20 December 2008

Iberico bellota

So now I'm officially done with my last set of high school midterms and I've got an entire two weeks ahead of me to think about food. I'm hoping to visit Lilette, Herbsaint, Cochon, and Tony Angelo's over the break. Of course, the first is a favorite and the others are places I tragically have yet to taste. My very culinary aunt raves about Tony Angelo's frog legs. I'll be writing.

I was leafing through the January issue of Food & Wine, reading about food trends of 2009 and new restaurants to visit and great things to try cooking at home. As usual, it was all I could do not to eat off my hand. No kitchen is satisfactory to my obscure cravings after I see glimmering photos of new dishes like Mario Batali's Fusilli alla Crazy Bastard or after I read Lettie Teague's 2009 wine diary.

Anyway, St. James sounded fantastic for lunch with my mom -- to me, its spot in New Orleans' restaurant world is as that girl who just throws on an outfit and looks effortlessly, enviably cool. Its cheese assortment borders on the profound, the sandwiches are always elegantly divine in a very simple way, and the chutneys and spreads that line the walls for purchase are adorable in a terrifically sophisticated yet genuine and humble way.

I almost got the ploughman's lunch, which has an assortment of cheeses (cheddar, Stilton, and one other kind, which has not yet lodged itself in my memory since I have not yet eaten it), pate, and chutney. The problem was that, while it was everything I had been craving recently, it was not what I was craving right then. I stuck with a sandwich: turkey, tomato, avocado, basil, and a magnificent cheddar.

As we were paying, we saw a sign advertising a new shipment that had come to the store. It was called iberico bellota and a sample plate was eight dollars. We wondered, a sample plate? Almost ten dollars? What could this possibly be? As it turns out, it's the creme de la creme of ham, made of hogs who are fed only acorns for the duration of their lives at pasture. It's also $80 a pound. We considered: this is either horrifically indulgent or so supremely perfect that it's worth it. I decided we should have it. I am, after all, an aspiring food writer and should take every chance I get to dabble.

As it turns out, the latter of our expectations was the correct one. Oh. My. God. This ham was beyond compare. We got a simple white plate that bore four thin ribbons of this legendary iberico bellota. No oils, no garnishes, no trappings, just unadulterated meat too perfect to be tainted by anything but its own essence.

It's wonderfully oily in a totally organic way that isn't heavy at all. The acorns lend themselves to the flavor, which is nutty and earthy and briney and ever so slightly buttery. It tastes like salted caramel, and it's so velvety and impossibly rich that I'd snap it up as a dessert in an instant. This is not the type of ham to put on a sandwich. This isn't deli meat or something to fry up for breakfast. This is elemental ham, platonic ham, the form of ham. It's fantastic and worth every cent and, dare I say, reduces prosciutto to the level of Oscar Mayer.

Also, as a quick last note: yesterday, I took my dear friend E. Leigh to Gumbo Shop -- she was born and raised here, moved away after her dad got a job teaching at Clemson in South Carolina, and hasn't been back for a year and a half. The Gumbo Shop is the embodiment of food to which locals become accustomed but which is craved by the rest of the world after first taste. I got a small cup of seafood (meaning shrimp and crab) and okra gumbo, which duly came with rice and had an admirable, rich brown roux that was NEARLY as thick as cake batter. I also got alligator sausage, which was a special; I'd actually never tried alligator meat before (!). The dish came with two small sausages with a special, sweet-spicy side of something vaguely resembling creole mustard on the side. And the meat was sweet!

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