It all started as a bit of a joke on Twitter — a bunch of local food bloggers talking about how much we love Hillcrest Artisan Meats, and how much we’d all like to try one of the more expensive items sold there: the $89/lb jamón ibérico de bellota. The joke became serious — and then a reality — as we realized that we could all perhaps pool our resources and all partake in this legendary Spanish ham without breaking the bank. It was also an excellent excuse for quite a few of us local bloggers to get together face-to-face, something Jess and have wanted to happen for quite some time. Present at this blogger/pork summit in addition to Jess and myself were Christie Ison from Fancy Pants Foodie, Kevin Shalin from The Mighty Rib (with his wonderful wife, Sara), Joel DiPippa from the Southern Ash blog, and my excellent colleague from Eat Arkansas, Dan Walker.
Widely considered the finest ham in the world, this Spanish import is made from black Iberian free-range pigs who are allowed exercise and are finished strictly on a diet of acorns (which greatly influences the flavor of the ham). The meat is aged for up to 36 months, so you can see that the time required to cure one of these hams coupled with the limited number of pigs that the pastures and oak groves of Southwest Spain can sustain means meat that is on the upper end of expensive.
And how was it? Simply fantastic. Brandon at Hillcrest Meats sliced us a half pound of the stuff so thin that it was almost translucent. Unlike prosciutto, which I find to be rather chewy, the iberico was soft and yielding, with a luscious fat to it that melted almost as soon as it touched the tongue. The flavor was mild and rich, and like good, strong wine was almost overwhelming in a way that forced each of us to take our time and savor each bite. This was more than charcuterie — this was the essence of all that is perfect and wonderful about charcuterie summed up in a wafer-thin slice of salty, unctuous heaven.
Everyone I’ve talked to (who wasn’t there) has the same question: is it worth it? I’d say that it certainly was. A half-pound of meat for nearly $50 seems like an insane amount to spend, but with five separate bloggers splitting the cost, that only comes to $10 each — and by the end of that half pound, we were all so overwhelmed with the richness of the meat that I don’t think anyone could have eaten another bite. It’s certainly something I would consider buying a few slices of as a nice addition to any tray of antipasti, and as a bonding experience among a group of food writers who only just met, I can’t think of anything better to serve. The sweet, wild flavor of the meat, buffered by salt and age was more than a mouthful of ham — it was one of the truest food experiences I’ve ever had.