To rank a ham is to invite scorn from foodies: Everyone has an opinion. Well, almost everyone—my partner Bruce Weinstein calls ham “the most Christian of all meats.” I have tasted quite a few in the two years he and I worked on our book, Ham: An Obsession With the Hindquarter. Frankly, I’ve lost count of how many, but I know my belt now fastens at the last hole. So here goes my ranking:
5. Our own pig.
You haven’t lived until you’ve driven your dinner to slaughter, watched it buck in the truck, and seen it go down the ramp into the killing pen. Don’t get all Michael Pollan on me. We weren’t headed to an abattoir. It was some guy’s backyard in rural New England. There were upholstered chairs on a porch. Soon, there would be blood.
Our editor said, “An ibérico. I can’t believe you got one. Should we do a ritual dance around it?” “Naw,” I said, my best hick accent in place. “We oughtta just eat it.” So we did.
Sure, I had laughed all summer at my Manhattan friends. They’d stood around the pen on the weekends, scraping muck off their Prada boots. “You’re not really going through with this?” they’d asked. Bruce and I nodded yes, two self-righteous locavores among the urban sophisticates.
Unfortunately, I felt my knees go weak at the wrong moment. Let’s just say I lost a little irony that day. But I gained some great meals—including those hams. So many people don’t know about fresh ones: uncured, unsmoked, not tarted up, just the haunch on its own. Call it the steamship round of pig. Or the juiciest pork roast ever. Certainly worth fifth place in this survey.
4. Jambon de Paris.
Oh, those French. They can aestheticize anything. I’m sure they’ve mandated which way the blades of grass should lay after a lawn is cut. This unsmoked, wet-cured ham is the sine qua non of Parisian butcher shops: a light, ephemeral meat, sweet but umami. You might know jambon de Paris because you’ve seen it hacked up, tarted up with parsley, and floating in churchlady aspic in some of those butcher shops—aka, Jambon Persillé.
On its own, it’s a delight: ham cut into meaty slices that stands up to nose-spanking mustard. Baguette food, pure and simple. Like anything Parisian, there are knockoffs, and cheap ones at that: extruded bits of processed, salt-doped, luridly pink ham. You might as well serve it with cheese food product. A true jambon de Paris is a boneless bit of wet-cured ham, a chunk off the back of the beast—or at the outside, a couple of hunks pressed together in a tin. No smoke competes with the meat, which is salty, yes, but actually more minerally, a surprisingly clean taste, bright on the tongue.
First off, you gotta love a ham with a name that’s a vulgarity in Italian. Hey, if you’re going to host the papacy for 2,000 years (not counting that little Avignon side trip), you’re entitled to some adolescent fun. This one’s name means something like buttlette (only way cruder). It doesn’t do the meat justice. Culatello is taken from only one of the muscle groups at the back of the pig—the largest, fattiest bit from pigs raised to be exceptionally large and fatty. Consider culatello the lardo of ham.
The meat is boned, salted, and spiced before it’s cured in a pig’s bladder and then aged in barns subjected to the ambient mists from the Po River. And if that’s not enough, the hams are then stacked on dirt-floored cellars, thick with various musts and molds, for about 10 months. The result? Sweet, tender, juicy, fatty culatello—which is under siege from E.U. bureaucrats who don’t cotton to mists, musts, and molds. We can only hope that foodies will rise up with their forks to demand that good traditions remain intact.
2. Nancy Newsom’s country hams.
I met Nancy one winter day when I was touring the Kentucky country ham belt for our book’s third chapter. If you don’t know, dry-cured country ham is one of the United States’ true artisanal products. And if you think American country ham is too salty, you don’t know Nancy’s. When I pulled up in front of her store that morning, it was gorgeously sunny but also toe-chill cold. Way out to the west in the state, the land starts to do its lazy down-dog toward the Mississippi, the hollers and hills giving way to rolling pastures.
Nancy came out front before I was out of the car. She was wrapped in a thick black coat. I put out a hand to shake hers—ever the Southern gentleman—and she backed up. “You’re not odd, are you?” she asked. I didn’t know what to say. You mean besides being a lit professor who now writes full time about food, a Baptist who was married for years to a big CEO before he came out in a newspaper-splashy divorce and then fell in love with a nice Jewish boy who craves ham, before leaving the comfy cocoon of Manhattan to move to New England where we regularly run moose out of our backyard? You mean odd besides that?
We Southerners read the nonverbal cues. Nancy sensed my hesitation. She explained that a fancy food writer had been down to interview her only a few weeks before. On first seeing her, he had knelt down on the sidewalk and kissed her hand to thank her for her hams. “Now he was odd,” she said. OK, I wasn’t that odd. I just wanted to see the operation—and taste the ham, which is about the best in this country.
Nancy’s country hams are deeply flavored, complex, ridiculously umami with quiet hints of floral overtones. She still cures, smokes, and ages them the way her grandfather did: in a gnarly old barn out behind her mother’s house. If they’re a labor of love for her, they are for you, too. You’ve got to soak them in water for days to get the salt out of the meat, and then roast them for hours. But what a treat!
Don’t want to go to all that trouble? Try some of her two-years aged prosciutto. It melts on the tongue, erotically hammy. OK, maybe I am odd.
1. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.
To my Italian and French friends, I say back off. I realize I have just dissed the jambon de Bayonne and the prosciutto crudo from the Parma region. Too bad. The Spanish are the reigning monarchs of the hindquarters. An ibérico de bellota may well be the food fetishists’ fantasy: pigs raised on a mandated 4 acres per beast, fed only acorns, kept coddled for two years (as opposed to most pigs, which meet the knife after about nine months).
The meat is salted and then hung for up to five years in open-air barns until the fat gets to the point where it will liquefy at body temperature, until the roquefort mold blooms in the meat, until the same aminos that create the unique flavor of Parmigiano-Reggiano crystallize and release their essence. Ours arrived while we were in New York City. Fermin, the Spanish importing firm, had been kind enough to send us one for the book’s cover. The ibérico was summarily dropped on our front porch, no signature required. Or so I discovered from the email notice I got while waiting for a radio interview.
Let me reiterate: We live in rural New England. We sometimes can’t get up our driveway because a 300-pound black bear sleeps in front of the garage. I knew the math: wild carnivores + cured ham = disaster. I imagined a whole Disney party: chipmunks gleefully romping for the leftovers, kindly vultures with British accents standing to the side, bears sipping tea while enjoying the height of Spanish hamminess. Then I imagined having to go back to Fermin and ask for another.
“Let’s skip dinner tonight and head home early,” I told Bruce. No worries. There it was: still in its box, no chipmunks frolicking. We undid it and hung it up in the kitchen, right next to a Nancy Newsom ham, the smell absolutely intoxicating. Our collie went on meat patrol for days. Later, at the photo shoot, our editor said, “An ibérico. I can’t believe you got one. Should we do a ritual dance around it?” “Naw,” I said, my best hick accent in place. “We oughtta just eat it.” So we did.
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Mark Scarbrough, with partner Bruce Weinstein, is author of the “Ultimate” cookbooks, fronted by The Ultimate Ice Cream Book. In 2009 they published Pizza: Grill It, Bake It, Love It! and Cooking Know-How. Contributors to Eating Well and Cooking Light, they also appear on Today and Good Morning America.