IN EVERY bit of product that comes out of a country, a bit of the country’s soul is in there, and where there is soul, there is art. Spain’s jamón (ham) contains the nation’s animal, fungi, and weather conditions, and for these to be expressed, it needs an artist — the maestro cortador.
The maestro cortador is essentially a meat carver, but like a sculptor, he has to know his medium with intimacy. Michael Lopez, a Filipino maestro cortador, presented his ham-cutting skills at a talk last week in Makati.
Mr. Lopez first worked as a waiter in Restaurante Cinco Jotas in Madrid, but got the attention of the establishment’s cortador in 2000. With his brother Mark, they worked together in the restaurant in 2002. The pair received their certifications in 2003, and then 2007 for the younger Mr. Lopez.
The pair now run their own business, called Maestro Cortador Filipino. Their services include sourcing jamón from Spain, and carving a jamón for restaurants (to be vacuum-sealed), or else carved live at an event.
Hiring a man like Mr. Lopez is a luxury (his basic service is P10,000, exclusive of the price of the ham, which, depending on the kind, goes up to the thousands per kilogram), but then a man like him can save one money on luxury — cut badly, a huge percentage of the jamón (bone, fat, and skin) is wasted. Mr. Lopez makes sure that a customer gets every inch of their money’s worth.
“For jamón to be fully enjoyed, a slice should have a blend of lean meat and fat. Ideally, it should be approximately the size of a credit card, and, of course, paper thin. During some of our outdoor events, the jamón slices are so thin that they get blown away by the wind,” he said. Speaking of luxury, among the people for whom Mr. Lopez has served jamón is Hollywood actress Penelope Cruz.
We try not to exaggerate when we call Mr. Lopez an artist, but what else can you call a man who treats his cured meats this way?
Demonstrating how to cut a jamón, he took out a knife, and began sliding it down the leg: “Just like you’re playing a violin,” he said, telling us to move the knife, and not just push it down on the ham leg.
He gave tips on how to spot a good ham, just based on sight. For example, the leg of a pureblood jamón Iberico de bellota, acorn-fed and free range, should have black hooves: he joked, not from a pedicure. The ankles and hooves on this purebred pig, protected by EU regulations, should be thinner.
They sell other kinds of hams, of course, such as jamón Serrano, and jamón Iberico de sebo (not a purebred bellota pig), but of course, working with a bellota is a source of pride.
“The supply of jamón Ibérico de bellota is limited because the availability is also dependent on the weather — if it doesn’t rain and acorns don’t grow, then they cannot produce the jamón. Its taste is an intense nutty flavor, it is sweet and salty like buttered almond. And it lingers in the mouth,” he said.
To contact Mr. Lopez, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or a message via Viber/WhatsApp to (0908-939-0499). Maestro Cortador Filipino is also on social media, @MCFmaestrocortadorfilipino on Facebook, @maestrocortadorfilipino on Instagram, @maestrocortador on Twitter, and Maestro Cortador Filipino on YouTube. — Joseph L. Garcia