A couple of weeks ago, I was walking past Grand Central Terminal (not Station). I remembered that there’s a marketplace in the terminal now, and thought “hmmm… maybe some cheese from Murray’s would be nice.”
As I walked through the door, I was greeted by a young woman offering free tastes of chorizo. I tried some, and realized that I was standing in front of Murray’s Real Salami. Murray’s is the fabled city of El Dorado to those of us who look for the best in cured, smoked, and cooked meats. As I savored the chorizo, a Spanish sausage, I looked at the refrigerated case in front of me. I thought, “I'm a dead man.” It contained ham, salami, bologna, head cheese, liverwurst, kielbasa, hot dogs...as I stared, I heard a voice saying "try some raw bacon, sir? Looking up, I saw a man holding out a paper-thin slice of pink and white meat. Without hesitation, I said, "sure!"
Now, before you think I've totally lost my mind, let me explain that I was not being offered hog tartare. Bacon is a cured meat. It is not heat cooked, but it is chemically cooked. Think gravlax. This dish is made from raw salmon that is coated with a mixture of salt, sugar, dill and pepper, which combine with the water in the salmon to make a brine. This brine changes the nature of the protein in the fish, curing it. Likewise with bacon. Pieces of pork (the belly, the cheek, the leg, etc.) are treated with salt and sometimes spices, and hung to cure. Some, like "American" bacon, are smoked. Others, like prosciutto, are not. Cured bacon is not raw, and it can be eaten without having heat applied to it. Does this mean that for breakfast, I'm ready to tear open a package of Oscar Mayer, slap a couple of slices on a plate with my eggs and tuck in? Of course not. Knowing how the bacon was handled, how it was cured, how it was processed all need to be taken into consideration. My thought was, "hell, this is Murray's. They're not going to offer me something that's going to make me sick, so why not go for it?"
"I like that answer," the person behind the counter said. "Most people look at me like I'm kidding when I ask them that." I took the bacon and put it in my mouth. Slightly salty, slightly sweet, unctuous without being overwhelmingly fatty, and with a silky smooth consistency that literally melted in my mouth. It was amazing. "That's some mighty good bacon," I said.
Looking at the other choices in the case, I saw speck, which is a type of bacon from the Tyrol region of the Alps (once part of Italy, now part of Switzerland). "I'd like a quarter-pound of the speck, please," I said. "Certainly, sir. Would you like to try it?" Indeed I would, and did. Speck comes from the hind leg of the hog, like prosciutto. Unlike prosciutto, however, it's boned, and cured with not just salt, but also with juniper, bay, pepper and other spices. After curing for several weeks, it's then cold smoked (under 68 degrees Fahrenheit) over the course of a week and then left to age for at least five months. It was not dissimilar to the bacon I'd had, but there was more "meat" and less fat to it. The texture was a bit chewier, and the flavor of juniper was unmistakably prominent. The finish was not as salty as and somewhat sweeter than the bacon, too. It was eye opening. At $19.99 a pound, it was a treat, but not a particularly extravagant one.
It was then that I saw the jamon Iberico de bellota. Long illegal in the U.S. (as was prosciutto di Parma until 1989) Iberico de bellota is made from the hind legs of a breed of pig known as pata negra, or black foot. They're descended from wild boars, and are the last herd of free-ranging hogs in Europe. Their diet consists primarily of acorns (bellota), which gives their meat a deep mahogany color and an unmistakable nutty flavor. Looking at the Iberico, I gasped at the price: $99.99 a pound. I had to have some. "What's the least quantity of this that a person can buy?" I stammered, trying not to seem cheap. Without missing a beat, the butcher replied "an eighth of a pound, sir."Would you like to try some?" Would I like to try some? I've just eaten raw bacon, and ordered a quarter pound of speck. What do you think? "Yes, please," I said, and, doing my best imitation of Rain Man, I quickly calculated that 2 ounces, at $100.00 per 16, would cost me a whopping $12.50. Not quite so bad, right? "I'll also take an eighth of a pound, please." The butcher shaved an incredibly thin slice of Iberico, and handed it to me. I put it in my mouth, and went weak in the knees. If the bacon was amazing, and the speck was eye opening, this was nothing less than revelatory. It was like nothing I'd ever tasted before. Nutty, rich, smooth, silky, smoky (although it's unsmoked), with an oaky finish, it was heavenly. "This is without a doubt the best meat I've ever tasted," I said. "Yeah? Makes you wonder what the ones that cost $10,000 taste like, doesn't it?" asked the butcher.
$10,000 for a ham? I guess there are just some things I'll never experience.