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Mateo puts ham in its jam and delights

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I distinctly remember my first taste of conservas, Spanish food preserved in cans or jars. It was rich, salty and, yes, meaty.

I was a young traveler in Barcelona and eager to experience everything. In Spain, preserved foods are not simply a matter of economic survival; rather, the long tradition is a way to relish the best ingredients at a later date and with an updated flavor. In Barcelona, these preserved delicacies are often served as hors d'oeuvres, accompanied by wine, sherry or vermouth.

I'm not so young now, and I'm in Durham, not Barcelona. But almost a decade later, I found myself reminiscing on those earlier days while tasting and sipping the small offerings at Mateo, the hip tapas bar in downtown Durham with the alluring mission of "Spanish small plates with a Southern inflection."

"Food preservation is part of our vision at Mateo," explains sous chef and Durham native Scott Perry. "It's about getting our hands on quality products to put up for later in the season."

So Mateo showcases its food-preservation acumen to "use up the leftover ham" with a seasonal jamon mermelada—a small tapas frías made of preserved "ham jam," pickled persimmons and fermented espelette pepper mustard.

"Make sure you try it all together," encourages Perry.

Spread atop a toasty baguette slice, the jamon mermelada is a mélange of the sweet, salty and porcine. At first, you taste the caramelized brown sugar and onions, balanced by aromatics and the approachable bitterness of sherry vinegar. The distinct, mild spice of the espelette mustard mixes with the sweet honey flavors of the quartered-and-pickled fuyu persimmons. It's a perfect hors d'oeuvre, full on complimentary and contrasting flavors.

As the summer harvest comes to an end, most canners begin to store away their jelly jars for the winter. But Mateo remains steadfast in its plan to continue preserving throughout the fall and winter.

"We're playing with something I call hillbilly yuzu," reveals Perry of Mateo's fall preservation plans, speaking of the tart Asian citrus that's been increasingly sneaking into area kitchens. It's an interesting experiment, indeed; with the flavor, color and texture changes involved during the preservation process, you can rarely be certain of what you're going to get.

As the Spanish might say—that is, if I remember correctly from my travels—"Así es la vida," or that's life.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ham in jam?

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