Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Ep 10 Buffet Froid: Jamon Iberico




Salt in the wound.

He can smell the disease you can not see.

Deadly perfume.

As first light breaks, I approach the windowless warehouse. No one in sight, so I try the door. It swings open to a darkened stillness. I slip inside, eyes straining for light and make my way to the waiting crates.

Then I see it - the silhouette of a severed leg.

I grab it and stiffly swing it around. It topples against me, dry skin and bare bone brushing my arm. But my eyes have adjusted to the darkness and I can see the Apparatus just beyond. With all my might, I push back on the leg and heave its fleshy thigh onto the massive spike at the base of the Apparatus. With what strength I have left, I twist the ankle into Apparatus’ spiked metal cuff. Steady now... turning  the bolt, I clamp the leg in place.

I know have the upper hand, now - finding the knife, I raise its curved blade to the beast.

Having a little nightmare? No. Just getting the leg of bone-in Spanish ham into the ham holder stand. My big food scene is first up and I have arrived an hour before call time -- way before any of the crew so the house lights are not on yet. Just a few dim task lights dotted throughout the vast studio in the maze of flats that make up the various sets of Hannibal.

When you purchase a whole Iberico Jamon, the hoof has been removed to comply with import regulations so  I did what Hannibal might do if somebody's foot gets sawed off while you are making her leg into a nice ham: I built a fake hoof out of wax, putty and shoe polish and attached it to the cut end of the bone, drape on a nice decorative rope and voila! No one the wiser...

I love the stillness in the sound stage before call time. The calm before everyone arrives. Then, gradually the day begins: first, the house lights come on, the bins and crates start rolling across the floor, Set Dec arrives to put final touches on decor and Props begins laying out and organizing the multitude of carefully chosen items that actors will handle as the day of scenes spools out over the next ten hours. Hair/Makeup and Wardrobe begin to work their magic on the actors whose drivers are dropping them at their trailers one by one.  Electrical/lighting crews arrive and start heaving cables and heavy equipment. The activity and noise level rise to a steady hum. Sound, the only silent department. Slowly, the Beast has come to life.
Just about ready to go to camera. Jamon looking like a ballerina - hoof looking like a  size 4 Manolo Blahnik

First break of the day...
I’ve set up my food styling station so, looking for a bite of breakfast and a cappuccino, I step outside to the craft truck, a compact mobile kitchen full of munchies run by Craft Service. They are the caterers who provide us with meals, snacks and substantials (bigger than snacks smaller than meals). What would we -- the sad, complaining, sleep-deprived worker bees -- do without their steady stream of food: muffins, potato chips, bananas to break the monotony of waiting for your scene to be shot; cappuccino, juice and diet coke for refreshment on the run; lunch buffet to mark the middle of our day – which often starts in the dark of night.  And for the food stylist, Craft Service can be a godsend - a fridge to raid when you need just one more tomato to get through the retakes or a can opener when you forgot to bring one.
First draft food sketch

The food scenes of this episode have gone through a number of changes. The unspecified dinner with Jack has turned into a cozy fireside foodless drink and a two-page beef dinner with Dr  Sutcliffe has changed to a three page dinner with ham.
Goldenrod revision script food, revised to add more assorted tapas platters
Hannibal uses the Jamon Iberico Bellota as a conversational metaphor, exposing his dinner guest’s glib attitude toward connoisseurship. Sutcliffe scoffs, Facts have nothing to do with quality - if you say something is superior, it becomes superior. Well, we know that this facile remark is going to make Hannibal stew – or at least par-boil. Connoisseurship is made through the long process of understanding the details - the many small facts that each incrementally distance the superior from the merely OK as inexorably as cream rises to the top. Well, if you are a Hume-ist , not a Rousseau-ian.

And about that superior ham....

“The Jamon Iberico is everything I’ve read about and more.”

Just one line in the revised script had propelled me once more, late into the fray. Several trips to the farmers market, a half-dozen long distance phonecalls, favors from local chefs called in and lots of red herrings until at last I locate someone who can deliver a whole bone-in Jamon Iberico Bellota – in 2 days because that’s when we are shooting. Fermin is the sole importer in North America of the prized Jamon Iberico Bellota de Embutidos Fermin. Serrano is their distributor locally. In partnership with Jose Andres (would it have killed someone to tell me this and saved me a half-day of food sleuthing) they worked for over a decade to get through the USDA and bring this buttery nutty melt-in-your-mouth ham to North America. It is the Rolls Royce of Spanish gastronomy. 
Additional tapas to serve with the Jamon: Octopus salad on a bed of salted seaweed
The day before the shoot, Jose had given me a phone tutorial on slicing ham in the manner he invented. Cut the top third, but just the top layer, he urges. But I am too dense to understand, No, leave the fat. Just cut the top part off flat, then the top part-way down. I wish I knew what he was talking about. Send me a picture, I plead, knowing a picture is worth a thousand cellphone minutes.  Happily, Mike who delivered my ham has given tutorials on ham slicing and came equipped with a video, a pamphlet and a full kit that included an apron that is, curiously, spit up the middle below the waist. If I were a butcher, this is the area I would most wish protected. But just goes to show, how little I know of these things.

The market price for this whole bone-in ham with a sleek Jose Andres designed ham holder is around $3500.  Pretty pricey, but if you’re looking for just a taste of this ham, it sells by the slice – or better, shavings for $20 to $25 for 100 gm. (yes, this is the kind of thing you buy by the gram). But make sure it is real Iberico Jamon Bellota. Sliced off the bone, if possible. A lot of salumerias sell a boneless product so they can slice it super-thin like proscuitto on their electric slicer. Anyway, it’s all delish but if you can, go for the best – if only once.

More tapas: A shrimp boil garnished with purple and green brussel sprouts
Time for you to eat!

But instead of a recipe, this week -- a guide to buying Jamon Iberico Bellota and why you should.

Spanish Ham 101:

Jamon Iberico is made from the Iberico pig, a breed in Spain that descended from wild boars. They are dark grey and have long legs with black hoofs, which is why they are sometimes called Pata Negra. After their first birthday, they are released into fields of ancient oaks to roam free and feast on plump acorns as they ripen and fall to the ground. They enjoy this idyllic life until til the vareador has nudged the last acorn off its branch and the season ends. (This is the guy whose sole job is to wander among the oaks with a long pole and shake the acorns out of the trees for the happy pigs. I know I should put this information in a link but I’m going old-style parentheses for lack of computer skill. And also, a link doesn’t give me an opportunity to say that I just realized that being a vareador is the one job that might be better than Hannibal Food Stylist. Where do I apply?)

The best pigs are born in October because when they are old enough to release to the acorn fields, nuts are just beginning to ripen so these piggies can graze for the full season. Lucky by birth date like hockey players or race horses born in January.
Use a super sharp long thin slicing knife to artfully slice your bone-in ham into thin curly shavings.

Buy the Bellota
The best grade is Bellota which means the pig was able to double its weight in the acorn-grazing phase. This weight allows the pork, once salted, to cure for three years or more. It will have a red cord or label to mark it. The dark pink flesh will have a generous inclusion of dots of cream coloured fat.

The best Bellota is the Jamon, or hind leg. It usually has a red cord twisted behind the hoof to label the quality. You can also get a Paleta, the foreleg, which is smaller and not quite as fatty but is not as costly. I’ve seen them with a dark grey cord.

Cebo, pronounced "Say-bow", not cheap-o
Cebo is another grade of Iberico ham but it is made from pigs that did not double their weight so were only able to cure for two years. Also delish but not sprinkled through with as much melty specks of fat as the Bellota. Less expensive, this ham often is marked by a yellow/green cord or label. I’m not so sure about the colour-coding on cords - there is definitely a status message there but it is as unknowable to me as handkerchiefs in jean pockets.

Serrano for show
Serrano is a lighter, less fatty ham that has been aged for 12 months or less. The flavour is not as complex and not speckled with fat but is quite nice and also comes bone-in so if you want to have a party with an authentic Spanish ham centerpiece for a couple hundred dollars, this is your baby.

Eat it with your fingers with crusty bread, good green olives (bella di cerignola!) and salted smoked almonds. And a bone-dry Manzanilla or Fino sherry, slightly chilled.

Good fat not bad fat
Don’t worry about all that fat – it has crystallized in the years of curing into a fat that is good for you. 

Next week: Sheep's entrails! Chewin' on chitlins while Dr Chilton chats.


  1. A fantastic entry as always, miss Poon. Please allow to me to suggest a few corrections:

    Bellato: you spelled it right the first time; it's "Bellota" (Spanish for acorn). Bellato sounds Italian and as you know the Italians are mediocre ham-makers :P (except for the northern Speck, but it's still a long shot from Ibérico).

    Jamone: It's always "Jamon", or "Jamón" if you have a Spanish keyboard. BTW, Mads pronunciation of "El Jamón Ibérico" on this episode is flawless.

    Varreadore: It's "vareador" (singular) and "vareadores" (plural). Probably a nice job, yes, unless you have a bad back I imagine... The sticks they use are like 9 ft long.

    Getting your hands on a good Ibérico is probably an arduous task in the USA and in most parts of the world outside Europe. In my opinion it's critical to eat it freshly sliced. When it's pre-sliced and packaged it loses a lot of moisture and aroma. And the slicing is critical, you need at least a basic idea of what you're supposed to do and a little experience. You probably need to slice up a couple of whole legs before you get to do it decently; at 3500$ a piece it's an expensive training! I'd recommend going to a good Spanish restaurant first, try eat, then start on your own if you fall in love with it (as you are bounf to do). I don't know José Andrés' restaurants but they sound like a safe bet for good ham.

    1. Thank you so much for those corrections, Javier! Up here, we do French as 2nd language, not Spanish so I am embarrassingly clueless of that language. And thanks for sharing your first-hand experience with Iberico. I agree that freshly carved off the bone would be the best way to eat it - preferably in Spain. I'll tell Mads you said his Spanish was flawless -- he'll love that.

  2. I love your blog and check it every week! Quick question, what happens to the leftover food? Especially expensive things like the Jamón, are people allowed to take it home? It seems too special to waste.
    Thanks for all interesting posts, I'm so glad I found this blog.

    1. Sometimes we snack on it, sometimes I make up little goodie bags for people to take home or to their trailer, some of it I give to the cook in the Craft Truck, but unfortunately lots of it (for food safety reasons) has to get thrown out. It took me a long time to get used to the throwing out part. When I was a caterer, we used to give all our leftover food to Second Harvest, a group that redistributes excess prepared food to those in need, but it's almost impossible to do in film food styling because the quantities of food are too small.

  3. My father is from Spain and lives there much of the year. Whenever my sisters and I are lucky enough to visit we indulge in jamon iberico, which we do refer to as 'la pata negra'. Oh my Zod, it is delicious. I usually loathe ham in all forms, but this is another thing entirely. It is indescribably tasty. It is indeed good with crusty bread, and we often include quality olive oil and pulpy tomato with the jamon.

    Thank you again for your dedication to your talents. I always pay special attention to scenes with food in "Hannibal" and not just because of wondering what the meat actually is. You have raised the bar. The production values of this show are so good, and artists like you are the reason for it.

    1. Thank you for the kudos. I envy your opportunity to eat pata negra in Spain - the new centre of the culinary world. We ate a lot of it when we were shooting the Jamon Iberico and it was delicious - but scarfing down the odd shaving between takes in a dark studio is not quite the same as enjoying it with wine, crusty bread and friends in a cafe in sunny Spain!

  4. Hi Janice,
    Very interesting entry about Spanish ham!!!
    Here is some more information abut Spanish ham, kinds, zones of production and some curiosities: http://www.jamonarium.com/en/content/27-spanish-ham-pata-negra-bellota-serrano-iberico-iberian
    and also some videos about how to slice ham which is really very important for its taste: http://www.jamonarium.com/en/content/63-videos-about-how-to-cut-in-slices-a-spanish-ham
    Regards and thanks for the great information of your post

    1. Thanks for the very interesting links! Makes me want to run out and get another ham. I got a little bit of pata negra the other day that was pre-sliced and vacuum-packed. Not at all the same as sliced off the whole ham...not even close.

  5. Replies
    1. Thank you ! I hope you'll be back for a third helping - Hannibal Season 3 started airing yesterday in the US and next week in UK. Not sure of the other dates worldwide but SOON.

  6. Hello. We are creating a website to publicize everything about the Spanish jamon in English speaking countries. We leave here the link. Thanks www.spanisham.us