What is ham but simply the leg of a pig cured for several days or months by salting and drying. A minute amount of saltpeter (salitre) is added to improve penetration and to give hams that characteristic pink color.
It’s the ham that I remember most about my childhood Christmases. Back then, my lolo (grandfather) would buy ham from the PX stores in Clark when the US Bases were still there. For Christmas dinner, Lolo would slice half-inch cuts for each of us eagerly gathered around the table. I remember the slices to be square in shape with striations of fat coursing through the pink, juicy meat. Sometimes I’d be lucky enough to get some of the pinkish-beige ham jelly that would stick to the corners.
When the Bases closed down, the ham disappeared from our Christmas table only to be replaced by Yunnan or some such Chinese ham; but they never came close to the ham of my early Christmases. Looking back now, I realize that the ham I loved then was probably some tinned variety — fake stuff that probably couldn’t be called ham these days. But to my young palate back then, it was juicy goodness that I couldn’t get enough of. I smile wistfully now writing about it.
A good ham should be plump, with a sufficient layer of fat under the rind. It was the Gauls, great devotees of pork and efficient pig breeders, who were famed for the curing of cuts of pork. They ate their ham either at the beginning of a meal to sharpen their appetites, or at the end to induce thirst ”“ now you understand why many Christmas dinners begin with an ensaymada (Filipino “brioche”) and a slice of ham.
Though there are some hams that are eaten raw, most of what we know as ham in this country is eaten cooked. Most hams are cooked by a combination of methods: gently simmered in a large pot (to reduce saltiness and improve flavor) and then finished off in the oven; some hams are baked from start to finish.
Though I’ve gotten used to not having ham at Christmas, this year I feel a yearning for it. I want a real ham, not bits and pieces of meat molded together, which is what most of the local Christmas hams are. They aren’t bad mind you, but I just want something different this year. A particular chef-friend of mine whom I’ve written about on this blog before, hears about my wish. He becomes my Santa this year when he gifts me with a 5-kilo ham (!) that he’s cured and ccoked.
While I desperately want to reveal who he is, I can’t because he doesn’t accept orders for his ham. Suffice it to say that he’s one person who remembers every flavor he’s come across and, like an alchemist, intuits the associations of flavor and food, the interactions and harmonies between them. For this ham, he’s transformed a whole deboned pork leg into magnificence: aromas of earth and spice perform a dance that tickle my nose. Glazed with a caramel coating that cracks with the puncture of my knife, ripples of juice roll out. I smell smoke and the sweet, sweet smell of pork. My heart does a little pitter-patter.
“Eat the ham with some orange and pear slices, perhaps some grapes too,” my chef-friend suggests. So I do. The meat is firm and juicy to the bite, the ham fills my mouth and mind with memories. Sweet, salty, smoky. This is such a treat. And enormously uplifting. My heart is happy, and for a while, it’s almost like I’m that little girl many Christmases ago. A good ham will do that to you.
Barring any begging from chefs who know how to cure their own ham, here are some other places that sell a ham that is grandly, indubitably, superior to the kind found in corporate Christmas packages and supermarkets:
The Plaza Premium Baked Ham