© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd


© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

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Charcuterie & Co: the greatest ham

BigorreDramatic performances a-plenty — not least in terms of swashbuckling knife wielding by master Jamón carver Mario Hiraldo — but the real bid for glory at this full-house workshop was by three of the world’s great air-dried hams.

We had wondered whether to throw a British York ham into the mix — and indeed there were mutterings of "wouldn’t change a decent slice of cooked ham for any of them". Moreover, an outstanding example of York Ham was being purveyed by the Good Taste Food guys — and this did mean that all attendees could stray a few paces to the stand in question and make a final private judgment.

Not only are baked or roast hams quite different in terms of preparation, however — they do lack the venerability conferred by age, and here venerability is linked to awe-inspiring complexity and length of flavour.

The face-off was between one of France’s most highly regarded, the Noir de Bigorre — far less well known than its much more youthful and ubiquitous neighbour, the Jambon de Bayonne; a Señorío Iberico Bellota DOP from Spain and Italy’s Culatello di Zibello Antiche Razze; all three, as it happens, produced from the thighs of black pig breeds.

Bigorre2The Noir de Bigorre ham was specially imported by QED’s favourite chef Jacky Lelièvre; having performed a star turn on the Saturday, however, Jacky himself was back at work on the day at The Butcher’s Hook, along with the ham on the bone. QED director Silvija Davidson spoke up for the ‘once happy pig’ wielding the winged bronze model that features in a number of our photos. Slices were thinly carved from a lean ‘core’ (noix) of the ham, supplied by Jacky. Whilst lacking the lubricating effect of fat from which both the Jamón and Culatello benefited, the depth and length of flavour of this 22-month-aged ham won instant nods of approval, as did the story of how the breed was saved from almost certain extinction (30 years ago, just two boars remained in existence).

CulatDino Joannides, co-proprietor of new specialist deli Melograno Alimentari, ensured hushed awe from the start by announcing that only two people in the UK had access to the rare breed Culatello swaddled on the board before him. The other, we heard, was Prince Charles, who had invited its revered producer, Massimo Spigaroli of Antica Corte Pallavicina, to advise him on British ‘salumi’ production. By this stage there was standing room only in the capacious QED Event Tent. As Dino recounted his Parma restaurant adventures and visit to the mist-shrouded Antica Corte in the Bassa Parmense, murmurings of delight provided a kind of background chorus as the audience sampled improbably thin slivers of ham (thanks due to Alison of the Ham and Cheese Company, importers of a number of other Spirgaroli salumi, for the astonishing slicing feat, conducted moments before). The delicately pink meat, its fat translucent and glistening, bore little hint of the assiduous mould scrapings that must be performed over the trussed ham’s 36 month cellar sojourn.

BrindisaRenowned Spanish importers Brindisa delivered an entire Iberian ham with stand, its characteristic black foot (the famed pata negra) held proudly aloft (both the Bigorre and Iberian hams are dried on the bone, while culatello, produced from the central muscle of the thigh, is deboned, massaged and trussed). Hypnotic as the masterly carving proved, a fascinated audience listened keenly to Hiraldo’s account of the Señorío de Montanera, a partnership of farmers in Extremadura, who breed, rear, fatten, slaughter and cure their own animals themselves. These pigs are extensively acorn-fed, and the golden streaks of fat permeating the startlingly deep red meat were replete with acorn sweetness. The carved slices were strikingly different in character to the sliced slivers of culatello: thicker and chewier, but with plenty of juiciness to carry considerable length of intriguing flavour. Hiraldo reassured anyone concerned with fat consumption (and we did indeed hear many concerned comments on the matter throughout the workshops) that the fat had been declared positively beneficial in terms of cholesterol restriction by heart research institutes — a claim that almost certainly applies to all extensively bred and artisan produced air-dried hams.

Three very contrasting, and literally gob-smacking experiences each produced their fiercely held preferences. The vote was intended to be light-hearted — if anything the ‘real’ aim of the workshop was to give an unparalleled opportunity to all comers (no charge was made for attending) to sample the heights of artisan charcuterie, and to convey — as only taste linked to an understanding of the background processes can — the reason for the costliness of such products. As Hiraldo noted, with a somewhat serious laugh, "whatever they charge, it’s not enough!".

But a winner there was: those who voted for it were stunned particularly by the extraordinary delicacy of the Parmigiana pig culatello slices that so improbably produced an unanticipated wealth of flavours. Our thanks to each of the excellence-seeking importers, as well as to the crazily dedicated producers. Clearly a sine qua non of future Charcuterie Festivals.


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