When the Culinary Anthropologist Anna Colquhoun* went in search of the perfect pig, it was inevitable that she would end up in the hills of Andalusia, blown by soft breezes rich with the scents of jasmine and orange, and home to a very special breed of pig that produces the legendary ham called Pata Negra de Bellota, regarded by many as the best ham in the world, and which holds pride of place on Topaz’s Charcuterie Bar, and Topaz’s brand new dish, the Chef’s Remastered Carbonara.
In no time at all, the chef, who trained at Chez Panisse, fell entirely under the spell of the lustrous slivers of silky, sweet, aromatic ham whose deep red meat is run with wandering rivulets of creamy fat that leaves a lingering sweet and lightly salty flavour that your mouth simply never wants to give up.
And why would it? Pata Negra is now hailed as one of the great foods of the world, an icon. Even the legendary Claudia Roden says it is the best ham she has ever eaten. Others describe it as the jewel in the crown of Spanish charcuterie. And we tend to agree. Which is why you will find it as part of our charcuterie selection at Topaz, and in our new dish, the Chef’s Remastered Carbonara.
There is no doubting that jamón Iberico, recognisable for the dainty black feet, “pata negra”, that ground each leg, has experienced an explosion of attention over the last few years, much to the delight of its producers who still employ centuries old traditions with the support of modern technology in order to create this divine ham.
The pigs themselves are unique, descendants of the Mediterranean wild boar which gave them their dark skin, long legs and pointy snout. But what really makes them different is their genetic make-up, which has so formed them that their fat runs through their muscles, enhancing their distinctive marbling and with their rich-rich flavour.
Their snouts are also perfectly formed for snuffling out acorns, and cracking them out of their shells before spitting out the shards, that form the dominant part of the diet for those pigs that will go on to become the world-famous Pata Negra de Bellota.
Pata Negra de Bellota is the very peak of perfection when it comes to fine hams. The denomination is only applied to meat from pigs who, at one year old, are released into the forests of Andalusia, Extremedura or Salamanca where they roam freely gorging on oceans of tasty acorns (bellota). Each pig can consume up to 10kg of nuts a day, and during this time, they put on a huge amount of weight — as much as half a kilo a day — and the fat infiltrates deep into their muscles embedding all that glorious flavour.
There are other denominations too, such as de recebo, de pienso, cebo and campo, which are applied to the hams from pigs whose diets are not purely focused on acorns, but may also include mixes of grains and acorns (de recebo), or solely grain (de pienso, cebo and campo).
Once the pigs are slaughtered, the meat is cured, hung and matured according to centuries old traditions that are still largely managed by hand and the instincts of the curers. Thanks to the large amount of fat, Iberico hams can be hung for longer than most hams, more than two years in the case of Pata Negra de Bellota. A particular flora develops during this process, which is thought to add to the aroma (though is removed before the ham is sold). During this time, as the meat dries, the fat itself goes through a transformative process. Thanks to the antioxidants contained within the acorns, the saturated fats become healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in healthy oleic acid, second only to olive oil for its concentration.
But however good it might be for you, we just love the glorious flavours of this exceptional ham. If you want some, you’d better get to Topaz.