One handsome ham

Next to our pale pink slabs, Spain's treasured jamón ibérico is a whole other creamy, nutty animal. It's now available here for a pricey, perfect taste.

It did not take me long to recognize Spain's obsession with certain pork products.

Upon meeting Amparo, my roommate in Barcelona, she promptly informed me that she was that rare Spaniard, a vegetarian - except, of course, for ham.

Then, in Madrid, I discovered several Museos de Jamón - Museums of Ham - only to realize that these were shops and restaurants, not actual museums, dedicated to selling, serving, and singing the praises of the hams that hung from every inch of ceiling.

While most Americans consider it a sandwich starter, for the Spanish, an artfully arranged plate of ham is perfection in itself.

To understand this hunger for jamón, try to forget that slimy pink, sugar-crusted, boiled excuse for a ham we have here in the States.

The caviar of Spanish ham, jamón ibérico, is a melt-in-your-mouth, creamy, nutty cured pork, sliced paper-thin. It is reminiscent of Italy's prosciutto, but in a league entirely of its own.

Ibérico hams weren't even available in the United States until five years ago. But now you can find them as close as the Italian Market, Wegmans in Cherry Hill, and several Spanish-themed restaurants. Authentic and direct from Spain, these hams taste every bit as good as those I came to love while living in Barcelona.

The most prized of the black ibérico pigs, colloquially called pata negra (black-hoofed), are as rarefied as the Wagyu cattle raised for Kobe beef. These pigs produce such exalted meat as a result of carefully prescribed diet and exercise.

For about two years, they live a life of porcine luxury, grazing freely - each pig has about four acres to call its own - in the cork forests of southwestern Spain, with little or no human contact. Shortly before slaughter, they bulk up on an all-acorn (bellota) diet. These pigs become the ultimate jamón ibérico: Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. The acorns give the ham a luscious nuttiness and a healthful unsaturated fat: oleic acid, the kind found in olive oil.

The rest of the black Iberian oinkers live a more plebeian life, feeding on grains and a small percentage of acorns, resulting in two tiers of jamón ibérico below the coveted bellota. Jamón ibérico, however, accounts for just 8 percent of the ham produced in Spain.

Jamón serrano, the more common, less expensive alternative, is made from white farm-raised pigs. But what the Spanish consider run-of-the-mill is still mighty good.

After the "sacrifice," as the Spanish call it, the hams are salted and hung to cure for two to four years in dry sheds at high elevations. Jamón serrano (translation: mountain ham) was first cured in the highlands of Spain.

The tradition of hanging ham legs in windows has roots in religion and patriotism, not marketing. In the days of Columbus, when King Ferdinand II regained control, Spaniards displayed pork to show allegiance to the Christians trying to expel the ham-hating Moors and Jews. In the predominantly Catholic country, ham became a sort of edible national flag.

Until 2005, it was illegal to import Spanish ham here because the Spanish slaughterhouses did not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's sanitation standards. One Spanish company decided to jump through the hoops to comply with the regulations, and the first jamónes arrived in late 2007. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota followed in July 2008. As per the USDA's requirements, imported hams must come without hooves, so you won't find the distinctive black trotters on the jamón ibérico sold here.

There are a number of Philadelphia area shops and restaurants that feature this to-die-for meat. While it won't set you back as much as a flight to Spain, jamón ibérico does not come cheap.

Di Bruno Brothers slices jamón ibérico ($99 per pound) to order in their stores on Ninth Street and at 17th and Chestnut Streets.

Ian Peacock, a cheesemonger at the Ninth Street store, said the ibérico is popular with Europeans and those who have traveled to Spain, who "want a taste of what they got while they were there." Most people order by the slice, he said, asking for maybe 10 slices. And they sell only about a pound a week. Di Bruno's also carries the considerably less expensive jamón serrano.

Over the bridge in Cherry Hill, Wegmans has been carrying jamón serrano ($21.99 per pound) for the last two years. It recently added jamón ibérico (not bellota) for $98 per pound in response to several customer requests.

As for the restaurant scene, chef Jose Garces' Amada and Tinto both have jamón serrano and ibérico on the menu. Amada's Ensalada de Jamón (ham salad) comes in an intriguing, if momentarily perplexing, cylindrical wrap of jamón serrano. After the server teases apart the glistening slices, you'll discover a delicious salad of spinach, dried figs, crumbled goat cheese, bacon bits, and spiced almonds dressed with a sherry vinaigrette.

In addition, Garces Trading Company has a fine selection of Spanish hams on the dine-in cafe menu as well as for retail sale. Locally, it is the only place to find jamón ibérico de bellota, selling for $116 a pound. The cafe/market opened only within the month, so it's too soon to say how much jamón Philadelphians will stomach at that price.

Cafe Apamate at 16th and South Streets and Bar Ferdinand in Northern Liberties also offer charcuterie plates with jamón serrano.

After living in Spain with heavenly hams hanging just a few yards from my front door, it's good to know I can get a quick fix here in Philly when I need it.