Bring Home The Ham: Cinco Jotas Ibérico De Bellota

Once in a while, you eat something that reminds you, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the true best food in the world comes straight from nature. And that doesn't mean it has to be a vegetable. This example happens to come from a pig. If you've been to Spain and have seen a billboard of a bull (they're everywhere), that's Cinco Jotas. It's the undisputed best Spanish jamòn available today, and I checked it out at a private carving.

Cinco Jotas Ibérico de Bellota is one of the oldest, not in Spain. Not even in Europe — in the world. To give you an idea of how serious they are, only 1% of the pigs in Spain are Cinco Jotas-quality, and they own 80% of those pigs. It's a science, art form and deep-set tradition all in one. The 100% pure-bred dark-skinned Ibérian pigs run free on the company's land, foraging and feasting on protein, calcium and magnesium-rich acorns, up to 20 pounds a day. Acorns fallen from forest trees are the pigs' favorite food and the source of the unfathomably sweet, melt-in-your-mouth fat that lines every hand-carved slice.

Every home in Spain has some kind of cured ham around — according to Saul Sola, Cinco Jotas' VP of sales, "Boys grow up carving and take pride." But what does it take to launch a career from sneaking scraps of ham while mom's cooking? Three non-stop years of carving school earns you the title of master — that's right, no vacations. Once your wrists and forearms have become conditioned to every movement of the knife, every nuance of the bone, meat and fat, you're a Maestro Cortadore ready to churn out short, thin, translucent pieces of a ham that's been five years in the making. A hunk of Boar's Head on an electric slicer this is not — Cinco Jotas' best customer is King Juan Carlos I of Spain himself.

Here's the kicker: Cinco Jotas came to the United States two years ago to cater to the needs of discerning chefs. Yup, previously only available via smuggling, more and more specialty, gourmet and high-end markets are carrying the crown jewel of Spain's vast array of excellent pork products. Every slice is still hand-carved by a trained master and sealed in plastic specially engineered to neither add nor subtract from the ham's natural flavors.

This is no cold cut. Eat it by itself at room temperature or MAYBE wrapped around a slice of melon. Anything beyond that and you might as well be eating Serrano.

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