In the mighty world of hams in Spain, nothing surpasses the acorn eating, wild Iberico pigs that provide the cured meat world with ‘Jamon Iberico de Bellota’, to be served and consumed only in paper-thin, translucent slices. Despite its fame, as a student I can’t quite justify a price tag of around €90 per 1kg of the stuff. However, I happily downgrade to Serrano whose silken texture, meaty yet fruity and floral flavour isn’t as rich as Iberico ham, but whose uses are much more versatile. I’ve definitely eaten my fair share of these melt-in-the-mouth hams this year and fully intend on taking as much of a leg as possible back to England.
To quote the godfather of Food Science, Harold Mcgee: “Hams are to fresh pork what long-aged cheeses are to fresh milk – a distillation, an expression of the transforming powers of salt, enzymes, and time”.
Serrano (or parma etc) with figs is a tried and tested combination, the flavours and textures readily complementing each other without any work required. It was something I ate regularly on arriving in September in time for fig season and have missed them ever since they disappeared from the market in October. So I was very happy upon the appearance of these black figs, also known as giant figs which precede the smaller varieties that arrive in August. Their fleshy interior isn’t red like many varieties but they have a wonderful flavour, not so syrupy but just sweet enough with some woody notes.
My ‘go-to’ man for herbs in the market introduced me to this purple basil which I believe is the Red Rubin variety. I had never seen such vividly coloured basil before. It has a lovely floral aroma, not quite as pungent as standard green basil, and has a bit of a citrus taste alongside the sweet basil flavour. I intend to make a ridiculously deep purple pesto with my next purchase.
The balsamic I used was of the ‘glaze’ kind, the overused, controversial plastic bottle stuff that any Italian would turn their nose up to. A raspberry balsamic glaze at that. But then I don’t think it is any worse than using a shop bought balsamic anyway. In Italy vinegars from Modena of quality are sold labelled with the age of the content, are syrupy in consistency (getting thicker the older they are) and extremely complex in flavour as they must be a minimum of 12 years old. Around 35 kilos of grapes are converted over time by acetification, fermentation, maturation, evaporation and other processes to produce 250ml of balsamic vinegar. So that ‘traditional balsmic of modena’ you get in your posh deli for £10 is most probably wine vinegar coloured with caramel and sweetened with sugar, with some young balsamic and cooked down grape must if you’re lucky. Unnecessary rant over.
Black Figs with Serrano, Purple Basil and Balsamic
Makes a great easy starter or antipasti
Serrano ham in paper-thin slices
purple basil or similar variety if unavailable
Trim top hard stalk off the fig and cut a cross down to the midpoint of the fig. Press at the base of the fig at 4 points towards the centre so the top slits you made, open up.
Wrap each fig with slice of ham and plate. Dress the figs and plate as desired with the basil and vinegar. Serve and wow.