February 19, 2010

A good ham is hard to find

I was on a quest. A quest for ham. Perhaps motivated by some primal human desire, or the constant presence of Mad Men’s Jon Hamm on TV, I knew that there was more ham to be had in Chicago than the cubed variety in my omelets. I needed something exotic. I needed some adventure. I was searching for the Holy Grail of ham.

But to find this most treasured of all hams, I had to be an expert—or as it is more commonly known in the culinary world, a connoisseur. It seems these days you can be a connoisseur of anything: wine, cheese, chocolate, vinegar, tea, coffee, beer, sake…even salt (because, apparently, the best salt is Himalayan rock salt, mined by Buddhist monks). Not surprisingly, the term carries with it a sense of haughtiness and pomposity, usually brought on by one connoisseur’s desire to make their area of expertise as inaccessible to the general public as humanly possible.

But when it comes to ham, connoisseur-ship comes in all shapes and slices. Ham is meant to be handled by the greasy hands of the common man. The distinct tastes of different types of ham are actually discernible, even to the relatively untrained palate. There is no ham snobbery. There is no ham manual or rating system. Something magical happens when we let meat sit around in a cave for years at a time. Perhaps some kind of regression to our primitive, Neolithic standards. “Mmm, meat. Meat good. Yum.” I think that is the root of ham’s most impressive attribute: simplicity.

But this is not to say that ham is too simple, especially not the most prized (and expensive) of aged hams: Jamon Iberico. In the pork-paradise of central Spain, pigs feast on grass, fruit, and acorns that fall from the region’s signature oaks. Then the process of aging, sometimes as long as three years, comes into play. As the most expensive cold cut in the world, prices range from $200 for a pound to $1000 for a whole leg. Though I experienced a bit of sticker shock when reading this, I knew I would need only but a taste of this ham to be content. With this information in mind, I sought out the location of this king of hams.

Like Indiana Jones battling boulders and snake pits to seek his treasure, I valiantly fought the challenges posed by spotty bus service, the Green Line, and insurmountable cold. My Temple of Doom, so to speak: The Publican, a Near West Side gastropub that worships the hog. Images of nice, rotund pigs adorn the walls, and every pork product imaginable graces the menu. No parts go to waste—livers, ears, and tails, along with the more traditional components are all ingeniously incorporated in various dishes.

Though the individual samplings of the menu were delicious and thoughtfully prepared, the highlight of the meal was ironically the component requiring the least preparation of all: the aged ham. This particular night I had a selection of La Quercia Rossa, Edwards Country, and, of course, Jamon Iberico—an excellent cross-section of the art of aged ham. Each was uniquely identifiable by appearance, but more importantly, by taste. The Quercia Rossa was very similar to the typical Italian prosciutto, but was low-key and smooth to the taste. The ham instantaneously melts in your mouth, leaving a pleasant “airiness” of ham in its place. The Edwards Country was similarly mild but was much more substantive in its taste, probably due to the unconventional smoking process that gave it a familiar, “down to earth” feel. This one was the rebel of the group, the American cousin, setting out on its own and refusing to conform to the traditional methods of preparing aged ham.

Finally, there was the Grail itself—the Jamon Iberico. It was much darker and more leathery than the others, with almost no visible fatty tissue. The appearance spoke of age and the complexity of taste that came with it. Almost shockingly sweet at the outset, it gradually dissipates into earthy, nutty savor. I’m no wine expert, but I imagine this is the immense intricacy of flavor that wine enthusiasts rave about as they swirl, sniff, and sip. But whereas these experts then proceed to spit out their wine, no one would ever make the mistake of failing to finish a piece of Jamon Iberico. I assure you that my plate was spotless when the waiter came to pry it from my vice-like grip.

Ham seems to be under-appreciated in the upper echelon of American cuisine. Chefs want to impress and outdo one another with their foie gras terrines and saffron-infused Wagyu beef—the pretension is suffocating. Instead, let us all relax, unbutton our collars, and loosen our ties as we recognize the delicateness and deliciousness of a good piece of aged ham.