Right before the July 4 holiday this year, our friends at Hillcrest Artisan Meats announced that they were participating in a “Ham Independence” contest sponsored by one of the world’s best producers of quality pork, La Quercia. I’ve enjoyed La Quercia products at H.A.M. for awhile, and when Jess and I were in Seattle, one of the best meat trays we ate featured meats from Salumi as well as prosciutto from the Iowa producer. We’ve eaten a lot of fine pork over the past year or so, from Spanish raised jamon iberico de bellota to some fantastic local-raised pork chops, but I think we’ve found a winner for best overall pork, because when Hillcrest Artisan Meats won that “Ham Independence” contest, the grand prize was a leg of Acorn Berkshire Prosciutto, a 17 lb. slab of pure porcine perfection that retails somewhere north of $1000.00. Yes, that’s not a typo — that ham you see in the picture above is worth more than a grand.
So of course Brandon Brown and the H.A.M. gang did the only thing they could do: they started slicing up free samples for everybody who walked through the door, because that’s the sort of excellent people they are.
This was the first time I’d ever seen a ham with the hoof still on (other than pictures), held in a contraption made just for the purpose of keeping the ham upright for easy slicing. The outside was dark cream, the color of sea foam, but when sliced the ham revealed a lighter layer of creamy fat and a ruby red flesh that smelled of brine, of blood, and of the richness that comes from age and care. Brandon took a long knife and gently shaved a piece from the leg, handing it to me with a knowing smile. The fat began to liquefy as my fingers warmed it, and I brought the slice to my nose, breathing deep a scent that was wild, slightly gamy, and richer than strong wine.
The first taste: salt and fat, with a nuttiness from the acorn diet these Berkshire hogs are fed. Then a rush of sweet fat melting on the tongue, with a floral sweetness like good figs but with a solid deepness that coated and surrounded my tongue with delicious flavor. I’d consider it superior to even Spanish ham — a bold statement since it was the Spanish that brought pigs to this continent in the first place. La Quercia knows their pork, and it was a privilege to be able to sample some, especially at my favorite butcher shop on earth. Thanks to La Quercia, thanks to Hillcrest Artisan Meats — and thanks to all of you that voted. Arkansas really brought home a prize with this one.