Wednesday, 14 October 2009
Brindisa Ham School, Borough Market
Like all the best delicatessens and food shops, the smell of Brindisa's Borough Market outpost is exciting, unmistakeable and arresting. From the impressive rack of cured legs of Spanish ham that crown the carvery emerges a rich, earthy scent of forest mushrooms, wet oak and, of course, the thing that gives these extraordinary animals their unique flavour - acorn. It's a smell that defines Spanish food in the same way that the musk of grease and batter from a chippie does for England or the sweet waft of freshly-baked croissants from a village bakery does for France. It's an evocative and emotional smell, and I don't care if you've never been to Spain or even tasted any cured Spanish ham, you can't fail to be moved by it.
I was in Borough market on a cold dark evening as a guinea pig for Brindisa's new "Ham School" venture. The idea is you pay £65 for an evening tasting, talking about and even having a go at carving some of the world's finest cured pork product, all overseen by Alberto Ambler, the assistant manager. Helping him and providing a live demonstration of how it all should be done was Zac Fingal-Rock Innes, Brindisa's own "Master Carver", who I can personally vouch is incredibly good at his job despite the rather worrying bandage he was sporting on his right hand.
But first, the tasting. Four different hams were presented, ranging from what was modestly described as an 'entry-level' bit of pig, the 14-month cured Jamón de Monroyo Reserva from Aragón. More chewy and less 'melty' than the more expensive varieties, it was nevertheless sweet and moreish, with a subtle nuttiness.
The Jabu Recebo from Huelva was cured for far longer - 2 to 3 years - and therefore had a much more concentrated hit of those earthy forest flavours. It also had a much softer texture, the fat melting in the mouth and combining with the firmer red flesh beautifully. You could immediately tell how the ageing process improves the meat.
My favourite ham of all, the Jamón de la Dehesa de Extremadura Bellota D.O.P., to give it its full title (though referred to by the staff as "The Dehesa"), was just about as perfect a piece of meat as I've ever had the pleasure of eating. It has an unbelievably concentrated and complex flavour, verging on sour, with a deep marmite-y richness and is delightfully melty on the tongue. This was overwhelmingly the most popular ham amongst the other lucky souls invited that evening, and notice also the D.O.P. in the title there - this protects under European law every stage of the production and is the top guarantee of excellence in Iberico hams.
I'm afraid the brilliance of the Dehesa rather pulled the rug from under what Brindisa presumably lined up to be the star of the show - the Joselito Gran Reserva Bellota from Salamanca. Still excellent of course, it probably just had too subtle a mix of flavours to win over my battered, unsophisticated palette. By this time, too, the generous measures of fine La Gitana manzanilla were kicking in and possibly clouding the judgement somewhat. I have written on my rather wobbly tasting notes "Complex, balanced, smooth, woody". Let's leave it at that.
A couple more sherries later Zac bravely offered to show us how to show us how to prepare and carve a brand new leg of ham. The leg was screwed into a large scary-looking wooden brace and the excess fat trimmed off. Next, delicate thin slices of were sliced off horizontally, just a few inches at a time, using a long and thin (and frighteningly sharp) knife. It didn't look easy. But fortified by La Gitana and comforted to some degree by the thick chain mail gloves offered, I dove in.
It was incredibly satisfying to produce these delicate slices of juicy ham, and though my efforts were obviously nowhere near as beautifully produced as Zac's, it was nevertheless great fun to feel such a creative connection between yourself, the animal and the delicious end product. I'm guessing it tasted better for having just been carved too, for although this was merely a 'starter ham' (they weren't stupid enough to let us hack apart a Gran Reserva), I happily wolfed down the slices as soon as the chain mail gloves were off.
Anyone not gluttonous enough to finish off their hand-carved ham seconds after carving (that would be me, then) had it wrapped up and packed off at home time, so none went to waste. Educational, entertaining and enormous fun, I can't think of anyone that wouldn't enjoy an evening talking about and carving the finest hams in the world (well OK, maybe vegetarians, but they don't deserve to enjoy their evenings anyway). Brindisa Ham School is running every month beginning on 5th November, and comes thoroughly recommended.