and hung to dry, left to cure in the humid air of the Spanish countryside for up to 4 years. The finished product is a delicacy of the utmost quality, and few foods in the world are as highly respected. Typically, a genuine jamón ibérico de ballota will fetch a price around $90 per pound…this is no casual cold cut.