ALBURQUERQUE, Spain &
Spanish cuisine tickles the palate in a thousand ways: ugly but delicious creatures called goose barnacles; boiled octopus with a dash of olive oil and paprika; thick, mushy sausage made from pig's blood.
Spaniards are nothing if not dedicated eaters.
Now, hard-core foodies are drooling over the prospect of something truly superlative from Spain, at least in price: a salt-cured ham costing about $2,100 per leg, or a cruel $160 per pound. It's a price believed to make it the most expensive ham in the world.
Don't grab your wallet just yet. And forget about asking for just a slice.
The 2006 Alba Quercus Reserve (as this pricey pork will be known) won't be available until late 2008 and you must buy the whole ham or nothing at all. But that hasn't dissuaded gastronomic Web sites and blogs from buzzing with talk of the farm where it is being produced, likening it to a Mount Olympus of pork.
Its mastermind, Manuel Maldonado, 44, who comes from a long line of ham producers in a country that's nuts about the stuff. In bars and restaurants, legs of ham hanging from the wall are as common as slot machines or television sets.
But Maldonado is taking the art of the ham to new heights, pampering his pigs with a free-range lifestyle and top-quality diet of acorns before slaughtering them, then curing the meat for two years &
twice as long as his competitors.
It's that last step that Maldonado credits with creating a delicacy that justifies the heavenly price.
Maldonado had hoped to roll out his super-gourmet ham this year, but felt the first batch fell short of his ultra-demanding standards and did not put it up for sale. He hopes to do better this time and have it ready around Christmas 2008.
"This is the best ham in the world because it comes from the best pig in the world," Maldonado says of 2006 Alba Quercus Reserve, a reference to the year the pigs were slaughtered.
"It is the most important ham in Spain," adds Pedro Soley, a Barcelona connoisseur who is among the lucky few lining up to buy one. Indeed, this is a limited edition piece: Maldonado will produce just 80 to 100 legs.
And they are expected to be a world apart from Spain's more common Iberian ham &
named for the breed of pig used &
which is similar to Italian prosciutto, but a darker red and chewier.
For comparison, Italy's finest Prosciutto di Parma and Spain's top-grade Spanish acorn-fed Iberian ham &
both savory, umami-rich meats usually served as ultra-thin slices &
top out at $30 a pound.
With Spanish pigs bound for ham glory, diet is everything. The least expensive ham is made from pigs fed on grain, whereas mid-grade hams come from pigs raised on a combination of wheat and acorns.
Then there are Spain's poshest pigs, which feast exclusively on acorns, producing a rich flavor and oily texture that make the meat a delicacy. Spain's finest hams are not considered first-rate without an "acorn-fed" stamp on the label.
At least some foodies apparently haven't been put off by the price of Maldonado's work. One food blog, Directo al Paladar, called the cost of the ham "almost a gift" considering how it is made.
Maldonado has yet to set a price for customers who buy the 13-pound hams directly from him, but the food site Ibergour.com has a dozen for sale at $2,100 each, and is accepting $250 deposits.
Is it ridiculous to pay that for a piece of pig?
No, says Maldonado. A ham like this can be shared among 20 people, he notes, whereas a bottle of the finest wine going for the same amount goes down quickly among just a few.
For four generations, Maldonado's family has been making ham from high-quality hogs in this town of 5,000 in Spain's southwest Extremadura region.
Their herds of black Iberian beauties are kept on a handful of acorn-rich farms in the surrounding meadowlands, walking freely up to 6 miles daily without any pig-herders to look after them.
After the pigs are butchered, they are cured in high-grade sea salts and refrigerated at 39 F. The salt is wiped off after about 12 days. Over the course of the next three months, the temperature is gradually raised to 68 F.
The hams then are brought into one of Maldonado's two warehouse-size cellars where they cure for two years, hanging on a series of interconnected hooks from floor to ceiling, like curtains.
Maldonado will only give a ham the top-grade seal if it passes his olfactory test after the curing process. He drives a small rod through the outer layer of fat and into the meat to see if he considers it up to snuff.
In his cellar, Maldonado drew one of the hams close and rubbed his thumbs gently against the smooth roundness of the ham's firm base.
"Ham provides us with life," he said with a smile.
Spanish gourmets drooling over $2,100 ham
ALBURQUERQUE, Spain &