Truly Spanish Chorizo, In America At Last

The New York Times


March 6, 2002

Amanda Hesser

If you've ever experimented with chorizo, the pork sausage cured with paprika and garlic, you know how persuasive its full aroma and deep clinging heat can be. You might have sliced it up and stirred it into paella, chopped it into little cubes that were swept up into an omelet or infused it in stew to give it a smoky edge. Its robust flavor and warm, tingly spice were distinctive, giving everything it touched the feel of Spanish cooking.

But what you may not have noticed is that the chorizo was not from Spain. For a long time, chorizo was not approved for importing. In 1997 the Department of Agriculture and the Spanish government gave one chorizo maker, Palacios, from Rioja, permission, but it wasn't until last October that chorizo began entering in any quantity. Now, stores can't seem to get enough of it. The chorizo, which comes in long, firm sausages and shorter, slightly denser links, is in grocery stores like Butterfield Market, Fairway and Citarella in Manhattan.

If you have never been to Spain and nibbled on slivers of chorizo before dinner, the Palacios will be a revelation. When you taste it, you suddenly realize all the compromises you made. American chorizo brands like Quijote and Corte's are good, hearty sausages. But they are nothing like those from Spain, which are smoky, earthy, sweet and quite tangy.

Sausages are often used as a background flavor. They give body to meat sauces, form the base for stuffings and, rich as they are, can be rendered for sautéing. But chorizo departs from most others in one aspect: its flavor is so powerful that it does not influence a dish subtly. It burns its imprint into its very foundation. It will streak scrambled eggs with its orange oils and make them so full and rich that you would not think of adding a single other ingredient. It can make a thin broth feel hearty, and can wrap sautéed potatoes with layers of roasted spices and garlic.

In many ways chorizo is a distillation of the core ingredients -- peppers, garlic and pork -- in Spanish cuisine, and in essence a distillation of its terroir. This came clear to me last spring as a friend and I approached Jabugo, a small village buried in a blanket of clouds about two hours northwest of Seville. Winding our way to the town, we took in lush hills speckled with pigs, freely roaming, their snouts foraging in thick grasses beneath gnarled holm oaks and cork oaks.

The period from late fall through early spring is called the montanera, or acorn season, when pigs feed on the acorns of these trees, each eating about 22 to 26 pounds of acorns a day. The Iberian pig, which is descended from the wild boar of southern Europe, is not a handsome specimen. It has drooping ears, a long snout, thin legs and dark hair. But its meat has a dense striping of fat and intense flavor, which produces the most sought-after cured hams in Spain.

In Jabugo, a town with modest charm, there was no mistaking the main trade. A warm, sweet smoke filled the air. Sánchez Romero Carvajal, one of the largest cured pork producers in the area, sat on the edge of town in a large building built in 1901. It was oddly civilized for a factory, with a central courtyard for employee breaks and long tiled hallways.

The pigs are brought into Sánchez Romero when they are 14 to 16 months old. Once slaughtered, the legs are cured in a two- to three-year process for jamón Ibérico. The loins are made into caña de lomo, and the meat from the shoulder is used to make chorizo. It is an incredibly simple process. The meat is ground, then mixed with paprika, garlic, salt and a dash of sherry in a machine that thunders and churns. The spiced meat marinates overnight before being stuffed into casings and tied.

The next part is controlled largely by nature. The workers at the factory simply respond. The sausages are hung close together on the ceiling of a large, dim room. The roof is made of tiles, spaced so that you can see tiny bits of light through the cracks. There are screens on the windows but no glass. When it is hot and dry, the windows are closed, and burlap mats are soaked in water and laid on the floor of the curing rooms. When it is cold, the shutters are closed. At all times, a gentle, smoldering oak fire sits in a low barrel on the floor.

The air is dense and moist, and all you hear is the crackle of the wood. The men move the barrels and rearrange the sausages as the curing progresses. It takes a few weeks to cure chorizo and sometimes up to four months, depending on the size and the time of year. During that time, the meat dries and absorbs the smoke -- smoke from the very wood whose fruit flavors the meat.
Not all chorizo is made in exactly the same way. Each region has its own tics. In fact, some producers, including Palacios, do not actually smoke their sausages. But even air-cured chorizo like these have a mysteriously smoky quality.

Jesús García, the export manager for Sánchez Romero, said: ''With chorizo, we are talking about a type of sausage. For us chorizo means pork, fat and paprika.''

And sometimes, oregano, nutmeg and hot paprika, too.

''Of course,'' he added, ''paprika was not known until the New World was discovered, but there were other sausages. You can still find today in Spain chorizo without paprika. It's called white chorizo.''

Like all foods with terroir, the chorizo tastes a little bit of the air and the earth, the very character of the region. All of this makes for a flavor distinguishable from almost any other chorizo. The Palacios chorizo has everything but the Iberian pork.

No slaughterhouses in Spain have won approval from American authorities. Like other Spanish companies that export pork products to the United States, Palacios must import the pork from approved slaughterhouses in other European countries. Their pork comes from Denmark, and is cured using the Spanish method.

Because of the strict standards, Palacios is just one of three Spanish companies exporting cured pork products to the United States. ''The problem,'' Mr. García of Sánchez Romero explained, ''is the American authorities do not recognize the European Union's standards for production. They want companies to follow their own standards. And some companies do not want to change. We already sell around the world. We don't need to sell in the U.S.''

And so this could be why the trade has not yet blossomed. But if New York City grocery stores are any indication, demand could be very much like that for Italian cured meats, which after a slow start have flooded the market over the last two decades.

Even lacking the Iberian pork, Palacios chorizo, either sweet or hot, is far superior to American brands like Conte's, which is springy and mild, and to the firm, sweet Quijote, which is quite good but markedly different. Not all the chorizos in the United States are made to mimic the Spanish. You can find Mexican chorizo, which has a finer texture and forceful heat, and sometimes Portuguese chorizo, which is softer.

The best way to get a feel for Spanish chorizo (and one of the best dishes I discovered) is to blend it with eggs. I scattered slivers of chorizo in a nonstick pan and heated them until they began to sizzle. Then I added a little olive oil, cracked eggs into the pan and began stirring quickly, swirling the eggs around the pan and folding them over each other until just barely cooked.

The fat in the chorizo coats the eggs, brightening them to a saffron yellow. And there is something about the chorizo that makes the eggs taste hearty and almost creamy. You will find this dish in Spain, where it is called revueltos de chorizo. Or, often, it is added to tortilla, which is more like an omelet. Because the eggs are not moved around the pan, though, the flavor of the chorizo is less dominant.

It is helpful to think of chorizo in terms of bacon or garlic: a pungent flavor that you can add at the beginning of cooking to scent the dish. Spanish cooks sometimes treat chorizo more like a bouquet garni, or a bouillon cube. Every region seems to have a simmered bean dish, and invariably chorizo is added to the beans as they simmer. The beans soak up the chorizo's racy tang and garlic, and together they become smoky, faintly spicy and mellow. If you add other meats and a few vegetables, you have something not too far from cassoulet.

These all seem like natural pairings, but chorizo is perhaps best with something you might never think of, fish and shellfish. You can add it to the pan with cockles or clams as you steam them open. You can slip slices of it into grouper like cloves of garlic in a leg of lamb, as Daniel Orr, the chef at Guastavino, does before sautéing it. Or you can simply render its fat and sprinkle the pungent orange juices over roasted cod. The chorizo adds background flavor and a kind of intangible body and definition to these dishes. It is too bad the Spanish do not have a word for umami.

Before Palacios chorizo began arriving from Spain, Patricia Yeo, the chef at AZ, had been seeking that elusive flavor. She had given up on domestic brands and began making her own. She marinates cubes of pork shoulder and pork belly in a mixture of paprika, garlic, brown sugar, Aleppo pepper and salt, then grinds the meat, packs it into lamb casings and smokes it. I altered her method a little for my kitchen. I used smoked paprika and skipped the casings, preferring to use it crumbled. It's very easy, and an excellent alternative, worth relying on if your store doesn't yet carry Palacios.

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