by Peter Coucquyt
on April 16, 2018

Jamón Ibérico: Pairing the (Im)Possible

It’s not everyday that one has the good fortune of sampling premium, black label jamón Ibérico de bellota together with the culinary luminaries of Spain’s fine dining scene. So naturally, the invitation to attend Maridando lo (Im)Posible, a tasting workshop hosted by Arturo Sánchez, artisanal producer of some of the finest Iberian hams, was an opportunity we simply could not resist!

Jamón Ibérico de bellota

It would be an understatement to say that salt, air and time are all it takes to transform the black-skinned pata negras into the most beloved of Spanish dry-cured hams. If you’ve ever experienced the silky smooth texture and nuanced, melt-in-your-mouth flavor of the ultra-premium variety of jamón Ibérico de bellota, then you know there’s more to the art of curing than just that. As owner Arturo Sánchez explained to us, the black-footed pig’s special breed characteristics, its acorn-rich diet and the centuries-old tradition of curing passed down from one generation to the next all factor into its complex palette of fruity, nutty and caramellic meaty notes that epicures so covet.

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Not to be confused with Serrano hams or even the widely available grain-fed jamón Ibérico de cebo, the unique flavor of jamón Ibérico de bellota owes itself to the pigs’ foraged diet, prolonged fermentation and curing process that can last from three to upwards of five or even six years, as in the case of the black label hams. This allows plenty of time for the degradation of proteins and fatty acids to occur, leading to the formation of new aroma molecules. Thanks to their natural diet of grass, herbs and bellota (acorns), which are high in oleic acid, Iberico pigs possess a much higher concentration of antioxidants and unsaturated fatty acids, yielding a luxuriously silky texture and a more intense flavor than you’ll find in Serrano hams or any lesser grade Iberian hams.

A pure expression

During the fall and winter seasons, otherwise referred to as the montanera, purebred Iberico pigs graze on fallen acorns from the cork and oak trees that dot the pastoral landscape of the dehesa, a protected ecosystem bordering Southwestern Spain and Portugal. The special Iberico pigs enjoy an exclusive diet of acorns for—not one but—two montanera cycles before slaughter to ensure only the highest quality of flavor. By winter’s end, the pedigreed pigs will have doubled their weight feasting on as much as ten kilograms of acorns per day! The jamón Ibérico of Arturo Sánchez is a pure expression of the pig’s ancestral Iberian lineage, healthy diet and plenty of exercise roaming free throughout the dehesa.

Aroma analysis: Jamón Ibérico de bellota

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Bellota hams are much fattier than Serrano hams, marked by thick white stripes of fat coursing through their muscles; this requires longer curing and drying times to allow the fat to fully absorb into the muscle fibers. As the meat dries, the degradation of proteins and fats occurs, giving way to the formation of new aroma molecules that are responsible for the complex flavor profile of this prized ham. The hams are then aged for a minimum of three years in naturally ventilated cellars, where the temperate Mediterranean breezes and unique microbial flora impart their distinctive flavor.

Fruity, nutty and meaty

Molecules such as 2-methylbutanal and 3-methylbutanal form during the aging process, giving way to the broad range of fruity, nutty and meaty flavors that pair well with all manner of other ingredients—your imagination is the limit! Also present are aldehyde molecules that cause the ham’s meatier notes to take on a pleasant fruity, citrus nuance.

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Caramellic

The Maillard reaction is generally associated with applied heat, though this chemical reaction can also be triggered by oxidation. In the case of Ibérico hams, the evaporation of water molecules causes the sugar molecules in the flesh to interact with amino acids, resulting in the development of nutty benzaldehyde aroma molecules and furans, which impart a maple-like, caramellic scent.

Jamón Ibérico: Pairing the (Im)Possible

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Scents and sensibility

Arturo Sánchez challenged chefs and other industry professionals to think beyond the typical Spanish tapas combinations when serving jamon Ibérico. For the Foodpairing® portion of the Maridando lo (Im)Posible workshop, guests were divided into seven groups of ten. Each team was led by a chef and given a boxful of mystery ingredients that included one of four Arturo Sánchez products: jamón Ibérico de bellota, the jamón’s lovely white fatback, chorizo and salchichón. Their challenge: To create a Foodpairing-inspired tapa that would be prepared and presented by each of the chefs. But there was a catch! To truly test our senses, each box contained two items that bore no aromatic match whatsoever to the pork products.

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On your mark, get set...pair!

The groups were given 20 minutes to sample every item in their boxes to determine which of the 14 to 20 different ingredients formed the strongest aromatic links to the Arturo Sánchez products. As they tasted their way through everything from fruits and vegetables to fresh herbs and different types of breads, cheeses, chocolates, meats, seafoods, sauces, condiments and more, items with no obvious connections to the pork products like oregano and kumquats were crossed off the list of potential matches for jamón Ibérico. The teams then deliberated over which of the remaining ingredients would best complement the cured meats. Jamón Ibérico and scallops? Or maybe the jamón’s rich fatback would pair well with blueberries and raspberries? How about salchichón and purple shiso...or passion fruit?

Each team was given a boxful of mystery ingredients that included one of four Arturo Sánchez products and tasked with creating a Foodpairing-inspired tapa.

With just a few minutes left on the clock, it was time to prep. Armed with the colorfully illustrated diagrams of their group’s jamón-inspired ingredient pairings, the chefs wasted no time in preparing their creations. Chefs Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz and Paco Pérez of Miramar busied themselves in the kitchen, searing scallops on hot skillets, as Marie José San Román of Monastrell made guacamole from scratch using almonds, capers and pink grapefruit, which she served in Belgian endive leaves with thin slices of chorizo. “Time’s up!” One by one, the chefs were called onstage to present their group’s tapas. Diagrams in hand, they explained the ingredient inspiration behind each of their jamón-inspired pairings.

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As chefs, it’s always refreshing to step outside of our own heads since it’s so easy to fall back on what’s tried-and-true in the kitchen. One standout from the foodpairing session was a small plate of pan-seared scallops layered with salty bites of shaved jamón Ibérico de bellota and crisp matchstick pears tossed in Arbequina olive oil and seasoned with grated dark chocolate—a masterful assemblage of contrasting flavors, tastes and textures by Aduriz’s group. Also intriguing were two tapas presented by Pérez that entailed thin slices of pan-seared scallops sandwiched between fruity layers of lightly caramelized banana crowned with shaved jamón; and jamón paired with fresh strawberries and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano finished with just a touch of Arbequina olive oil—so simple yet sublime.

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Maridando lo (Im)Posible

Since no jamón Ibérico-themed symposium would be complete without a proper tasting, Arturo Sánchez rolled out the works for their guests. Stationed throughout the room were large platters adorned with delicate ribbons of expertly carved jamón Ibérico de bellota, spicy red rounds of smoked chorizo and salchichón. Each bite a savory testament to the care and craftsmanship undertaken to produce these fine artisanal products.

And in case there was any lingering uncertainty as to how to pair any of these porky products, an endless parade of tapas and pintxos was served, showcasing an assortment of traditional ingredients, as well as more experimental pairings. We sampled everything from beef tartare seasoned with melted Ibérico pork fat on slices of baguette with Manchego wedges to a surf-and-turf tartare made using raw bites of salmon, salchichón and minced dill piled high on crunchy kroepoek wafers.

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Uni lovers were treated to briney tongues of chilled sea urchin on small plates topped with paper-thin shavings of jamón Ibérico de bellota served with smoked coconut over a rich coconut cream sauce. And of course, who could forget the smoky strips of salchichón and shredded txangurro (spider crab) tossed in an Emmental sauce and slathered on toast, recalling the old txaca-style pintxos of San Sebastián. But if forced to pick, my favorite combination that evening was Taberna Lalola Chef Javier Abascal's cloud-like puff of fluffy white chocolate mousse topped with a single spicy round of chorizo on toast—a happy ending to a delectable day.

Beyond the sliver of a doubt, Maridando lo (Im)Posible was proof positive that there is no limit to what you can do with jamón Ibérico, chorizo and salchichón.

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