Salamanca, one of the most beautiful cities in all Spain, has a reputation for some of the best tapas bars serving the best ham — pata negra, that is prepared from the haunches of the Ibérico pig — along with a seductive way with the lesser parts of the succulent beast.
A stroll through Salamanca’s city center, recently polished and pedestrianized, reveals one glorious golden building behind another. The initial impression is of simplicity — perfect proportions and soaring height. Move closer and you’ll observe intricate decorative carving in the platero, or silversmith, style, the work of skilled artisans who traveled to the cities of the north from Seville, harbor port for the Indies, with treasure from the New World — potatoes, chilies and maize as well as precious metals to fill the coffers of the Old World. The Ruta de la Plata, or Silver Road, runs along the Portuguese border across the hot, high plateau of Extremadura till it reaches the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela, one of the three holiest places in medieval Christendom. Salamanca itself is a pilgrim destination, and this, along with its ancient university and lively year-round student population, keeps the tapas bars of the Plaza Mayor, the central square, busy all year providing their impecunious visitors with the cheap little mouthfuls which come free with the glass. For the more affluent citizenry who can afford a ración — a paid-for dish to share between four — there’s something good to eat after the day’s work.
Ibérico ham becomes a luxury
And anything good and cheap is likely to include the lesser parts of the Ibérico pig. The Ibérico ham of the last of the semi-wild herds that once foraged the forests of Europe is wildly expensive even in Spain, reflecting the esteem in which it’s held. Ibéricos are fed at least in part bellotas, a particularly large and succulent nut that’s also enjoyed by humans, with production limited to certain areas where the ancient breed survives. In other regions, serrano hams can be prepared with the meat of domesticated breeds fed on grain. The name black foot, or pata negra, is a reference to the Ibérico’s ebony trotter rather than the cured haunch — this can be quite dark — though not all Ibérico pigs have black trotters. The process of preparation of serrano and pata negra is unlike that of all other raw hams in that once salted and wind-dried, Spanish hams are cellared much like wine, a process that allows a thick blanket of technicolor molds to develop, though this shrinks to a thin veil as soon the ham is brought back to air and light. Preliminaries — salting and wind-drying — take advantage of the peculiarities of climate. The breeze in the ham-curing uplands is flame-hot by day and ice-cold at night, encouraging the fat alternately to melt and firm, massaging itself lean. The larger the ham, the longer it can be matured: A ham from a well-grown beast can mature for seven years, improving every year.
Such an industry delivers plenty of off cuts. And Salamanca’s tapas bars offer a wide variety of these free with the glass, among them such delicacies as chicharrones, bubbly chunks of pork skin fried crisp; trotters or tripe slow-cooked with chickpeas and chili; fried morcilla — black pudding — flavored with cumin and topped with slow-cooked onion; frittered brains or sweetbreads; pig ears shredded and crisped in olive oil with garlic; tails and snouts slow-simmered with tomato and peppers. Nose-to-tail-eating starts here.
Ibérico pigs forage the dehesa, a vast expanse of red earth dotted with prickly scrub and patches of holm oak that stretches the length of Extremadura, one of the poorest regions of Spain. On the day of my visit in autumn, a dozen or so of the huge humpbacked beasts, gray ghosts among silvery rocks, were moving slowly through the trees, cropping acorns and tubers under the watchful eye of Juan Antonio, their herdsman. Most important of his duties, he explained, is to discourage the attentions of the native wild boar, jabali, whose interest in his sows can result in a litter of little striped piglets. Ibérico babies are never striped. Young pigs are corralled at least for the first year, until their teeth are well-grown enough to chew roots and crack shells. Ibéricos endure hardship easily, storing fat in good times to carry them through the lean, an ability that contributes to the butteriness of the meat.
Tips on carving and judging the hams
Ibérico, as with all serrano or mountain hams, is best carved from the bone in short curls, lonchas, rather than de-boned and machine-sliced. Strong men come to blows on the correct order of carving, though this should be with rather than against the grain, and the exterior skin and thin layer of outer fat should be removed and the rest included in the carving. Once carved, protect the surface with a layer of carved-off fat and a cotton cloth and hang in a dry current of air. If you keep it in the fridge it’ll grow a furry green jacket in two shakes of a pig’s tail. So how do you tell whether it’s the real thing? Easy, said my neighbor in a Salamanca bar. Ibérico fat melts at blood temperature. Pick up your plateful and hold it sideways. If the ham sticks to the plate, it’s Ibérico. If it drops, ask for your money back. I didn’t verify the information — no sense in wasting good ham.
When judging the excellence of your plateful of pata negra, look first for the little white crystals no bigger than a pinhead, which confirm the beast has fattened on bellotas. Now pick up a curl and let it gently feel the warmth of your fingertips while you admire the burgundy transparency as you hold it to the light. Transfer the morsel to your tongue, allowing the fragrance to reach the sensors at the back of your throat. Listen for the faint crunch of the crystals beneath your teeth as you take the first bite. Savor the flavor: sweet, clean and nutty. Enjoy the texture: a little chewy but buttery, velvety and dense. When you swallow, you’ll notice a little catch just behind the molars, an aftertaste of hay meadow hot from the sun.
Illustration: Ibérico pigs. Credit: Elisabeth Luard