Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader remembers that it was just a little over a year ago that he and the delightful Mrs P were having a conversation about ham.
It all started with this post your Maximum Leader wrote while guest-hosting for the Crack Young Staff of The Hatemonger’s Quarterly. Mrs P was kind enough to follow-up that post with one of her own where she shared the secrets of the Bacon Buttie recipe. In the comment section of Mrs P’s post, your Maximum Leader saw an opportunity to impress with his knowledge of hams. That resulted in the “Know your ham” post on this site. (And the “Know your ham” post resulted in one more follow-on from Mrs P.)
Have you got all the background there?
Now… You may have seen this little piece on the AP news wires yesterday. “World’s costliest ham triggers pork envy.” Let us review the highlights of the article, shall we?
Now, hard-core foodies are drooling over the prospect of something truly superlative from Spain, at least in price: a salt-cured ham costing about $2,100 per leg, or a cruel $160 per pound. It’s a price believed to make it the most expensive ham in the world.
The 2006 Alba Quercus Reserve (as this pricey pork will be known) won’t be available until late 2008 and you must buy the whole ham or nothing at all. But that hasn’t dissuaded gastronomic Web sites and blogs from buzzing with talk of the farm where it is being produced, likening it to a Mount Olympus of pork.
Its mastermind, Manuel Maldonado, 44, comes from a long line of ham producers in a country that’s nuts about the stuff. In bars and restaurants, legs of ham hanging from the wall are as common as TV sets.
But Maldonado is taking the art of the ham to new heights, pampering his pigs with a free-range lifestyle and top-quality diet of acorns before slaughtering them, then curing the meat for two years — twice as long as his competitors.
It’s that last step that Maldonado credits with creating a delicacy that justifies the heavenly price.
Maldonado had hoped to roll out his super-gourmet ham this year, but felt the first batch fell short of his ultra-demanding standards and did not put it up for sale. He hopes to do better this time and have it ready around Christmas 2008.
“This is the best ham in the world because it comes from the best pig in the world,” Maldonado says of 2006 Alba Quercus Reserve, a reference to the year the pigs were slaughtered.
“It is the most important ham in Spain,” adds Pedro Soley, a Barcelona connoisseur who is among the lucky few lining up to buy one. Indeed, this is a limited edition piece: Maldonado will produce just 80 to 100 legs.
And they are expected to be a world apart from Spain’s more common Iberian ham — named for the breed of pig used — which is similar to Italian prosciutto, but a darker red and chewier.
For comparison, Italy’s finest Prosciutto di Parma and Spain’s top-grade Spanish acorn-fed Iberian ham — both savory, umami-rich meats usually served as ultra-thin slices — top out at $30 a pound.
With Spanish pigs bound for ham glory, diet is everything. The least expensive ham is made from pigs fed on grain, whereas mid-grade hams come from pigs raised on a combination of wheat and acorns.
Then there are Spain’s poshest pigs, which feast exclusively on acorns, producing a rich flavor and oily texture that make the meat a delicacy. Spain’s finest hams are not considered first-rate without an “acorn-fed” stamp on the label.
At least some foodies apparently haven’t been put off by the price of Maldonado’s work. One food blog, Directo al Paladar, called the cost of the ham “almost a gift,” considering how it is made.
Maldonado has yet to set a price for customers who buy the 13-pound hams directly from him, but the food site Ibergour.com has a dozen for sale at $2,100 each, and is accepting $250 deposits.
Is it ridiculous to pay that for a piece of pig?
No, says Maldonado. A ham like this can be shared among 20 people, he notes, whereas a bottle of the finest wine going for the same amount goes down quickly among just a few.
For four generations, Maldonado’s family has been making ham from high-quality hogs in this town of 5,000 in Spain’s southwest Extremadura region.
Their herds of black Iberian beauties are kept on a handful of acorn-rich farms in the surrounding meadowlands, walking freely up to 6 miles daily without any swineherds to look after them.
After the pigs are butchered, they are cured in high-grade sea salts and refrigerated at 39 degrees. The salt is wiped off after about 12 days. Over the course of the next three months, the temperature is gradually raised to 68 degrees.
The hams then are brought into one of Maldonado’s two warehouse-size cellars where they cure for two years, hanging on a series of interconnected hooks from floor to ceiling, like curtains.
Maldonado will only give a ham the top-grade seal if it passes his olfactory test after the curing process. He drives a small rod through the outer layer of fat and into the meat to see if he considers it up to snuff.
In his cellar, Maldonado drew one of the hams close and rubbed his thumbs gently against the smooth roundness of the ham’s firm base.
“Ham provides us with life,” he said with a smile.
Your Maximum Leader floated the prospect of buying a leg of this ham by Mrs Villain. He was rebuffed in a way that his lovely wife generally reserves for those for whom she has mentally crossed-off her list of worthwhile people. Alas, your Maximum Leader will have to do some digging around and find out if any restaurants in the DC area will acquire any of these ham-alicious legs ‘o heaven. If he finds one that does, he’ll make a special trip (marital consequences be damned!). Of course, the article begs the question… What happened to all those “substandard” hams from 2006? Did Senor Maldonado destroy them? Did he horde them for himself? Were they fed to substandard pigs? Your Maximum Leader wants to know.
Also, your Maximum Leader, next time he gets to Spain (and alas, who knows when that will be) he will have to go again to Extremadura. He remembers Extremedura as being more arid and hot than it must be. Of course, he visited in August and really only went to see the Roman ruins of Merida. From his memory it didn’t seem like Extremedura was a good place to raise the most delicious pig in the world. He imagines that the aridness might help on the curing side of things, but he doesn’t see how the climate could be good for acorns. But then again… He didn’t spend lots of time in Extremedura…
Your Maximum Leader wonders if the Smallholder could raise a comparable pig. Your Maximum Leader isn’t sure what breed of pig the Smallholder raises for sale, but he’s willing to bet it is not an Iberian pig. (Your Maximum Leader must figure out the breed of pig the Smallholder raises…) Of course, your Maximum Leader threatened to buy a ton of peanuts for Smallholder to use to “finish” the pigs before he sent them off to the Mennonite butchers. But, alas, that was an empty promise. Your Maximum Leader will have to try harder next year.
Sadly, even if the Smallholder could raise the pig, your Maximum Leader would have to find a way to cure the ham. This is actually something that the Smallholder and your Maximum Leader have spoken about in the past. We need to get ourselves a smokehouse and figure out bacon and ham curing for ourselves. Perhaps there is some sort of book, or site on the interwebs that could help us. (Exursus: God bless the good people at Virginia Tech for providing this great site and sharing with us the secrets of curing. While we are excursusing: Whoa doggie! Here’s a British site all about sausage-making. And here is an organic farm in Britain that cures their own hams. Of course there is always this 1943 book from the Morton Salt company on curing your own pork, sausage, and other meats. Or this book for the professional charcuterie.)
Yes… Your Maximum Leader needs a smokehouse (or he needs the Smallholder to get a smokehouse) so that he can make hams out of the Smallholder’s delicious pigs.