In practically every city and town in Spain, countless legs of artisanally cured ham are hanging from the ceilings of thousands of tapas bars.
To the Spanish, jamón is not just a staple cold cut. The art of curing ham with nothing more than sea salt, air and the passage of time has been perfected over the course of centuries, initially as a means of simply preserving pork and later to coax a complex array of flavours from the flesh.
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of ham in Spain. Jamón serrano comes from white pigs and tends to be less expensive. Pricier jamón Iberico comes from an indigenous breed of black-hooved pigs that are fed a special diet. The most expensive Spanish ham of all, jamón Iberico de Bellota, comes from free-range pigs that eat nothing but acorns foraged in the mountains of southern Spain.
(The fear of botulism) is fascinating when you consider a properly cured artisanal ham can safely hang above a bar for two years without making anyone ill, while a nitrite-laden, industrially produced ham would spoil within a day if left exposed and unrefrigerated
All varieties of Spanish ham are salted and aged for more than a year, allowing beneficial bacteria to change the colour, flavour, texture and appearance of the meat. When the ham is ready to be consumed, the golden-brown skin is peeled back and the very fatty flesh is sliced into thin strips.
Spanish jamón can be perceived as sweet, salty, nutty, meaty and even fruity simultaneously. It might very well be the most complex-tasting cured meat on Earth, rivalled only by the prosciutto made in Italy, the speck of Austria and artisanal ham cured in the U.S. Appalachians.
All this is worth noting because the traditional process by which high-end ham is made is illegal in Manitoba, where food inspectors have waged war on the only artisanal producer crazy enough to try out Old World curing techniques.
Last summer, inspectors from Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development famously raided Harborside Farms north of Pilot Mound and seized the prosciutto proprietors Clint and Pam Cavers were making from their resident passel of free-range hogs.
Provincial inspectors have a problem with the fact these pigs forage for their own food, just like the pigs of Europe do. The inspectors also have a problem with the fact the Caverses don't use nitrates to cure their ham and instead use salt, just like European producers do.
The fear, on the food-safety side, is the consumption of uncooked meat from free-range pigs could result in trichinosis, a potentially fatal disease caused by a parasitic roundworm. Trichinosis has been all but eradicated in North America, but occasional cases show up when people eat undercooked game or hobby-farm animals.
Given the widespread consumption of artisanal ham in Spain, Italy and Austria, you might think the European trichinosis rate would be high. But outbreaks remain rare, mainly because of rigid quality control among artisanal pork producers, most of whom charge a very high price for their products and could not risk the reputational hit.
In Manitoba, however, nobody tests hogs for the roundworm that causes trichinosis. So Clint and Pam Cavers have been told they shouldn't bother trying to create a highly sought-after, high-quality product.
Furthermore, the fear about the absence of nitrates in their ham is raised by a concern botulism could be spawned by bacteria that might flourish without the added curing agent.
This is fascinating when you consider a properly cured artisanal ham can safely hang above a bar for two years without making anyone ill, while a nitrite-laden, industrially produced ham would spoil within a day if left exposed and unrefrigerated.
To be fair, food inspectors are motivated solely by the prevention of illness. They're not evil people, trying to shut down entrepreneurial farmers.
But in their zeal to protect everyone from anything that could possibly occur, they prevent people from exercising any personal freedom.
In some U.S. states, restaurants are required to warn patrons who consume raw shellfish there's a risk they might contract an illness from their clams or oysters. They don't ban raw shellfish outright. They allow people to make informed decisions about what they put inside their bodies.
In Manitoba, consumers should have the right to consume artisanally produced charcuterie, cheese and other products at their own risk, as minimal as that risk may be. And producers should have the right to make it.
Clint and Pam Cavers are not distilling moonshine in a barn or cooking up crystal meth. They are trying to make prosciutto.