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Iberico de bellota

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"As I was wandering through the makeshift Eastern Market on Sunday, my stomach empty and my wallet full, I noticed the sign at Canales Deli advertising Iberico and Iberico de bellota hams. I asked the guy behind the counter what they were asking for the rare bellota jamon.

"One fifty," he responded.

Momentarily stunned, I repeated the number: "One hundred and fifty dollars a pound?"

He reassured me that you could buy as little as an eighth of a pound.

"How much would that run me?" I asked.

"About $20," he said.

I ordered an eighth of a pound of Iberico de bellota, the highest grade of Iberico ham, given only to those pigs that gain at least a third of their weight from consuming acorns and grasses in the western and southwestern areas of Spain. The slices (pictured above) numbered exactly seven, which comes roughly to $2.85 apiece. (Incidentally, La Tienda is selling some leftover, bone-in bellota hams for $1,395, complete with the black hoof, which is unlawful now that the USDA has forced importers to slice off the pata negra.)

I took the slices home and had them for dinner on Sunday night, along with Epoisses cheese, a crusty baguette, and a glass of Unibroue's La Fin du Monde. I felt like I was enjoying a four-star meal right in front of the telly.

The slices of red, almost purplish bruised ham are unlike anything you'll ever eat. Yes, the cured meat has a nutty flavor, due mostly to the acorns that the small, black-footed pigs eat, but such a simple description does not do the ham justice. Every molecule of that meat has been infused with the forest in which that pig forages; the muscle and the fat almost melt on your tongue, leaving behind both a big buttery flavor and an ineffable sense of the Spanish countryside. It's like you're eating animal, vegetable, and mineral all at the same time.

It's a primal eating experience that should not be missed—at any price.

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