Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Worth the Price: Jamón Ibérico from Spain

Black Iberian pigs rooting for acorns.
One of Spain’s most well-known and beloved culinary specialties is Jamón Ibérico (Iberian ham), also called pata negra, a rare and expensive type of cured ham. In order to be called Jamón Ibérico, the ham must come from at least 75 percent black Iberian pigs. These pigs have been native to the Iberian peninsula for millennia, primarily in the south and southwest parts of Spain, including the provinces of Salamanca, Ciudad Real, Cáceres, Badajoz, Seville, Córdoba, and Huelva. They are large, with long snouts and slender legs, and their skin is black with very little hair. Their hooves are also black, hence the name “pata negra.” The hoof is left on the cured ham so it can be easily distinguished from less prized Serrano hams.

A Jamón Ibérico ready to slice,
showing the characteristic black hoof.
After they are weaned, black Iberian piglets are fattened on barley and maize for several weeks. They are then turned out to roam in pasture and oak groves, called the Dehesa, to graze on grass, herbs, acorns, and roots. Each pig can eat more than twenty pounds of acorns a day. When released into the Dehesa, at about ten months old, they weigh about 200 pounds each. They gain up to two pounds of fat each day, and after three to four months each pig roughly doubles its weight. The exercise and diet will have a significant impact on the flavor of the meat. In the winter, once they have reached their target weight, it’s time for the slaughter.

The “matanza,” or slaughter, is traditionally a family affair. The pig is slaughtered and the whole family works to preserve the meat for the rest of the year. They make chorizo, salchichón, and morcilla sausages on the spot and set aside choice cuts to be eaten fresh. Finally, the fatty legs are packed in sea salt and hung to dry in caves or special sheds in the cool winter air.

Black Iberian pigs are very fatty, with veins of fat running through their muscles. This allows the Jamones Ibérico to be cured much longer, from two to four years, resulting in a much more complex, intense flavor, with an incomparable note of sweetness. Over the curing period, the hams lose nearly half their weight as the fat drips away. Through this period of heating and cooling, salting and drying, the fats are broken down. Because of the antioxidants in the acorns and the unique curing process, the saturated fats are changed into healthy monounsaturated fats high in oleic acid. The only fat higher in oleic acid is olive oil.

The hams are named according to the pigs’ diet, with an all-acorn diet being most desirable. The finest Jamón Ibérico, cured for four years, is called Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (acorn), and is exclusively from the free-range acorn-eating pigs. Bellota Jamones are prized for their smooth texture and rich, nutty, savory taste. The lesser grades of Jamón Ibérico are called Jamón Ibérico de Recebo, from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain, and Jamón Ibérico de Cebo (or simply Jamón Ibérico), from pigs fed only grain, and cured for two years. When both parents of the slaughtered animal are registered purebreds, the word “puro” can be added to the name.

Jamón Ibérico only accounts for about 8 percent of Spain’s cured-ham production; it is very expensive and not widely available abroad. Prior to 2005, it was not even available in the United States. Like Jamón Serrano and Italian prosciutto, Jamón Ibérico is served sliced very thin with good bread and very little adornment or garnish. The basic Jamón Ibérico can go for upwards of $52 a pound, and the Bellota is priced upwards of $96 a pound, making these hams some of the most expensive in the world.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Flamenco: the quintessential Spanish dance

No understanding of Spanish history and culture can be complete without an appreciation of Flamenco, the authentic live music and dance that has been part of the Spanish heart and identity for more than 500 years.

Flamenco is the passionate, sometimes melancholy music of the gypsies of Andalusía in Southern Spain, with the city of Sevilla at its heart. It is heavily influenced by the Moors of North Africa who ruled Spain for more than eight centuries. 

The origins of Flamenco are often a subject of debate because it has only been documented for the past two centuries. The word “Flamenco” did not come into use until the 18th century. Much of its history before this time comes from family stories passed down through the years, as are the Flamenco songs themselves. 

Historic photo of gypsy performers
One certainty about Flamenco is that it originated in Andalusia. From the 8th to the 15th centuries, when Spain was under Arab rule, the Moors’ music and musical instruments were modified and adapted by Spanish Christians and Jews, and later by gypsies, becoming in time a new, hybrid musical form. 

Flamenco’s roots can be found in gatherings around the campfire at night. With their guitars, drums, and castañets, gypsies would spontaneously break into a juerga, an impromptu outburst of guitarra (guitar playing), cante (song), and baile (dance), rhythmically snapping their fingers (pitos), clapping (palmas), and stamping their feet (zapateados). Over the years this evolved into a dance form with its own songs and traditions, including the women’s costumes of long, flared skirts and fringed shawls that accentuate every twirl. 

Between 1765 and 1860, the first Flamenco schools were formed in Cadiz, Jerez de la Frontera, and the Triana sector of Sevilla. The Golden Age of Flamenco (1869-1910) saw a flourishing of cafés cantantes (music cafés) where nightly performances saw dancers perfecting the different forms of Flamenco for enthusiastic audiences. The more serious songs and dances expressing cante jondo (deep feelings and emotion) date from this era. Dancers, guitar players, and singers featured in these cafés cantantes became internationally famous.

Gypsies and their art form suffered during the Spanish Civil War, and were one of the persecuted minorities during the Second World War. It wasn’t until the 1905s that a sort of Flamenco Renaissance was able to take shape. Outstanding dancers and soloists soon made their way out of the small tablaos, successors to the early cafés cantantes, to the great theatres and concert houses. 

Famed guitarist Paco de Lucia
Although mass media has brought Flamenco to the world stage, it has always been and will always remain an intimate kind of music. The relationship between dancer and guitarist makes Flamenco unique as a dance form. Contrary to most dance forms, it is the guitarist who follows the dancer’s prompts. Duende, the baring of one’s soul in all its frank emotion, is another crucial element of Flamenco. Passion, longing, and a deep pride are the feelings most frequently expressed through these dances and songs.

Modern Flamenco is a highly technical dance style requiring years of study. The emphasis for both male and female performers is on lightning-fast footwork performed with absolute precision. The dancers often use props such as castanets, shawls and fans.

Flamenco is currently enjoying an unprecedented popularity around the globe, with professional touring companies spreading the art form to every continent, and schools and studios in major cities worldwide. Students from all over the world travel to study with the best dancers and teachers in Sevilla, still the homeland of Flamenco.