The time has finally arrived to crack open the first ever Jamon I’ve made. From the outside everything appears to be in order. A dusty, musty smell emanates from it. It looks like something pulled out of the back of your hall cupboard, which in essence it is. The coating of Strutto protecting the exposed flesh around the hip joint has taken on a mottled grey appearance with little black spots of mould scattered across its surface. The ham’s own covering of fat is the orangey yellow of American cheese after 18 months of being exposed to the darkness of my drying chamber. I feel excited, yet apprehensive. The interior might be a horrorshow, a sack of maggots in ham’s clothing.
I cut a knotch just under the knuckle so I can begin trimming away the rancid fat and strutto to get a nice clean area to start mining for the good stuff. Unfortunately this exposes a pocket of ancient grey mold that has created an abscess of decay right by the bone. This area smells of failure. Rancid parmesan and wet carpet. I try to stay calm and explore further down the side of the ham. Hallelujah! The rot is localised. The hard stuff quickly gives way to the fat striated mother-lode of concentrated kuni kuni flesh. God knows what has been happening within the complex chemistry of this humble pig leg but it has transformed into something entirely new. I lay a sliver of ham on my tongue and breathe deep. Umami! I could yell it out accompanied with a fist pump but I may choke to death. Good air-dried ham always makes me think of anchovies and parmesan and this little beauty is no exception. I gotta admit it. I feel smug as fuck right now.
I sampled the first air dried ham I made after 6 months. My impatience and paranoia were treated to a sliver of concentrated pig flesh, but that’s about it. It was not a carnivore’s epiphany by any stretch. I hung it back up and then forgot about it. There wasn’t anything to worry about and it was just OK anyway, not need to rush back to it. 6 months later I cracked into it again and discovered a whole new world of flavours. Anchovies and parmesan being the easiest comparisons I could draw. The ham has not only dried during this long period but gently fermented as well. The miraculous cold fire of fermentation is so unpredictable. After cooking professionally for so long it is a breath of fresh air. When I ferment something, I feel like a kid again. I often have no clue what the result will be and my imagination takes flight. Much like the eight tier confection I pictured when I cooked my first sponge cake.
It seems to me that the process is somewhat like gardening or animal husbandry with minimal supervision. Essentially you build a house, stock it with food and then invite strangers to fornicate and have babies in it and then eat the house, the guests and all their babies. Sound good?
For details on how to get your own jamon happening see Kuni kuni jamon. After the ham had hung for a month and the ham had taken on a leathery texture I added a coating of strutto to the exposed flesh around the knuckle joint to protect it from drying to fast and become hard as wood and unusable. Strutto is a paste made of lard and rice flour. The lard should be made from the leaf fat around the kidneys, but good luck getting hold of that unless you slaughtered your own pig. If you did slaughter your own pig, please call me next time, I’d like to help. In any case, strutto made from normal lard has worked just fine for me. The strutto eventually hardens into a shell and the ham only requires perfunctory supervision and a lot of patience. Keep your eye on the humidity and temperature (60-75% and 15c) and get on with your life.
In reference to the rot that had developed by the bone in my jamon, I can only guess it is the result of poor butchery around the knuckle where the trotter meets the shank. I’ve never had this problem before and can only hope that the rot does not continue into the heart of the ham. So far, so good.
I've made a few air dried hams before this Jamon but they have always been country hams cured with molasses and rum and then cold smoked. This is the first time I had ever done a pure salt only cure. I like the trimming of the skin off the back of the ham and I like the fact that is a pure distillation of the raw products provenance but I would certainly use the American country ham technique again too. However, if I ever get a nice fresh leg from a big rare breed pig I would use this technique first.