The Elite of Meat
For ages, swine has been a chosen favorite among chefs and diners both in the kitchen and on the dining room table. In recent years, one could hardly venture into a restaurant without the mention of pork belly or bacon on the menu. Although these pork trends will most likely continue to remain popular, the cut of meat taken from the thigh of the pigs’ rear legs (more concisely known as ham) has gained resurgence among a loyal following in many parts of the world, including here on the West Coast. As witnessed in the premise of the best-selling Dr. Seuss children’s story, Green Eggs and Ham, diners throughout the states have enjoyed a hard-to-know obsession with this porky elite of meat.
When many Americans ponder ham, their memories drift to images of a pineapple-decorated, brine-injected, pumped-up pink hunk of meat sitting at the center of their holiday dinner tables. These fully-cooked “city hams” are wet-cured and are often smoked or baked, typically flavored with sugar syrup. They are fairly inexpensive and readily available at one’s local grocery store. Although this moist city ham might be bought in greater volume by the average US consumer, this ubiquitous plump pork is not the preferred, chosen ham for the gourmet epicurean or chef.
The other pink meat
The rise and interest of cured ham in both professional and home kitchens across the West Coast can be attributed to a number of key factors such as the farm-to-table movement, the demand for higher quality food and the recent export of distinct Italian and Spanish dry-cured hams. “With the huge underground movement of artisanal butchers and chefs making their own charcuterie, chefs have become aware of the differences in a heritage breed that has been properly raised, correctly fed and finished, versus a commodity processed pig,” ssays Bay Area Chef John Fink of The Whole Beast a company he founded to celebrate the art of cooking whole animals over fire; specifically meat that has been humanely grown, prepared in a holistic manner by paying special attention to animal husbandry. “This movement is really taken from the Old World sense of sustainability that has tremendous real world application for modern sustainability pickling, salting, curing sometimes we have to look to the past to find solutions for the future,” says Chef Fink.
Ever since the 1989 lift on the U.S. ban of Prosciutto di Parma from Italy, this salt-cured, air-dried ham has appeared on a number of Italian and non-Italian restaurant menus nationwide. Cube Marketplace and Café in Los Angeles boasts one of the most extensive cheese and charcuterie lists in L.A., offering an impressive selection of cured meats from Italy, Spain and various states around the U.S., including Virginia and Iowa. “Like our diners, I love our prosciutto. It’s the best I have ever tasted; buttery, not too salty and filled with flavor. On good bread, it is a real treat,” says Cube’s Executive Chef Erin Eastland. She credits her gourmet buyer, Rachael Sheridan, for the restaurant’s “carefully selected, unmatched salumi and cheese menu.” Fortunately for Cube patrons, this popular West Hollywood neighborhood eatery also doubles as an artisanal food shopping emporium. “Our Prosciutto Langhirano is by far our best seller. We also do well with Mole Salami by Salumi Salami and our imported cured meats from Visso, Italy wild boar being a favorite among foodies. Many of our diners that enjoy unique cured meats end up purchasing what they have eaten in the restaurant by the pound from our cheese bar to take home for parties and entertaining,” says Chef Eastland.
As for Italian varieties, The Whole Beast’s John Fink has found both classic Parma ham and San Daniele Prosciutto to be dry-cured ham favorites among his guests. At San Francisco’s Hog & Rocks, a restaurant not only known but also named for their dedication to swine (and oysters), Executive Chef and Owner Scott Youkilis features cured ham from around the world, including a Recia Speck and a San Daniele Prosciutto from Italy.
When asked about his personal list of must-have cured meats, Chef Youkilis lists Culatello from Italy, Iberico from Spain and Country Ham from the U.S. as his all-time favorites. Although the pricey Italian Parma ham Culatello is still unavailable for import to the U.S., Chef Youkilis says, “It is the best cut of the ham and traditionally aged in the pig’s bladder. That’s a big no-no by U.S. standards, but it is served at almost every meal in Bologna, Italy, and it really is the best of the best.” Parma hams derive from large white pigs raised in Central-Northern Italy who are fed a specially regulated diet blend of cereals, grains and whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Reign of Spain
In the last several years, one cannot deny the infectious rise of Spanish cuisine here in America. At the recent James Beard Awards, Spanish Chef José Andrés took home the Outstanding Chef of the Year Award. To say that he is well-versed with the Spanish ham, Jamón, would be an understatement. This staple food of Spanish restaurants and households has become an all-star on Chef Andrés’ West Coast restaurant menus including The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills and Jaleo at The Cosmpolitan of Las Vegas. Prior to 2007, the only Jamón available in the United States was the flavorful mountain-cured white pig known as Jamón Serrano. “Our most popular with diners is the Serrano ham,” says Hog & Rocks’ Youkilis who offers a 15-month aged Monte Nevado Jamón Serrano on his artisanal-ham menu.
In late 2007, Jamón Ibérico, an elite black-Iberian pig known as pata negra (black pig) was allowed for distribution in the U.S. Chef José Andrés, through an arrangement with Spanish food producer Embutidos Fermín, is credited for bringing the luxurious acorn-fed Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (the finest of Jamón Ibérico hams) here to the States. As if Jamón Ibérico couldn’t get any better, Chef Andrés takes it to a new level at Jaleo, adding a scoop of caviar to this thin-sliced, silky indulgence.
Hamming it up around the world
Throughout the years, ham has been a beloved meat choice in America, Europe, the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. Despite the popularity in these regions, there are areas across the world, due to religious restrictions, climate, and diet choices where consumption of ham is relatively non-existent.
Even with the ban of ham in certain locations, the worship of it in other areas continues to flourish. Here in America, Cochon 555 is a traveling competition and pork extravaganza, which is dedicated solely to promoting the sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs. Now in its third year, Cochon 555 has become an industry-favorite celebration, with sell-out crowds paying upwards of $200 a ticket to indulge in an afternoon of wining and swine-ing. As far as cured hams, there’s no shortage of it at Cochon 555. “Cured hams from Allan Benton, ‘the godfather of smoke’ and Nick Heckett at Woodlands both illustrate an Old World, passionate approach to country hams. People love that they’re so unique…also the Coppa, especially those made by tour buddy, Michael Sullivan of Blackberry Farm aka ‘the reverend of fat’ are crowd-favorites among guests and chefs at Cochon 555,” says event founder Brady Lowe.
Long live American country hams
For chefs wanting to integrate ham at their own
establishments, Public Kitchen & Bar Executive Chef Tim Goodell suggests “something more universal, like a country ham.” At his restaurant in Los Angeles’ historic Roosevelt Hotel, crowd favorites include “Country pâté, and country ham from Kentucky.”
Across the state in San Francisco, Hog & Rocks’ Chef Youkilis echoes the country ham sentiment. “Domestic country hams are my favorite, but a ham bar, just like a drinking bar needs choices and varieties. Thus, we have ham from Spain, prosciutto and speck from Italy and prosciutto-inspired hams from Iowa and Virginia.”
Country hams have consistently proven to be a high-quality, dry-cured ham choice here in the United States. Country ham producers are more commonly found in the American Southeast and around the Appalachians where temperatures provide an ideal climate for successfully producing dry-cured hams. Smithfield Ham from Virginia is one of the most well-known country hams, but there are many other well-regarded domestic ham makers including Johnston County Hams who presented the first commercially produced American Mangalista ham.
Artisanal country hams are a stellar product earning the gaining respect they deserve among discriminating ham lovers. “La Quericia from Iowa has raised the bar for American prosciuttos,” says Chef John Fink.
Hog & Rocks’ owner Scott Youkilis similarly sings American-produced country hams’ praises, noting,“G&W Hamery from Tennessee,” is quickly becoming a favorite among customers of his restaurant.
With top-notch, cured-ham selections both here and abroad fueled with people’s long-standing love affair with this flavorfully distinctive meat, it is hard to deny that this spotlighted pork product has staying power that will be making a statement on both professional and personal plates for many years to come.