Do you have those foods that you never, ever purchase (usually due to some combination of expense, availability, and no idea what to do with it) but long for anyway? Or foods that you have reserved in your mind to only indulge in for a very specific, very celebratory reason, regardless of whether you’ve ever tasted it or not? The image of sitting down at a fine steakhouse and ordering the Wagyu ribeye along with a glass of 80-dollar scotch comes to mind, if just a tad on the extreme side. To get to my point: it’s the treat that you know you can only indulge in as a treat maybe once a year at most, or something you’d only buy for very, very special reasons.
I have a few things on that list like mozzarella di bufala and a really good bottle of champagne, but my biggest obsession that I never indulged in was getting some jamón ibérico de bellota either from Fairway or Despaña. While no cured ham could be considered a bargain, ibérico is the platinum standard, widely considered the apex of cured ham deliciousness and usually it can only be had for, at minimum, 100 bucks a pound. When you live in a place like New York, ephemeral luxuries like this feel far too outrageous to indulge in without knowing exactly what you’re getting, so I told myself that I would figure out a really good reason to get some eventually. I’d see the hock of it at Fairway when it would be my turn to wait in line at the deli, but I always managed to resist an impulse to purchase it.
Then the last two months happened in which I found and started a new job that puts me right by Fairway on a daily basis, making the temptation/justification to make “just a quick stop” significantly greater than ever before. So on the Friday after my first week of work, I made a quick stop to pick up some things for dinner because our buddy T was visiting for the weekend.
And that happened to be the day that the brand that markets jamón ibérico sent someone in to sample said ham in the deli area. He had a little station set up and he was hand-slicing the hock, laying out pieces on bread as well as by themselves on a tray next to him.
I’m pretty sure that I ate a good five buck’s worth in that five minutes I stood there, and it was completely worth it. Ibérico is subtle but complex and not nearly as salty as prosciutto or serrano. It’s delicate, and nutty, and a little sweet thanks to the pigs’ acorn-only diet. In short: it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Had they had any in stock I would have gotten a quarter pound right then and there, but I’d have to wait until the next day to get some hand-sliced from Despana. I texted Michael to gloat a little–he had, after all, refused my offer to pick him and T up so we could shop together–and even his expletive-filled response couldn’t ruin my mood, because holy crap I just tasted the best ham in the world for free. He had gotten over it by the time I came home anyway as he and T had come up with a song called “Sex Ham” that went along to Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb.”
Yeah, I don’t know either.
By that point, though, there was no way I was going into the city and not coming back with ibérico, so I dragged the pair of them to Despaña and made them wait while a meat cutter hand-sliced exactly a quarter-pound for me. It doesn’t sound like much when you read it, but when you see those beautiful little shards cut to perfectly fit over a slice of a baguette, it looks almost extravagant in its amount. I shared some with the boys that night as a quasi-dinner and then wrapped the rest away, wary of devouring it all in one sitting.
Two days later my grandfather passed away. He had been ill for years and my dad had warned me a few weeks prior that something like this would happen soon, so it wasn’t a shock, but it did require a day off to travel down to Allentown during my second week of work. The day was exhausting–more than I thought it would be–and all I wanted when I got home was to make us a martini and sit out on our balcony while snacking on more of the ibérico. Given that I have an old A-Treat crate as our balcony table and that I would send my grandfather sausages and cheese from Hickory Farms for Christmas and birthdays, it felt like an apt, impromptu tribute to him.
We still haven’t finished it, but we’re going to have to soon. And I’m going to have to allow myself to buy it again–if not for a while. After all: unlike a steak or a glass of Scotch, it’s possible to stretch out the enjoyment of just a little bit of this stuff over more than one meal.