Guanciale and Jamon Iberico: Farewell to the Year of the Pig
I’ll get to the Carolina Pulled Pork in just a minute, probably deserves its own post, but the stars of this porcine double feature are Guanciale and Jamón Ibérico.
Guanciale is best known for two recipes made from it: Bucatini all’Amatriciana and Pasta Carbonara. Next time someone tries to tell you ‘just substitute bacon or pancetta’ smack them with a salami. Not too hard, just to make the point. Guanciale is to bacon like a rib eye steak is to a burger. Sure they both start from the same animal, that’s it.
Guanciale (“gwan-chia-lay”, I think) is UN-smoked dry cured pork jowl or cheek. Bacon is smoked and comes from the pork belly. It’s only recently been available here in the states. In fact, my sources in Italy say there’s some disagreement amongst Italians from various regions about it, too. Even if the origins of Guanciale are disputed (Celts? Romans?) and the other ingredients of the two dishes disputed (onions? onions and garlic?) one thing is certain: it is worth seeking out. Go to a good salumeria or Italian grocer or butcher or South End Formaggio where we got ours.
Also appearing at South End Formaggio (I’m not on retainer, promise) is the celebrated, newly arrived Jamón Ibérico.
My first taste was blind. It hit my tongue and I thought that’s like the sweetest, softest, nuttiest prosciutto I’ve ever tasted. It almost melted away. I wanted more.
Part of what makes this highly prized jamon so expensive is the breed of the pig (pata negra or black footed is a cross between wild boar and a breed thought to have crossed over from North Africa), their diet (during the months of fattening only acorns), the exclusive production methods (sea salt applied according to the need of each ham) and drying (in sea breezes at just the right temperature) and the loss of product during curing (as much as 40% can be lost). This just about defines an artisanal product, no factory mechanization could accomplish what the producers of Spain’s prized jamon do.
Like Culatello and other air dried meats, the FDA has had a hard time accommodating modern regs to ancient methods for this air cured meat. Finally, a few producers have navigated the labyrinth successfully to find their way here. When I wrote about Culatello there was one guy in NYC who paid some exorbitant price out of pocket to prove to the FDA that the products were safe. I hope it’s gotten more reasonable than that, but judging by the consumer price for Jamon Iberico, (nearly $25.00 per quarter pound) perhaps not.
It’s a luxury worth the splurge. I can think of no better argument against a locavore diet. One melting taste, case closed.