Pound of Flesh: Jamon Ibérico de Bellota

Slivers of Jamon Ibérico glisten
Slivers of Jamon Ibérico glisten
Ben Calderwood

Consider for a moment the casual brutality of the jamonera, little more than a wooden plank and a upright clamp in which to mount a leg of ham. The shank end is secured to the clamp via a spike or bolts, making it easy to shave the gelatinous flesh from the bone. It's a utilitarian apparatus, albeit one conceived for the exclusive purpose of butchering the skinned and dismembered thigh of a hog. One cannot deny the fascination, even appeal, of such an atavistic display, where no attempt is made to disguise the carnality of the act.

Such is the pleasure of Jamon Ibérico de Bellota, the world's most sought after and astronomically expensive cut of pork. Bellota ham is derived from black Ibérico hogs that forage the dehesa, pasture and oak forest girding the boundary of Spain and Portugal, rooting out sweet grasses and acorns felled from the boughs above. The finest specimens are restricted to an acorn-only diet (the bellota) prior to slaughter. They yield meat enriched by fresh air, exercise and oleic acid from the fatty acorns, treated with nothing more than salt before a prolonged three-year air cure. Soon after they are presumably bundled into bombproof Halliburton cases for shipment to the haute food parlors of New York and L.A., where they will wholesale for upwards of $1500 a hock. The USDA demands the amputation of the famous black hoof prior to sale, traditionally regarded as the mark of an authentic Ibérico ham. The thrill of the abattoir is muted, just a bit.

This is a delicacy for which there are few analogues, and a flavor nearly impossible to classify. The best Bellotas cure to a lurid, almost ruby hue. The salt and lacing of intramuscular fat lend the ham a dewy texture and a taste that comes close to slurping demi-glace straight from the flat-top--concentrated and creamy, deeply umami, layered with toasted macadamia and walnut. Where the fat is thick, don't chew. It will render out on your tongue, disintegrating into lipid honey. It's comforting and alien all at once, and it might make you shiver. The sensation endures long after you swallow your last shred of flesh. This is fortunate, because at $135 a pound you'll be doing far more reminiscing than eating.

Available at Surfas: 8777 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232; (310) 559-4770.

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