Walk into any tapas bar and legs of cured ham, jamón, will be dangling from the ceiling above the bar. Walking into the Good Housekeeping Institute, London, I was met by a large Jamón Iberico, resplendent on a plinth. Like all good sculpture, this had a strong sensory effect on the viewer. In my case, a quickened pulse and instantaneous salivation.
Invited to an evening of celebration of the marvels of the Iberian ham, guests were treated to platters full of this delicacy.
Ham cutters are to jamón what a sushi chef is to fish. Years and years of training to hone knife skills and knowledge are required. We were fortunate to be in the expert hands of Florencio Sanchidrián, considered to be the most prestigious ham cutter in the world.
He instructed us in the four pillars of a tasting of Iberian ham – colour, flavour, texture and aroma. The ham must be cut at the right temperature – never sliced below 24 degrees Celsius. Sanchidrián told us that with practice we would be able to identify the aromas of an acorn, burnt sugar, pine nuts, walnuts, mushrooms, violets and truffles.
He got to work with his knives. His performance, accompanied by a flamenco guitarist, was as educational as it was entertaining, poetic and romantic. It was like a Keatsian Ode to a Jamón accompanied by tasting. And did we taste! Helen of Fuss Free Flavours and I had the good sense to volunteer for the tasting experience during which Sanchidrián demonstrated that meat cut from different parts of the joint has distinctive aromas and flavours. These ranged from walnut to what reminded me of a rich Rioja. The pièce de la resistance was eating a slice of ham, deftly flipped around the edge of Sanchidrián’s long cutting knife.
Assuring us that the next titbit would have aphrodisiac effects, Sanchidrián called for a volunteer who was ready to have a busy night. For this intrepid woman he created a ravioli of jamón, cutting different small pieces of ham, then rolling them up into a larger piece and presenting it to her on knife edge.
All the while he spoke to the ham as much as to us – ‘its elegance drives me mad’, he intoned. ‘Undress it quietly and elegantly,’ he instructed. Iberian ham has never tasted so good.
We paused to catch our breath and allow our blood pressure to return to normal with the aid of Spanish wines and tapas,
The next demonstration was from Omar Allibhoy, chef and Tapas Revolution restauranteur.
For many of us, Iberian ham is eaten only in tapas bars where we may order it as a platter of charcuterie. Omar taught us to make a jamón and pea soup – quick and easy and just the dish for a cold winter’s evening.
He also demonstrated how to create Salmorejo with Jamón Ibérico. It looked and tasted a little like a gazpacho, but Omar told us that it is in fact a dip from Andalucia.
It is served all year round unlike gazpacho which is essentially a summer soup. We had already had a taste of this gorgeous tomato-based dip while canapes were being passed around and I was delighted to go home having seen it demonstrated plus having the recipe in my bag. This will definitely be making it onto my list of party nibbles this Christmas.