A screeching halt. Worse yet, fingernails on a blackboard. How could fond memories of childhood ham be so different from the current reality? Have my taste buds changed? Did they change their recipe or ingredients? Was it a bad food day? I’m not sure what the problem was, but I would say that being “underwhelmed” is an overstatement. I was on C. Palanca (formerly Echague) Street today, near the Quiapo market and Ils de Tul (Ilalim ng Tulay) looking for plates for the restaurants and noticed that the ham purveyors of old were just across the street. A few vendors seemed to have closed for business for good (though their signs were still there) and only Excelente Hams were open for business. After a few hours of picking out plates and glasses, I crossed the street and entered the large Excelente store, devoid of any customers whatsoever, and for some reason was transported back some 40 years or so. It just had that 1950′s or is it earlier feel to it. And I figured that anything that had lasted so long must have pretty good stuff…
My first question was did they have bone-in ham that they would slice by the kilo. The saleslady just looked at me funny, and said they didn’t have bone-in ham. Huh? Is that right? Instead, there were lots of boneless little hams probably 1.5-2.0 kilos in weight. I perused the offerings and zeroed in on some sliced ham, with pineapple marinade/sauce, the classic sliced ham that they sell to this day… Worried that it looked a bit like death warmed over, I decided to buy just 1/4 kilo worth. Next, I purchased some ham scraps (for fried rice) and while these had a deeper, richer color, they too looked an odd shade of red-gray.
Other trays on display out in the open held mixtures of little hotdogs and scraps of ham and bacon, a kind of nitrate melange, if you will. :)
But looks can be deceiving, no? So I hoped taste would trump looks when I got back home.
Back at home, plated nicely, I took this photo of the sliced ham with pineapple sauce. I tasted a large piece and immediately thought of slightly moist shoe leather. Not quite so tough, but clearly not so pliable either. It had no distinct flavor. It was neither too sweet, nor salty nor pineapple-y. It was really quite the non-event. I couldn’t believe it. At PHP700 a kilo (up to PHP1,000 for other types of hams), this was less appealing than even say a supermarket pre-seasoned tocino. How odd is that? How can a Chinese ham with such a good and long reputation be so non-descript? It’s almost as if the hams were washed. I know they weren’t, but that’s what they tasted like to me.
Next, I tasted the scraps, which indeed had better color and flavor, but it still was totally unremarkable. Hams are normally PACKED with flavor, and this just wasn’t doing it for me.
At the store, I spied bags of ham skin chicharon iand purchased one, thinking the idea was brilliant, and the flavor from the typically intense ham rind might make a brilliant chicharon. Back at home, it photographed well, was a dark golden to black color, with a very light texture. I braced for the flavor punch, but instead thought a big fat huh? They were blander that the pale chicharon you can buy in malls these days.
I’d like to think that bright side means they may not use any MSG whatsoever, but I still think the most glaring problem was the complete lack of character, depth and complexity of flavor of the hams. I have purchased local Majestic hams often over the years, and I am always on the lookout for their bones, which they sell separately, and I think the comparison between the two brands of ham is like night and day. Night and day. This is how Majestic describes their hams on their website “traditionally cured in oak barrels, smoked in aromatic wood, aged for full flavor and cooked in selected spices” and that seems to jive with the product they sell. I wonder how Excelente would describe their process. Please tell me I went to the wrong Excelente store, that this is their discount, shortcut outlet, that they hide superb hams elsewhere on the archipelago. Because, yipes, these were not worth the whopping PHP700-1,000 per kilo price tag!
P.S., I suspect that this store must make 70+% of its annual sales in the weeks running up to Christmas, and that many sales are of small 1-1.5 kilo boneless hams. And maybe during the holidays they do make bone-in ham. But they didn’t have any today. Yup, just confirmed by googling videos that they do have bone-in ham during the holidays, and the shop is crazed in the weeks before Christmas, but I suspect the rest of the year things are pretty quiet.
Excelente Ham, Inc
155-157 Carlos Palanca Sr. Street
733-6355 and 733-6360