A Winter Break in Philadelphia

We are over Winter, but apparently Winter is not over us.  My sister and I needed a getaway. Where did we flee? North to Philadelphia!

Some people might think 1) Philly is an odd choice; and 2) we fled in the wrong direction.  But, my sister and I had a plan. Indoor activities. Culture. Food. Friends.  Plus, Philly is an underrated getaway for the two big cities south of it, and it’s within easy reach.

Heading north by car, we viewed the bleak palette of the winter landscape, and crossed semi-frozen rivers on our way to the city. Cheryl and I had optimistically dressed for milder weather only to realize the temperature was going to stay around 24 degrees all weekend — and outerwear to break the wind would have been nice. Even with layers underneath, our wool coats were not enough.

Spring will come one day, but there was nary a sign of it outdoors.

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We are *so* over Winter.

This Winter is a relationship that has gone sour, and we were ready for a flirtation with Spring. Other than sprinting from a warm building to a car, we dealt with Winter as little as possible.

We spent our first few hours at the Barnes Foundation.  This museum has the largest private collection of Impressionist art in the country. The art exhibits set the tone for the weekend, and provided visual stimulation with color and the hope of Spring. We could photograph the architecturally fabulous building with its huge lobby spaces, but not the art itself.

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The Barnes Foundation museum cafe is first-class. The food and staff were great. Even the cafe had an unusual fabric art installation.

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Cheryl and me at the Barnes Foundation Cafe.

We could easily have spent a whole day at the Barnes Foundation. After visiting the museum, we dropped our things off at the Westin Hotel in Rittenhouse Square and headed for dinner.

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It was Restaurant Week in Philly. We were lucky to get a 5 p.m. reservation at Iron Chef Jose Garces’ restaurant, Amada, in Old Town. Jamon Iberico de bellota was on the menu! Cheryl got to check out what I’d been raving about since I was in Spain last year. She agreed:  Yup — that pork really is special! In addition to the ham, I had the wild mushrooms and a ridiculously good salad.

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Hams hung from the ceiling in the bar.

Jamon Iberico de bellota. Appetizer of caper berries and baby gherkins with spicy mustard.

Jamon Iberico de bellota. Appetizer of caper berries and baby gherkins with spicy mustard.

The next morning, we met my friends, Beverly and Karen, for breakfast at Down Home Diner. We met in Philly when I was in graduate school and have been friends ever since. Our visit with them was a good start to the day. The Diner was in Reading Terminal across the street from the Convention Center, where we had tickets to the Flower Show!

This event was organized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The promise of Spring showed up in the flower arrangements, landscapes, vignettes, pressed flower art, and fairy houses.

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Spring, I fantasize about you….

We returned to Maryland to find no promise of Spring. Instead, there was the promise of a Winter snow and ice storm for the rest of the weekend. Back to reality….

Winter, we are *so* over you.

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The Best Pork Comes From Happy Pigs

I stopped eating pork many years ago, and I can’t even remember why.  For the last six years, though, it’s because of my diet. Pork is on the “Avoid” list. My body has become very sensitive to pork, and reacts badly to it.

Before I left for vacation in Spain, my friend, Mazie, and I were on the hunt in D.C. for a special Spanish jamon (ham) called Iberico de Bellota. On a tip, Mazie found Iberico de Bellota at Canales Deli in Eastern Market. It cost $67 for less than a half pound.

I asked Mazie what was so great about this particular pork. She said the pigs are raised to forage on acorns, and the meat has an extraordinary taste. She insisted I try a piece of the precious ham. I agreed to taste just a sliver, and took a chance on the pig’s acorn diet. I ate the sliver and fully expected to suffer in short order.

Expected to bloat. Didn’t happen.

Expected severe stomach cramps. Didn’t happen.

Expected to become violently ill. Didn’t happen.

(I was both relieved and impressed!)

This is what I’ve learned about the pigs. “Bellota” means acorn. These pigs are raised in a region of western Spain on pastures with oak tree groves. Certain pigs are selected to finish their lives foraging a pasture for herbs, wild mushrooms, and grasses, and, especially, acorns. The pigs are allowed to do what pigs naturally do — dig, roam, and forage for their food. They are considered “semi-wild,” and the Spanish government strictly regulates the Iberico de Bellota bloodline for quality and integrity.

In contrast, pigs raised in crowded industrial livestock operations nose-to-tail with other pigs suffer. I’ve read that pigs raised in this unhealthy environment are so stressed they often eat each others’ tails. I’ve also read that these industrial operations often supply pork to U.S. supermarkets.

Know this, if you find Iberico de Bellota cured ham in the U.S., it came from a very special, healthy and happy pig.

Iberico de Bellota ham comes from the pig’s hind leg.  It is hung and cured for at least two years, complete with the pata negra, or black hoof. The black hoof distinguishes Iberico de Bellota from other hams, like Serrano. It has only been sold in the U.S. since 2008, sin pata negra (without black hoof).

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Carving slices of jamon Iberico de bellota outside a tapas bar in Madrid.

Jamon for sale at Mercado San Miguel (Madrid)

Jamon for sale at Mercado San Miguel (Madrid)

Jamon Iberico de bellota for sale at Mercat Central (Valencia)

Jamon Iberico de bellota for sale at Mercat Central – Valencia

Now, about the ham and its taste… The color is more magenta than pink, like the typical American ham. The meat is nicely marbled with fat. I rolled it around in my mouth before chewing and experienced an almost buttery texture. Instead of cutting away the fat, I ate it. As for the taste? It was sublime.

My first taste of Jamon Iberico de Bellota was before I went to Spain. Madrid’s gastronomy is very pork-centric; so I was happy to know I could experience that part of Spanish cuisine, and easily find the ham there. From what I could tell, it is the most expensive ham in Spain, though it is still much cheaper there than here in the U.S. It is so precious, in fact, that a native of Madrid, now living in Baltimore, has a guy in Madrid who vacuum-packs his Jamon Iberico de Bellota so he can stuff as much of it as he can inside the clothes he packs in his suitcase when he returns to the U.S.

By the end of my travels in Spain, I *got* it.  This pork is special. It is the only brand I will eat, although sparingly, and on rare occasions. The exception was my last night in Madrid:  I was the happy pig. I tore up a plate of tomatoes and a plate of Jamon Iberico de Bellota meant for two to share!

No shame or consequences!

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