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When the clock strikes twelve on New Year's Eve, the Cuban tradition is to eat twelve grapes to ensure good luck for each month of the new year. The custom evidently originated in Spain, around 1900, derived from the hope that one year's good wine grape harvest might be repeated the next. But my Scandinavian grandmother always insisted that good luck was guaranteed only if herring were the first food eaten in the new year. A Southern friend insists it must be black-eyed peas.
Since moving to Miami, I've played it safe at midnight: a chunk of pickled herring with a speedy chaser of grapes and legumes. Not surprisingly, it has not been a particularly lucky decade.
A recent trip to Andalusia, Spain's huge southern province, convinced me to instead begin 2007 the way, ideally, it will continue: with a mouthful of imported Spanish ham. Ham is also, after all, a traditional New Year's good luck food in numerous nations; the fattiness has long symbolized prosperity. And the distinctive texture of Spain's Serrano (originally meaning Sierra, now more of a generic term) ham is swoon-worthy as silky as prosciutto di Parma yet astonishingly firm; it has the melt-in-your-mouthness without the mushiness.
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In Andalusia my dining companions and I ingested large servings of jamón ibérico de bellota roughly every two hours. It was not often enough. Italy is the country known for its cured "crudo" hams, but never have I eaten an Italian prosciutto that made me go so absolutely weak in the knees. A combination of uniquely blessed genetics (the Iberian Peninsula's free-range black pigs produce meat as naturally, uniformly fat-marbled as Kobe beef), a bellota acorn diet that gives the salty-sweet meat a pronounced nutty taste, and particularly long air-curing (36 months versus the typical 6 to 18 months) makes ibérico de bellota the Rolls Royce of hams. Further, thanks again to astonishing genetics, the Iberian hog's fat converts during curing to a monounsaturate, like olive oil, which lowers bad cholesterol. To quote from the kid classic Charlotte's Web: SOME PIG!
The bad news is that owing to the FDA's idiotic import rules, jamón ibérico de bellota won't be available in the United States until sometime later in 2007, at best. But Epicure in Miami Beach carries lomo (loin) ibérico de bellota a shorter-cured product possessing the same healthy fat and magnificent marbling and the gloriously smoky pimentón-seasoned chorizo ibérico de bellota in time for your New Year's parties. Best make it a small party, though: These porkers are $67 and $37 per pound, respectively.
For larger celebrations, regular Serrano ham is the way to go. Lacking ibérico's characteristic fat-streaked flesh, it's less marbled but also less breathtakingly priced. And don't confuse it with the cheap Cuban-style cooked imposter sold in numerous supermarkets under the same name; genuine Serrano ham, though from common grain-fed white pigs, is quite similar to jamón ibérico in salty-sweet taste and luxuriant texture. It makes a spectacular centerpiece when served as it is throughout Spain during the holiday season carved in thin slices (held in a special wood-and-steel jamonero).
Only about three or four Spanish producers are FDA-approved to export hams to the United States; Miami's Delicias de España carries products from two of them including the stunning whole bone-in legs (as well as boneless hams and slices, for the carving-challenged). Top choice for most aficionados is Redondo Iglesias, a small family firm that uses traditional methods in its relatively long, eighteen-month cure. The taste is deep and complex, both sweet and salty initially, with an appealingly bitter back-of-the-tongue finish oddly akin to that of some red wines. Fans of prosciutto will likely prefer the pleasant, mild ham from megaproducer Campofrio, cured for four to six months fewer than Redondo's, so it's considerably softer and easier to slice.
Since Delicias is a café as well as a retail market, you can try before you buy. Mini serranitos (tiny Serrano ham sandwiches) are just 80 cents. Full fourteen- to eighteen-pound hams run about $200.
Also available at Delicias are all the necessary accouterments to turn a ham into a party animal. These include jamoneros to display and hold the legs, and the long-blade knives that produce paper-thin slices. Though the slices pair well simply with tomato-rubbed bread, the market also sells hard-to-find Andalusian accompaniments like torta de aceite, a crisp olive oil bread. The crunchy almond-and-sugar-sprinkled flatbread plays off perfectly against the ham's unctuous savor. Actually so do grapes, or black-eyed peas.