Time and again, the signature protein proves that while it may be one of a kind in taste and quality, it encompasses a multitude of menu applications.
Champagne. Kobe beef. Single-malt scotch. Some things are so special, so tied to the terroir of their homeland that they cannot be replicated elsewhere. For Spaniards, that food is jamón ibérico, the meat of black-footed pigs native to the Iberian Peninsula made fat by a diet of acorns and then cured for anywhere from 20 to 27 months.
For many years, restaurants and consumers couldn’t get jamón ibérico in the U.S. because of export laws. While that’s no longer the case, imports are still restricted, and some enterprising American purveyors are trying to replicate the ingredient, whether by importing Iberian black-footed pigs or mimicking the curing process.
These tactics have incited some backlash from Spanish producers because pork, in all its forms, is foundational to the country’s cuisine. Time and again, the signature protein proves that while it may be one of a kind in taste and quality, it encompasses a multitude of menu applications.
“The versatility of pork is its strength,” says Aubree Arndt, chef at Broma in Mountain View, California. “It’s lean but flavorful; it’s between light and dark meat; it can be braised, grilled, seared, rendered, smoked, cured. … Even the fat is extremely tasty.”
One of the best-known styles of Spanish cuisine is tapas—communal small plates—and pork is omnipresent. At Tropezón in Miami, the tapas selection includes hand-cut slices of jamón ibérico (back leg), lomo (cured pork loin), and chorizo (fermented, cured, and smoked sausage) from their jamón bar.
“The cuts are sliced and sold by ounce just like they do in Spain,” says chef Juan Garrido. “Paired with manchego cheese and picos (small bread sticks), they’re one of the most popular snacks to enjoy throughout the day.”
But sliced isn’t the only way to go.
“Pork is an easy vessel for creativity,” says Stephan VanHeulen, chef de cuisine at MDRD in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Spaniards are infatuated with anything coming from a pig now. For a good reason, too, as they have some of the best pork in the world.”
At MDRD, they take the traditional croquetas de jamón and elevate them with a membrillo (quince) aioli and manchego cheese sauce.
The main course
While cured pork is typically used for tapas and appetizers, jamón is also a frequent star of the entrée menu. Pork’s high fat content means that it holds up to being prepared in countless different ways, from braising to grilling to frying and beyond.
“One of my favorite ways is to marinate the pork over a long period of time before grilling,” Garrido says. “This gives it that melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. It’s also really tasty grilled with just some light seasoning.”
Tropezón and MDRD both serve a special cut called “secreto Ibérico,” an extremely tender, highly prized cut from the shoulder. Both preparations take advantage of the cut’s fat marbling to provide an extra boost of flavor without needing to season excessively. At MDRD, chefs dress it up with romesco, black figs, and an arugula and pea shoot salad, while Tropezón opts for a simple presentation: a quick hit on the grill and served with mojo rojo and verde sauces.
The laborious process through which jamón ibérico is made—the cut side of the meat is sealed with sea salt from the Atlantic, while the rest is protected by a thick layer of acorn-induced fat, allowing it to ferment—produces a concentrated umami flavor that can also be applied as a seasoning element or accompaniment to other ingredients.
Chef Arndt at Broma uses jamón ibérico to add depth to broths and stocks and to fortify her sauces. At MDRD, the team includes dehydrated jamón serrano in its pan-seared scallops, bringing a textural play on surf-and-turf. And at Tropezón, chorizo, the famous spicy pork sausage, brings a bit of bite to the duck paella.
“Pork is used as one of the most essential ingredients in any dish,” Garrido says, noting the wide range of flavors it can bring to a menu.
A trendy tradition
Many segments of the food world are constantly trying to push forward, incorporating molecular gastronomy or unusual fusions into their dishes, always on the hunt for the next thing. But Arndt sees the next innovation of Spanish cuisine as a return to the past.
“While America is a relatively young country, Spain is deeply ingrained with butchery and meat preservation in ways that all of us in the U.S. wish we could fully understand and experience,” she says. “Over the last decade or so, chefs have become fascinated with the ‘whys’ and ‘where froms.’ I would say it was spawned from the push for things to be farm-to-table, but a really great restaurant doesn’t need to call itself farm-to-table anymore—it just is.”
So could U.S.-raised jamón ever compete with the real thing? Maybe for the casual diner, but most chefs are convinced that Spanish pork—and its central role in the cuisine—aren’t going anywhere. Perhaps Arndt sums it up best when, reflecting on the fierce pride with which Spain protects its most famous ingredient, she says, “When I think about that, it reaffirms just how special this piggy is.”