Mario Hiraldo, Master Carver of Ibérico ham recently conducted a master class in Dublic. Held at the Spanish Ambassador’s residence. I was one of a small group of food writers invited to attend. Given Mario’s immense knowledge of his subject this seemed like a privilege.
Mario’s master class turned out to be one of the highlights of my gastronomic week. In front of us when we sat down were set a plate of thin slices of Ibérico, arranged in a clock formation, also three glasses of sherry – a fino, a manzanilla and an oloroso. The slices were cut from different parts of the same leg of ham and, encouraged by Marco, we tasted ham and sherry together The difference in texture and flavour between the various cuts was truly extraordinary. The only thing that bears comparison is an oyster tasting I attended last year in the Cliff Town House. Initially, Marco killed one popular misconception – Ibérico pigs are not all black. He showed us photographs in which ginger and even blonde pigs featured.
Ibérico ham from Spain is one of the most extraordinary gourmet products in the world, coming, as it does, from one of the last grazing species in Europe. The commonality is the pigs are allowed to roam freely in the dehesa the pasturelands of Southern Spain. This agri-economy needs space and vast amounts of it. Marco told us that the capacious grounds of the residence would, under denominational rules, only be allowed to raise one pig.
A combination of exercise and balanced diet invests Ibérico ham with a complex, lingering flavour and a tender, almost melt-in-the mouth texture.This complexity is chiefly the result of the pig’s perfect integration into its environment where it is permitted to consume everything from grass and stubble,many wild vegetables and, above all, acorns. Exercise enables the pigs to store fat deposits in the muscles, making the meat especially moist and tender.
The minimum curing period of a ham is about 18 months but for larger hams may exceed two years. Ham legs are packed in salt for a few weeks, then under the watchful eye of the ham maestro are hung in drying chambers with open windows to allow through flow of the mountain air.The ham Is not covered in lard for the curing process and no other external ingredients are added that would affect the inherently natural flavour.