Last Christmas we went to Spain for a week and various sins were visited upon a very fine leg of Spanish ham. Probably the first sin was our failure to identify if it was a Serrano or Iberico ham. Secondly the first carver fed the thick layer of fat to the feral cats outside when he should have kept it so it could act as a protective skin to be laid back over the exposed ham once the carving had been started. After that a number of us hacked and sliced for the week without any great regard to what we were doing so long as we came away with a few clean sllces. The knives were blunt and inadequate and there was no attempt to work out the lie of the bones, to trim round them and to make sure that each slice was made up of the right combination of creamy melt on the finger fat and dark pink meat.
Last night I was given an opportunity to make amends and was sent along to a ham carving master class at Lunya.
Early evening in Liverpool in late September. It was light but quiet enough to be able to pick up the odd moment in Liverpool One without some shopper wandering about.
Inside Lunya I settled down at the bar with my first bottle Er Boquerõn – beer made with sea water. I was about half way through the glass when I was called upstairs for the start of the masterclass.
The U-shaped table was laid with about a dozen places and in front of each chair there was a plate laid out with three different types of ham, each a different shade of pink and with a different grade of fat running through it. There was a temptation to tuck in at once but I gathered that we were to wait. There were about nine of us on the course and we were joined by three staff from the restaurant there for an update.
Our master carver was Mario Hiraldo Regalado of Ibéricos de Huelva. He took us through a slide show with pictures of the various types of pig that make up the different hams, the curing process, the distinctions between the various hams, the acorns that make up the best food for the pigs, the ground that they roam in, the parts of the ham and pictures of neatly laid plates of sliced ham and a hall of shame showing the damaged wreaked on legs of ham by inconsiderate carvers. The hall of shame struck a particular note with my memories of Christmas.
As he spoke plates of food were brought out, bread with tomatoes, padron peppers and squid with mayonnaise, cheese and quince paste. As he spoke we nibbled into these and I found myself in a silent battle of politeness with my neighbours on the table as to who should have the last piece of squid and the last piece of cheese. I won both times. They were too polite!
We also tasted the ham on the plates in front of us; working our way through the two types of Serrano and fishing with the Iberico, the fat melting in our fingers as we lifted it from the plate.
The talk over we were shown how to go about carving the ham. The different knives for each job with their varying thicknesses and strength and the importance in keeping each cut flat and straight and achieving the right mixture of fat and meat.
We laid the meat out carefully on red and white pieces of greased paper. As I switched between knives (minding my fingers) so as to be able to trim away the layer of thick yellow fat on the outside of the ham and to then carve with a long thin blade I thought back to the mess we had made of it last Christmas.
We got to take home with us what we had carved and went on to be given a run through of two Spanish wines and a bone chilling dry yellow sherry.
I am chewing on a piece now, breaking down the mixture of fat and meat, so the just melted fat starts to cover the back of my tongue and I can feel the taste of it all in my mouth.