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Dining: Pigging Out

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

For those with sufficient foresight, the wait for jamón Ibérico bellota is nearly over. In 2004, La Tienda, a Williamsburg, Va.,–based online purveyor of foods imported from Spain, began accepting $200 deposits for the $1,200 ham. Now, after more than two years of curing, the first of those hams might soon be ready to be shipped to America.

La Tienda owner Don Harris is confident his patrons will find that jamón Ibérico bellota is worth the wait and the price. "People who are interested in good food have heard of Kobe beef, but they have not heard of bellota," Harris says. The ham is made from black-hoofed pigs that roam Spain’s Iberian Peninsula and feast on the acorns, or bellotas, of oak and cork trees. (The same type of pig is used for a second form of ham, called simply Ibérico, but usually those animals are raised in paddocks and fed on cereals.) "Because of [the bellota pigs’] diet, and because they are free-range, the fat is [distributed] throughout the muscles," he says. "And it’s monounsaturated, like olive oil, so it’s good for you. At 70 degrees Fahrenheit, it melts. Ibérico bellota literally melts in your mouth."

Through a newsletter, Harris updates his customers on their hams’ progress, but he has yet to provide firm delivery dates. "It’s all very approximate because there are two governments involved [Spain’s and the United States’, each with its own set of slaughterhouse regulations], and the Spaniards want to be very sure that there will be nothing to embarrass them," he says, explaining that they regard jamón Ibérico with the same esteem that northern Italians accord to prosciutto di Parma.

Harris, who is 63 and has no Spanish ancestry, founded La Tienda in 1996 as a purveyor of ceramic tiles. The tiles were reproductions of ones that decorate homes throughout Spain’s Andalusia region. He began transforming the company later that year, when he had the chance to sell Serrano ham. At that time, Harris’ eldest son, Timothy, was working for a Virginia ham company and was selected to translate for a visiting group of Spanish Serrano producers who wanted to market their ham in America. Timothy’s employer did not proceed with the idea, but his father was intrigued. He posted a picture of a Serrano ham on the La Tienda web site and advised viewers, "If you want it, tell us."

More than 200 of his tile customers responded, and several suggested that he sell other Spanish groceries that were not readily available in America. Today, La Tienda’s offerings include Manchego cheese, paella rice, white asparagus spears, saffron, smoked paprika, anchovy-stuffed olives, capers in sea salt, and chorizo sausage. The company carried an early taste of Ibérico and Ibérico bellota last year in the forms of chorizo, salchichon sausages, and lomo, or cured pork loin. Most sold out swiftly, but Harris expects to restock soon. He continues to accept deposits for Ibérico bellota but may cease by early summer. "When the time comes [to deliver the hams], there will be a big demand," he says. "We won’t be able to meet the demand, but they [the depositors] will get ham."

La Tienda, 800.710.4304, www.tienda.com

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