Pedro Liébana, Ithaca’s only master ham carver, shares the tradition
At the age of nine, Pedro Liébana asked his mother for a communion gift that would shape his life –– a knife to carve ham.
“Every house knows how to carve, some for better, some for worse,” Liébana said, reminiscing about her childhood.
In a small town near Granada, Spain, Liébana came from a farming family where his main example of jamón carving came from his mother. From his childhood kitchen to his shop in Ithaca, he has mastered the art of ham carving through years of training and practice –– his title is now maestro jamónero cortadores (master ham carvers). He said he was one of only three living in the United States.
In November 2020, Liébana opened his boutique in Ithaca after arriving from Los Angeles in the dry summer heat months earlier with his wife whose pursuit of postdoctoral research brought them here. “I’ve been very happy ever since,” he said.
Located at 215 N. Cayuga St., the store is in the Dewitt Mall across from Ithaca Guitar Works. A wide range of people – including professors and a Pulitzer Prize winner – have experienced his food. Serving them is what he says brings him joy and what he thinks makes Ithaca such a unique place.
His menu? Short. Delicious. A chance to expand the palace.
His store, though small, offers a world of flavors for Ithacans to try, especially pork lovers. From the produce shelf (including breadsticks and extra virgin olive oil) to items in the fridge (including Manchego cheese and Liébana’s favorite white anchovies), a taste of Spain will take you waits.
The main attraction, however, is the jamón –– specifically the jamón ibérico, coated in “charcuterie caviar,” as a sign on its wall states.
“It’s unique. It’s impossible to find hand-carved jamón ibérico,” he said. “It’s the best jerky in the world.”
Behind a glass, place two pieces of ham. The jamón serrano, matured for seven months from the white pork based in Valencia, Spain, tastes salty. Jamón ibérico, an acorn-fed Iberian pig based in Cordoba, Spain, is matured for three years, filled with delicate undertones of sweet and savory flavors.
While larger Ithaca grocers may have machine-cut raw ham, Liébana finds it disruptive to flavor, especially for the jamón iberico. “It’s a sin. You pay a lot of money. The speed of the machine ruins everything,” he said.
With dexterity, precision and meticulous care, Liébana regularly cuts thin slices of meat – an art form he uses to maintain the flavor, texture and nutritional value of meats.
For those who have never tried it, Liébana recommends trying jamón serrano. “I want people to try it properly. Open a bottle of wine, cheese, bread, but you eat on your own.”
With a range of gourmet sandwiches including both types of jamón, as well as chorizo (a spicy and delicious sausage), the menu is set to provide a memorable and delicious experience.
Its menu, however, isn’t just for pork lovers. It also offers breadsticks, tortas handmade in Seville (each with its own shape), Spanish tortilla omelettes, refreshing gazpacho and even paella kits.
“We use very high-quality, fresh seafood, and we put it in a box,” he said, as he talked about typical dishes in Spain that may be unheard of in the United States. “It really is amazing food. In Barcelona there’s a bar, you just order a beer, there’s a wall full of seafood. You pick one, open, drink and eat.”
Although each day has been variable in number of customers, it is a new day that he can perfect his craft, doing what he loves: carrying on the traditions of his native country, serving delicious dishes that maintain the memory of their culture. and share it with others, both new and familiar with Spanish foods.
“We have nothing to invent. I have nothing to understand,” he said. “I just have to do what I know about my country.”
With his boutique departing in the summer of 2022 as he pursues another location, La Bodega will be open and ready for all to enjoy.
What you can find here:
Delicious Spanish dishes, including jamón ibérico (cured ham) from upstate New York’s only master jamón carver, sandwiches, handmade tortas from Seville, paella kits, olive oil imported from the largest distributor in the world (Spain), Manchego cheese, anchovies, refreshing gazpacho, Spanish omelettes and more. For those looking to reminisce about Spanish dishes they’ve tasted abroad or for beginners, this little shop has a world of flavors to try!
Location: 215 N. Cayuga St., Ithaca.
Opening hours: 2 p.m.-6 p.m. on Monday; 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday.