My two favourite countries for food are Vietnam and Spain. Yes, I know that seems a weird combo, but there it is. Here I get all the pho, banh and snake wine I like, but it’s a long way from Spain. Still, Spain has been trickling in lately. The restaurant Pacharan has been here a few years now at 97 Hai Ba Trung, D1. And El Camino at 137 Nguyen Duc Canh, D7 is a bit of a drive from my place though worth the effort. But I’ve just discovered a third truly Spanish gem, and this joint’s a lot cheaper than the others. Restaurant Olé is at 129B Le Thanh Ton, D1. And it’s the place to go for true Spanish ham in a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
Spanish ham is like no other in the wide world. Salted and semi-dried by the cold dry winds of the Spanish sierra, its closest relative is the Italian prosciutto. But if we could say that the Italian version is feminine, then the Spanish is pure male. The Italian is delicate and pink. Sliced paper thin and arranged in ruffles and curls on a plate, often with chunks of fruit lying within its folds, it presents a coy appearance. Its aroma is slightly flowery and its taste is of a gentle come-hither kind. It’s very tender.
But a Spanish ham is a bold red, deep, sometimes even the colour of wine. It’s well marbled with buttery fat streaking through the lean like a rainbow. It smells like meat, and forest and field, and of the mushrooms and acorns and herbs that the beast has fed upon. Of its good features, perhaps, the most remarkable is its texture. It is neither tough nor tender. It offers something to the teeth, yet yields easily. It is rarely fibrous, and rather than being reduced by the molars to yet smaller and smaller particles, it seems to dissolve upon the tongue like rich fat chocolate. One does not swallow a masticated mass, but a succession of liquefied reductions of robust flavour and nourishment. People don’t serve fruit with Spanish ham. They serve caviar, cheese, peasant bread, nuts, beer, glasses of port and more ham. Aficionados will gather for ham tastings in the same way that others will attend wine tastings. They select hams from the various regions and styles of Spain, of different ages and methods of ageing. They will discuss the subtleties and complexities and other virtues of the artisan ham from a small village in Extremadura, and compare them to the more scientifically produced ham of a larger enterprise. They will make notes. And they will eat more ham.
The most famous variety is called Serrano. It means “of the sierra” or the mountains. It refers to hams made from white-coated pigs that were originally introduced into Spain from northern Europe in the 1950s. Slaughter takes place in winter and is followed by a fortnight in which the hams are packed deeply in salt so as to draw off excess moisture. Then they are hung in sheds called secaderos where the cold, dry winds can get at them and slowly “cure” or dry them. Over the course of the year the mean temperature gradually rises, and as it does the fat demonstrates its unique ability to infiltrate the muscle tissue and impregnate it with its rich aroma. Both the hindquarter, the jamon, and the foreleg, the paleta, are used for curing. The paleta will be the less expensive at market. Serrano accounts for more than 90 percent of the cured ham production of Spain.
How best to enjoy Spanish ham? In great quantity! But start out with the proper temperature. It needs to be at “room temperature,” ideally about 25C. This is when its taste and smell constituents are at optimum volatility. Cut it paper thin into bite-size pieces just before serving. Enjoy it as an appetiser with manchego cheese. Pour a cold beer or some deep red wine, or a glass of sherry. Though a Spaniard would not do this, would be aghast even, I find a well-shaken martini straight up with an olive to be the perfect foil to el jamon.
At Restaurant Olé you can have it served with the chef’s specially made Spanish style bread (which itself is worth a visit), or as part of a selection of cured meats including spicy chorizo sausage, as well as the delightful manchego cheese. There is no martini to be had, but you can get a good Spanish wine or a glass of sangria. A bottle of San Miguel beer goes well, too.