I remember the day like it was yesterday. The kind of barmy late September afternoon that makes you forget winter ever existed. It was a Thursday, around 3pm, and I'd engineered a 'meeting' that allowed me to skip work for the rest of the day in favour of a trip to Borough Market. I'd gone in search of Mediterranean produce for a feast I was cooking the following day, inspired by a week long stage at Moro.
Clutching a loaf of the perfect sourdough for my Moroccan bread salad starter, I headed to Brindisa to sample their fine selection of jamon. I stood at the counter, five legs of dark, glistening meat in front of me, the ham carver behind them, carefully trimming off inviting little slivers.
I chatted to the carver as he sliced, discussing the characteristics of each ham, each of them with a distinct, nutty flavour. Each of them entirely unique. He told me about how the pata negra or black pigs roam in a dense woodland area, almost the size of Wales. He told me how they graze on acorns that fall from the oak trees, some of them over two thousand years old. He told me about the animal husbandry, the farmers who tend to the them, and how when the men go out to bring the pigs in for slaughter, they sometimes don't return for days. He told me about the curing process, the air drying, sometimes for 24 months or more, and how the subtle climactic differences brought about by the geography of the curing houses has such a profound effect on the finished product. I stood there and listened for at least half an hour, completely and utterly compelled.
In front of me lay some of the finest examples of jamon iberico in the country, if not the world. A meat that is intrinsically related to it's surroundings – a true product of nature, enhanced by craft skills that haven't changed for generations, plus the investment of a lot of time, effort, and love. I left the shop with a few slices of sweet, nutty Extramadura de Bellota, a couple of pots of ham fat, a bag of iberico bones, and a very big smile on my face.
The jamon itself went down a treat the following evening. I used it in a pre-dinner tapa, on toast smeared with a little roast garlic puree, still just warm enough to melt the fat from the jamon as it lay on top. The bones, however, lasted a lot longer... The carver advised me to keep them in the freezer, using a chunk at a time to make rich, deeply flavoured stock. In fact, those humble bones contain so much flavour, you can use each one again and again – three times at least, if you're lucky. They made their mark on many a meal; With lentils in a thick, comforting winter soup; In a braise with a smoked ham hock and white beans, for one of the most flavoursome - and cheap – Sunday dinners I've had in a long time; Added to caramelised onions for an Iberian take on the classic French onion soup; and in a rich, hearty, and supremely unctuous Basque-style chicken stew. And they're still going... I even gave away the final - unused - bones as leaving gifts. (You lucky boys!)
It's funny how little acts sometimes make such a big impression... Who would have thought a bag of pig bones could change the course of my life forever? With each and every meal I made with them, I thought more and more about the process that brought about these incredible flavours. I suppose you could say I developed something of an obsession with jamon, or at least a very strong desire to find out more.
And so yesterday, I left London for Spain, where I'll be living for the foreseeable future, in search of the finest jamon in the land! As I type, I'm sat in a pintxo bar in the casco viejo de Bilbao, an array of gastronomic treats in front of me, and a glass of vino tinto at my side. Over the coming months, I will eat my way through Pais Vasco, Austurias and then Galicia, before heading south to Extramadura, where the black pigs roam free, and so shall I...
Spanish onion soup
My Iberian take on the French bistro classic. This is a dish for the patient cook – the key is in caramelising the onions for as long as possible. Up to an hour on a very low heat is ideal, and in fact works perfectly, as you can boil up the stock at the same time. Pour yourself a couple of glasses of Madeira whilst you wait, and it will fly by.
For the stock
a Jamon Iberico bone (or other pig bone – ask your butcher)
a couple of carrots, peeled and sliced in half
a couple of sticks of celery, cut into chunks
an onion, skinned and sliced in half
a couple of bay leaves
half a dozen black pepper corns
For the soup
a knob of butter or a couple of chunks jamon fat
white or Spanish onions – two or three per person, finely sliced
garlic – a small clove per person, chopped
thyme – the leaves of a sprig or two person
salt and pepper
Madeira, sherry, or fino (alternatively you can use white wine) – a good slug per person
ham stock – half a pint per person
lentils – a handful per person (optional)
First, make the stock: Put all the ingredients into a large pot, and cover with cold water. Cover, bring to the boil, and simmer for at least an hour and a half. Make sure the bone remains completely submerged.
Whilst this stock bubbles away, slice your onions. Heat the oil and butter (or ham fat) in a large pan. Add the onions when the butter begins to colour, or the fat has rendered and is beginning to smoke. Cook on a medium heat for a few minutes until they begin to soften. Add the garlic, thyme, and bay leaves, and season with salt, which helps extract water from the onions. Add the balsamic, and stir until it evaporates. The sugar will help the caramelisation. Turn the heat down and continue to cook over a low heat for as long as possible – at least 30 minutes, if not an hour. The onions should reduce in size by a third or more, and become a dark caramel colour.
Strain the stock of all the veg, bones and aromatics. If you like, you can fish out the carrots and celery and chop them finely to add to the soup. At this stage, for a heartier, more filling soup, you can add a handful of lentils per person and cook for another 20 minutes until the lentils are tender. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Alternatively, heat through for ten minutes and serve with a slice of toasted baguette, rubbed with garlic, and topped with melted manchego, cheddar, parmesan, or other hard cheese, and a sprinkling of thyme.
Chicken and ham stew
This stew is extremely tasty, wholesome, and warming. A great alternative to Sunday roast. The best results come from a smoked ham hock, but any smoked pork - such as bacon, pancetta, or even chorizo – will be great.
Enough for four and some leftovers
1 litre ham stock, as before
a couple of chunks jamon fat (optional)
a ham hock (or a couple of chorizo sausages, sliced into chunks, or six slices of smoked bacon or pancetta, cut into pieces)
6 chicken thighs
salt and pepper
a glass red wine
2 onions, sliced
2-3 cloves garlic, sliced
a heaped teaspoon harissa paste
2 bay leaves
6 sun-dried tomatoes, cut into pieces
black olives, pitted
basmati rice (about 3 mugs full)
one tin of tomatoes or a couple of handfuls of chopped fresh tomatoes
If using a ham hock, put it in a pan with cold water, bring up to the boil, take off the heat immediately, then rinse. This gets rid of the excess salt. Simmer the ham in the stock for 45 minutes, making sure it remains covered. Remove from the stock, and keep the stock warm on a low heat whilst you trim away any fat from the hock, then pick the meat off the bone. Keep to one side.
Heat a little oil in a large sauce pan or casserole, along with the jamon fat if using. If using chorizo, bacon or pancetta, add to the pan, and brown. When the pork is beginning to colour, add the chicken pieces, and brown on all sides, seasoning as you go. Remove and put to one side on a warm plate. Add the glass of wine, stir and reduce, in order to release the flavours from the pan.
Add the onions and cook for a couple of minutes until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes, then the harissa, bay leaves, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives. Add the rice, and stir so everything is coated. Return the chicken, ham, or chorizo / bacon / pancetta to the pan, then the tomatoes and stock. All the rice and chicken should be just covered in liquid. Bring to the boil, then simmer for on the stove top for 45 minutes with the slightly ajar, or cook in the oven on a medium heat for in a covered casserole for 30 minutes, before removing the lid and cooking for another 15 minutes, so the dish begins to form a slight crust on the top.
Serve with lots of steamed greens, and a glass of Rioja.