No, it’s not just the 1992 film with sizzling Spanish couple Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. It’s thin slices of delicateness tucked neatly within the embrace of a golden, crispy loaf of bread, fanned out across a plate on every other table in tapas bars, wrapped with a bow in your most prized Christmas baskets.
In Spain, it is not just ham, it is a way of life.
Legs here, legs there, legs everywhere!
Never had I seen so many legs – hanging on the wall, above the bar, from the ceiling – some naked, some clothed colorfully, others fashioned in “panty hoses” – all pigs’ legs. Anthony Bourdain has after all once described jamón as being “pornographically delicious“.
Even the name jamón – pronounced like a whispering roar from your throat : “harrrr-mon“, sounds sexy!
If you are ever in Madrid, and are up for a visual as well as a literal feast of the “sexy legs“, make a quick visit to Museo del Jamón. Now Prado, Bosco and Goya can wait, for this is a museum of ham, for crying out loud! – also a chain resto where a lot of the older locals gather to grab a drink and a “bocadillo de jamón” (bread with jamón) for no more than 2 to 3 euros.
This “museum” features a eat-in section, a bar and also a deli shop, where butchers are ready to cut fresh slices of jamón for you. Lunch hour – 2pm to 4pm – the bar is packed, bustling waves of chits chats and loud crunches of bread and jamón being devoured, vibrate along the walls of ‘legs’.
(There are plenty more local and small tapas bars with great jamón, at times, free with a drink. Do discover more at Tapas Talk)
Jamón: Gourmand or Gourmet?
The dried, cured legs of ham may be generally renowned worldwide as Spanish ham, but there are a range of different types of Jamón, categorized mainly by the type of pig and also how long the legs are cured for. The two most popular are:
– Jamón Serrano: the every-day GOURMAND cheaper ham, made from Landrace white pig breeds and cured for shorter amounts of time (with the shortest still around 9 months)
– Jamón Ibérico de Bellota: the famous GOURMET expensive ham, made from Iberian black leg (pata negra) pigs.
Why are these black pigs so special, you ask?
+ Well, for starters, each pig is reserved 2 acres of land (London renters, be envious!) for ample free-ranging.
+ They are raised only in unique old-growth oak forest areas of Western Spain
+ They have a special diet of bellotas (acorns), herbs, wild mushrooms and grasses
+ Each pig’s leg is cured for a minimum 2 years before going onto the market
These factors make this type of ham rare and the most expensive in the world, with a 7-kg leg retailing for as much as 1,800 GBP (!!!)
A countryside butchers’
Akin to the differences between a smartly-dressed, chic urbaner and a simple chap from the countryside, the “legs” in the village of Candelario bear a stark simplicity and barrenness in comparison with its well-clothed, Museo del Jamón counterpart.
A step inside this building, and the whiff of cured ham, slams itself up your nostrils and you find yourself in a daze, before making out the hundreds of legs hung one row on top another. The building itself is uniquely designed to feature few, strategically-placed windows to ensure the best curing conditions.
But it is here, where black pigs are brought in and cured for years at a time, the oldest leg possibly in its 16th or 17th year. The taste of a 2-year leg, in all of its chewiness and savoriness, contrasts its bare and greasy appearance.
A short ride from Bejar (more than 130 miles NW of Madrid) – where my host family is from, Juan Garcia Gomez butchery might not be from the most famous of jamón regions in Spain, but it certainly was the closest I got to tasting gourmet jamón – a pack of 12 slices cost 12 Euros (and that’s only the 2-year cured ones)
But I must say, at this very shop, I discovered that I loved Lomo (another type of cured ham) with its subtle blend of chewiness and fat much more than I do Jamón, which I found to be quite intense and gamey on the palate. But of course, it is for each to taste and each to judge…a “tiny” fan of beer, I think I haven’t done the ham justice, in not accompanying it with a pint or two.
21 million. That’s the number of kilos of Jamón the Spanish consumed in 2009. If my two-week journey proved anything, it was that this dried, cured ham was everywhere, a culinary giant in whom many Spaniards take great pride.
There was even a national television campaign promoting different qualities and price ranges of jamón in Spain – with the motto: “There is a ham for everyone”
Jamón slicing (here’s a slicer in my late blog on Borough Market) is a profession in many parts of the world and a very well-paid one to boot.
This is not to say that all Spaniards are madly in love with it. Take Elisa – my Madrileña friend for instance, she hates jamón with a passion.
Enjoy some more pics of Museo del Jamón and the butchers in Candelario!