In praise of pata negra

Saturday, July 05th , 2008

randall-and-aubin 3648 counter-crop-v3.JPG
Randall and Aubin (pictured) is a rather charming, old fashioned seafood place, complete with white tiled walls and a display of shellfish in the window. It is surprisingly tough to get decent fish and chips in London, and I’d like to thank web site regular Josh Geltzer for recommending this to me after my plaintive request for fish and chip ideas some weeks ago.
Alan Yau started his restaurant career with the original Wagamama (long since sold in 1998) so knows something about noodles, in that case the ramen noodle shops that pop up on so many Tokyo streets . This time he returns to his roots in Hong Kong with Cha Cha Moon, his take on Hong Kong street food. Despite some mixed reviews I found the food I tried very decent indeed, and in any case it is hard to argue with anywhere that charges just £3.50 for any dish (a pricing during the opening period that at some point will no doubt be revised upwards, so this is a good time to try the place).
Diwana Bhel Poori is a place I have been going to regularly for twenty five years. Its South Indian snacks such as bhel poori and aloo papri chat represent great value, and are freshly made with vibrant spicing. With a lassi to drink (they don’t have a licence to sell alcohol, though you can bring your own) we still left with a bill of less than £10 each.
The Brilliant is a long time favourite, and as well as the dishes I regularly try such as the excellent tandoori quail, I had an excellent bhel poori starter this week. What I really like was the vibrantly spicy tamarind chutney, the chilli kick avoiding the sweet cloyingness that can happen with tamarind chutney. The Brilliant blend its own spice mixes, and this care and attention to spicing really showed up in this lively dish. 
I’m afraid Annie’s  is one of those places where popularity does not correspond to food quality. For some years it has been getting local attention (and even a local paper award) in Chiswick, but although the place has a pleasant setting near the river, the food at best was deeply ordinary. The summer pudding we had was a travesty, and this will be my only visit. Quite what people see in the place, other than a cheap wine list, is beyond me.
I also went to the official opening ceremony of Ambassade de l’Ile , which I reviewed last week. It was nice to chat to chef Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex (pictured), who came across as a modest and charming individual. Interestingly, he is not just over here to do a quick opening and then retreating to his two star establishment Auberge de l’Ile in Lyon. He intends to spend the majority of time in London, which is great news given the terrific meal that I had in the soft opening. 
One trade barrier finally came down this week (1st July to be precise, as reported in the Wall Street Journal on the 28th June). Until now, for reasons best not dwelt on (and having nothing whatsoever to do with the US agricultural lobby’s virulent protectionism, no sir) it has been illegal to bring pata negra bellotta into the USA (an earlier ban on all pata negra products existed until July 2005, letting the cheaper variants in for the sufficiently determined). Now in the “land of the free" you are free to eat the best ham in the world. The labelling can be rather confusing, so I thought I would say a few words about this for those wishing to sample its delights.
Pata negra is produced from the black footed pig. Pata negra is found in the Spanish provinces of Andalucia, Extramadura, Castilla La Mancha and Castilla y Leon.  The pigs seek out acorns to eat, on which they pig out for around two years.  In the last weeks of its lives the pigs are fed exclusively on acorns. If buying pata negra, look out for ones marked “belotta”, which is acorn in Spanish.  There are in fact three grades:
·         Jamon Iberico de Bellota: only fed on acorns and pasture
·         Jamón Ibérico de Recebo: fed on acorns and pasture supplemented by cereals
·         Jamón Ibérico de Cebo: fed on a mixed diet with some acorns.
The best ham is cured for between three and four years.  You want the “jamon Iberico de belotta”.  The best of all is generally felt to come from Jabugo, the name of the village in the centre of the ham producing area.  Hence if you are to go the whole hog then you should try and buy ham marked “Jamon Iberico de Bellota de Jabugo”. There are also different producers of this ham.  If we can trust the chef at Arzak on this matter, and I think we can, then you ideally want to get ham from Joselito, and specifically their best ham: Joselito Gran Reserva. 
I sampled a few different pata negra styles when in Barcelona recently and they vary significantly e.g. I did not really like the particular one I tried from Extramadura, which was distinctly harder and chewier.  In fact the costliest pata negra of all comes from this area, Alba Quercus reserve from Maldonado in Extramadurro, but I have never encountered it.
In the UK you can buy pata negra from Brindisa in Borough Market.  Fortunately they supply the Joselito Gran Reserva. It is possible to buy packs of pre-cut pata negra mail order, but when I have tried this it has been disappointing. I am advised by pata negra afficianado Alex Chambers (a man who regularly has a whole leg of pata negra in his kitchen) that machine cut pata negra is to be avoided. Certainly at Brindisa they cut the meat by hand, but they refuse to do it mail order unless you order a whole leg.