“Where does that come from?” has become the most asked question by our guests at Marben (aside from, “Uh, excuse me, where are your washrooms?”). “Does your beef come from Ontario? Where do you buy your trout? Is that cheese Canadian?”
Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, those questions were almost unheard of—so why now, all of a sudden, the interest in where things come from?
We have all become much more educated on the subject of provenance, the importance of understanding what you are ingesting and the impact it has locally and globally. The premise is a simple one: buy ingredients close to home and in season. If you do that, in theory, it will be fresher, tastier, environmentally friendly, and you will be putting money into the pockets of someone in your community trying to put a kid through university, rather than into the pockets of a CEO buying another yacht.
At Marben, we use only the best quality ingredients available to us. The vast majority of those ingredients are locally sourced, but to be honest, that is by default. That means we look first at the quality of the ingredient and secondly at where it comes from. I don’t believe in using an ingredient just because it is local; local ingredients can be amazing ingredients, but not all local ingredients are great ingredients.
We buy rainbow trout from Kolapore Springs in Collingwood, cheese from Monteforte in Niagara, and beef from McGee farms in Sterling, Ontario, because they are the best ingredients that we can source, and also because they are local.
We do import a few key ingredients that, in my humble opinion, you just can’t replace with local ingredients. Things like; Spanish Iberico ham, salt-cured anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea, Parmesan cheese, saffron and olive oil. I don’t believe that anyone in Canada has been able to make ham like the Spanish… yet. So we buy Spanish ham. Olive trees just don’t grow in the diverse climate of Canada, so we import fine olive oil from Italy or Spain.
Spanish ham, I think, is a perfect example of when to import. There are plenty of great charcuterie producers in Canada; prosciutto-style hams are made right here, in our own backyard. But Iberico ham really is something different—something special that only the Spanish make.
Here is a very quick rundown of Spanish ham:
Jamon means ham in Spanish, and Jamon Serrano or Jamon Iberico means Serrano ham or Iberico ham. Serrano and Iberico are breeds of Spanish pigs, and in Ontario, for example, you will often hear of Berkshire or Duroc pigs, which are the names given to those specific breeds of pig.
To put it simply, Iberico ham is the king, and Serrano the queen of Spanish ham. Iberico is in many ways comparable to Kobe beef in Japan, a prized breed that is fed and cared for with the utmost respect. They are also animals that naturally provide very evenly marbled meat, which results in an incredibly juicy, tender and full flavour.
Iberico ham is so valued because in Spain, it is state law that they must be allowed to roam free in the ‘dehesa’ plains, eating acorns to make up at least 70% of their body fat. This imparts an almost indescribable nutty taste and silky smooth texture. Iberico ham is typically aged 12-36 months, giving it a firm texture and intense flavour. Unfortunately, like Kobe beef, Iberico ham is very expensive, but is worth every penny.
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Rob Bragagnolo is the executive chef at Marben Restaurant in downtown Toronto. Rob, a native Torontonian, lived and cooked in Spain for over a decade, and is co-proprietor of Marc Fosh Restaurants in Palma de Mallorca.