Sunday, 7 February 2010

Brindisa ham carving school

I'm an unashamed hispanophile and relish every opportunity I get to indulge my passion for Spain. Last year I went to a tasting of the 2006 and 2007 vintages of Joselito ham, paired with Dom Perignon 2000. It was heaven.

This year the lovely people at Brindisa invited me to one of their ham carving workshops at the Brindisa shop in Borough Market. Held every first Thursday of the month, the classes are proving incredibly popular and sell out well in advance, despite the rather hefty £85 price tag.

An email beforehand advises me to wrap up warm, and arriving at the open-air shop under the arches of London Bridge, I can see why. I'm seated round a long table with fellow jamón lovers, and given a blanket and water bottle to cuddle. Before the class starts, we have to sign an 'exclusion of responsibility' disclaimer that ends: 'Brindisa will not be help responsible for any accidents or injuries that may result from the tutored ham carving activities'. Gulp.

Assistant manager Alberto then takes us on a tour through the history of jamón, which dates back to Roman times, when they used to put Serrano ham legs on coins. A massive 50 million legs are produced each year in Spain for us greedy ham guzzlers. We're each given a plate with four different hams to try, to compare the different styles. They're all surprisingly different, from the chewy Jamón de Monroyo Reserva, to the smokey bacon like Jabu Recebo.

The last two hams are the highest quality, made from the prized Ibérico pigs that roam the acorn-filled plains of Extremadura in north west Spain. Pictures of black pigs frolicking in fields are dutifully passed round. The third ham we try, Jamón de la Dehesa de Extremadura Bellota, is darker than the first two, with a strong, rich, almost sweet flavour. The delicious strips dissolve on the tongue. Last up is the Joselito Gran Reserva Bellota. Joselito prides itself on being the top Ibérico ham producer. The Joselito estate is so expansive, their pigs have 3.5 hectares of land each to run wild in. The resulting flavour is more elegant and subtle.

After our comparative tasting, master carver Zac Innes steps up to teach us some knife skills. He compares the shape of the Serrano ham to a guitar and the Ibérico, with its slim foot and black trotter, or pata negra, to a violin. He then whips out a 'jamonero', a long, thin, carving knife, but recommends removing the fat with a bread knife. Each ham has to be checked for defects before carving, like a sommelier would a wine before pouring. To do this, Zac uses a 'cala', a tiny stick made from beef bone. He plunges it in the Ibérico leg and has a whiff. It's perfect.

After a few expert slices are shorn, it's our turn to carve. I don a navy apron and a gladiatorial looking sliver chain mail glove to protect my right hand while I carve with my left. I'm nervous; knife skills are not my forte. We get to take home whatever we carve, which adds a sense of urgency to the proceedings.

I pick up my jamónero and start pulling it through the meat, conscious of the fact that I'm against the clock. Zac turns to help the carver to my left, and I'm left to my own devices. I start making dramatic sweeping movements with my knife, like an orchestra conductor, through the marbly flesh. Zac turns around, looks at the ham and gasps. 'What are you doing? You've massacred it!'

He seems horrified. I drop the jamónero and look down the length of the leg. What was once a smooth plain of flesh is now a jagged mess. I apologise to Zac for my over-zealous approach and he assures me he's seen worse. I'm given a second chance and try my best to keep the knife straight, cutting in a short, quick, sawing motion.

I find my rhythm and cut a couple of perfect strips before being asked to step away from the ham. Alberto bags it up for me, and I'm given a goodie bag with jamón tacos (great for stocks), a tub of ham fat for cooking with, and a generous portion of the Jabu Recebo. Making my way home through the flower-filled market, I pass the Brindisa restaurant on the corner. It's so full, diners are spilling out onto the streets. London, it seems, is also in love with Spain.

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