January 25, 2007


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Got milk?

Ham it up
These wines will make you squeal
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

I’ve been thinking a lot about ham lately. I usually eat ham two or three times a year. This isn’t counting the occasional ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. I’m talking the full monte baked ham. The choices for a Sunday dinner baked ham are the somewhat moist Smithfield Ham, a spongy, hammy ham with a wet texture; the prosciutto-like Country Ham, with a dry texture, creamy fat content and nutty, salty flavor; and the spiral-sliced ham, sugary and sweet. I used to like ham salad, but I once saw it being made at the deli and I didn’t want it as much anymore. They used minced ham and the leftover end pieces from the Bolognas. Once it was ground up you couldn’t tell the difference anyway.

All this ham thought comes from a small sample taste of Jamón Ibérico de bellota. It was delicious — nutty, with bacon and ham flavors and a rich, butter-like rile of fat. These hams come from the patas negras or black-footed pigs that live in the mountains. The best ones are raised on the bellota, or acorn. This gives the ham its nutty flavor. These acorn-fed hams are only now being imported into the United States. The traditional conditions in which they were cured and stored weren’t up to FDA standards. So, like haggis, that Scottish dish of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs chopped into pieces and boiled with salt, cinnamon, oatmeal and suet in a sewn-up sheep’s stomach, they were illegal. Now some modern profit-minded Spaniards have brought their ham factories up to code and the hams are off the no-fly list. These hams go well with white or red wine.

Beaujolais and a modest Burgundy like a Volnay are the traditional wine partners for ham. Their fruitiness balances out the ham’s saltiness. With a light ham one might even go with a Riesling, a light chardonnay or even a chenin blanc, which has a touch of sweetness that reveals itself before the acidic finish. And there are plenty of light, fruit-forward pinot noirs from California that will go with ham, even the expensive imported hams where the little piglets are hand-fed, bathed daily and rocked to sleep. They grow up, become obnoxious and gorge themselves on acorns. Then it’s to the slaughter house and finally they’re air-cured in dry, pure mountain air. Once they get to this country, their value has risen to about $140 per pound. And if you’re enjoying a ham that costs $3.11 per mouthful (45 bites per pound at $140 per pound) then you don’t want a wine that distracts or tries to upstage the former pig.

Bogle Russian River Pinot Noir, $13.98;

Rex Hill Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, $21.99;

Bouchaine Carneros Pinot Noir, $22.99.

All pass the ham test. They’ll be good with the porker, but won’t overpower it. Too bad we can’t go back in time to 2000, before that wine movie increased pinot’s popularity overnight, and pick up some inexpensive, delicious pinot noir that goes well with ham. Nowadays, everyone’s making pinot noir, the prices are up and most of it is mediocre at best.

Along with ham, I’ve been thinking about George Custer lately, too. General Custer liked a sweeter Madeira, like a Malmsey, with his ham. It was probably a country ham. Custer took cases of Madeira and many hams with him when he moved west after the Civil War. He probably even had a few bottles on hand for the Battle of Little Bighorn. The beauty of Madeira is that it travels well. It’s a sweet and spicy wine that’s had a little brandy added to it and it’s literally been cooked or heated to at least 100 degrees. The wine then takes on a pleasant, caramelized flavor. And it’s a little more powerful than regular wine. Perfect for an old saddlebag like Custer. We think about Custer a lot at work ever since we sent Tony to the services audit. It was an especially grueling audit so we gave him as little info as possible. When he got back his first words were, “Holy cow, General Custer, you didn’t tell me there were Indians in the ravine!!” Meaning he felt set up. The quote refers to the set piece battle of Greasy
Grass Creek, which is what Native Americans call little Bighorn. Here the combined forces of the Lakota Sioux Nation and Northern Cheyenne completed a classic pincer movement formation and encircled Custer’s divided forces while driving his relief column back. Was his canteen filled with Madeira? How come he divided his battalion into three separate columns instead of keeping it together, even in the face of a greater force? Was it hubris or just stupidity? And remember Custer wasn’t a real general; he was a colonel who got a quick battlefield promotion at Gettysburg. Most of his Army career was marked by feuds, infractions and political maneuvering. He did enjoy a good champagne and a nice claret, niceties provided by his wife’s inheritance, not his Army salary.

And while his diary notes what he drank and with whom, he doesn’t get more descriptive than “Had an enjoyable burgundy with Congressman Vallandingham….”

Here are two other wines I tasted this week.

2000 Marques de Vargas Rioja, $19.99. The very smart guys at Province Importers swear that the tempranillo grape which makes up Rioja is the kissing cousin to pinot noir. This wine serves up that evidence. It does have a pinot taste. But, alas, even that can’t get this wine rated higher than passable. Pleasant but forgettable.

2004 Panther Creek Pinot Noir, $23.49. This Oregonian from the Willamette Valley had the fruit and the rudiments of structure, but failed to impress. Wouldn’t buy it again, probably wouldn’t drink it again, except at a Battle of Little Bighorn reenactment.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at tprotzman@sbcglobal.net.

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