"Like foie gras on an ice cream cone."
When you are eating the world's most expensive ham, you should not feel like you're eating beef jerky.
So we weren't too happy with the $39.99 sandwich of jamòn Ibèrico at Jezalin's Gourmet Market in the Flatiron's Limelight Marketplace.
Why so pricey? The sandwich is piled high with the fabled jamòn Ibèrico de bellota, Spain's crazy-good black-footed ham. Since the ham itself often retails for $100+ per pound, the sandwich price is understandable. And any $40 sandwich is going to get its fair share of press coverage, as this has. But I'm guessing Florence Fabricant hasn't tried the sandwich of which she writes so approvingly. At least, I'm hoping she hasn't. Because the "Conquistador" is a tale of good ingredients gone bad.
First things first: we're of the opinion that good ham is worth every penny. We all choose our own indulgences, of course—whether you're willing to shell out $25 for a quarter-pound of ham is an entirely personal decision, just like whether you're willing to pay $1000 for designer purse or $400 on a fine Barolo. But for superior products, you pay a premium, and jamòn Ibèrico de bellota is as superior as ham gets.
"Iberico ham makes prosciutto de Parma seem like a ham starter kit," Ed once wrote, and that's exactly right. Made from acorn-fed black-footed pigs raised in the wild, dry-cured in the Southwest of Spain, it's barely sweet, slightly nutty, and the most complicated, intense, dizzyingly delicious ham you'll ever encounter. Taste it against prosciutto sometime and you'll see what we mean. After a bite, you don't want to eat or drink anything else or brush your teeth or breathe out too quickly: you want it on your tongue for the rest of your life.
So first, let's meet a proper jamòn Ibèrico sandwich from Despaña in Soho ($27). Note: this is made from jamòn Ibèrico, not the more highly regarded jamòn Ibèrico de bellota, but it's still a far superior sandwich.
The ham is sliced thinner than paper, in tender translucent ribbons that all but dissolve on your tongue. A thin coating of olive oil helps to smooth the transition between pig fat and tongue, letting the dissolving fat creep over your tongue almost as if it were liquid already. It ends up sliding across the palate like wine, with a distinct and complicated finish. And the bread is barely crusty, so that a clean bite goes straight through. You find yourself sucking gently on the tiny tendrils of fat that peek shyly out of the sandwich, so sweet they are.
But then there's the Jezalin sandwich.
The jamòn Ibèrico de bellota—a quarter pound of it*—is hand-sliced, but hand-sliced far too thick. A good quarter-inch thick, perhaps thicker in places. Bad call. This ain't pastrami.
It ends up far tougher in the mouth than this fine ham should ever be. The leaner parts require the kind of major molar action usually reserved for beef jerky; the fat, the glorious, flavorful fat, becomes an unappealing gloppy burden, even more difficult to chew. The sourdough bread doesn't help matters: chewy itself, it just adds to the mouthpower needed to chomp through this thing.
*Yep, we weighed it. What else are postage scales good for?
And the taste? It's funky and nutty and incredibly full in flavor, but frankly, it's so aggressive it's a smack in the mouth. Sliced thinly, I'm sure this ham would be spectacular—but eaten this way, it's impossible to tell. It's just too much. There's something that feels uncomfortable, a little bit indecent, about having this much meat in your mouth at once. It's like eating a scoop of foie gras on an ice cream cone. Too much of a good thing? Not a good thing.
In the end, I'd rather have a Quarter Pounder than a quarter-pound of phenomenal ham that's just not done right. So Jezalin's? If you're reading this, hop the R down to Soho and get yourself a Despaña sandwich. It's a $25 investment in your future.
And my recommendation to the rest of you? Just buy the damn ham. My belief that everything is better in sandwich form doesn't extend to jamon Iberico. Head to Despaña and pick up a hundred grams. Get it sliced thin. Let it hang out on a warm plate to come up to warm, melty room temperature. And enjoy.