To me, the swine is the greatest of all animals (for eating) and what follows is an account of my lesson on arguably one of the finest ways man has seen fit to prepare the beast for its tasty fate. I was invited to a preview of the new ‘ham workshop’ at Brindisa, which will be running monthly from 5th November. The workshop took place around a table in the Brindisa shop in Borough, surrounded by the dwindling bustle of the market and sounds of revellers in the pub opposite, which made for a lively atmosphere; definitely preferable to sitting in a quiet, stuffy shop. Alberto Ambler, the assistant manager at Brindisa Tapas, informed us we would be treated to a lesson on the importance of variables such as the diet, region and breed of the pigs, a tasting of four different hams and finally, a lesson in carving. Much of the lesson would come from Zac Fingal-Rock Innes – a ‘Master Carver’ who was nursing an occupational hazard on his hand.
As we nibbled on bread and olives and sipped a green apple scented Manzanilla, Alberto and Zac talked us through the lives of the pigs. We would be tasting four hams: one White pig and three Ibéricos, helpfully arranged on the plate at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock, so as to avoid any confusion. The first we tasted (12 o’clock) was Jamón de Monroyo Reserva from Teruel, Aragon: a White pig which is cereal fed and cured for a minimum of 14 months. This Alberto described as an “entry level ham” – not too complicated, slightly sweet and mostly just plain ‘hammy’. This was a ham without high ambitions but tasty as you like nonetheless.
Next we moved on to the Jabu Recebo from Jabugo, Huelva, the first of the Ibérico hams. These pigs graze the dehesa (an area nearly 15,000 times the size of Hyde Park), covering as much as 20-25 km per day in their search for acorns. They are also incredibly selective about which ones they will eat even once they do find them. The purer the breed of Ibérico, the more selective they are about which nut is fit for dinner. The micro-climate of the Jabugo region also contributes to the flavour of the animal; the cool woods add another variable to the mix. This ham was much stronger in flavour, almost knocking on the door of Marmitey in intensity yet with a familiar sweetness and melty texture.
Our 6 o’clock ham was a Jamón de la Dehesa de Extremadura Bellota D.O.P from Badajoz, Extramedura: an Ibérico which is cured for 2-3 years. The flavour of this was really strong, almost a little musty and deeply nutty with a bit of that Marmite going on again; condensed umami; reduced, almost fermented and slightly pruney in flavour. The taste buds were going crazy with delight at this point and the mouth alive with an explosion of saliva.
Our final ham was an Joselito Gran Reserva Bellota from Guijuelo, Salamanca: an acorn fed Ibérico cured for 3-4 years. This ham was extraordinary. It had the characteristics of the other hams we had tried – nutty, sweet and straight up porky but differed in that the stages of flavour just kept on coming. I remember distinctly a kind of muddy intensity that I wished would just swallow me up so I could wallow in its porky depths. The finish was slightly cheesy and the texture of the fat was hand-to-the-brow, fall-into-his-arms dreamy. Apparently, this ham was a particularly fine example due to 2001/2 being good years, therefore producing a good vintage, or ‘añada’ – something to do with the rainfall being just right for the acorns.
When the tasting was done and we gazed forlornly at our empty plates, Zac beckoned us over to the waiting hams for our carving master class. He began by showing us the tools of the trade and giving us a tour of the ham leg to get an idea of how to begin (by cutting off the excess fat on top) and how to finish the leg (by cutting out all the little bits no good for slicing, which then resemble lardons, and are called ‘tacos’). When the leg is still being carved, the exposed surface should be covered with the layer of fat cut from the top, to prevent drying out during storage.
He proceeded to give a demonstration of the carving, making it look spectacularly easy, like the knife was running through butter. We then donned a metal mesh glove on our non-slicing hands and had a go ourselves. You know what I’m going to say don’t you? It isn’t as easy as it looks. The skill is to let the blade of the ‘jamonera’ do the work – stroking, not pushing the blade and using the section that is closest to the handle, rather than the length. I definitely improved as I practised, as did everyone, and by the end had me some pretty good slices going on. Well, good considering I’d never done it before and was slightly pissed on sherry; I’m pretty confident in saying Zac didn’t fear for his job.
To top it all we were generously bestowed with gifts: the ham we had cut plus some masterfully sliced by Zac, some tacos and a pot of beautiful pure white fat which we were informed make amazing roast potatoes and croquettes. I’ll bet. It is also packed with amino acids from the acorns the pigs munched on. The bone can be used to flavour stocks and soups; nothing is wasted. I’ve used my pot of tacos already, cooked quickly with some white wine, scallops and artichokes which with hindsight, was not the best cooking method to use. I should have read my information sheet first, which advises to use them in stocks and stews, where they will soften. Gorgeous nonetheless.
I learned a hell of a lot about ham at the Brindisa ham workshop, and I am very grateful to Alberto for hosting and to the super glam Celia Brooks Brown, who suggested they invite me in the first place. Even though I did not pay for my experience, I most certainly would, and I will enthusiastically recommend to anyone else that they do too. The ham workshops will cost £65 per person and begin running every month, starting 5th November, between 7-8.45pm.
Brindisa at Borough Market
The Floral Hall
London SE1 9AF
Tel & Fax: 020 7407 1036