Ham is more than just a meal or snack option in Spain, it is a national obsession. In fact, not only is Spain the largest producer of air-dried cured ham in the world, it’s also the top consumer of this delicacy. I knew little about the Spanish tradition of jamon before my trip to Madrid, but I quickly became indoctrinated in the ways of ham love.
There are two primary types of Spanish ham, Jamón Serrano and Jamón Ibérico . There are more than 2,000 producers of Serrano ham which is made from white pigs and is generally aged for 7 to 16 months. Jamón Ibérico, on the other hand, is made only from the Iberian pig in Southwestern Spain and enjoys a diet of acorns. The Ibérico is cured for anywhere between 14 to 36 months. This make the Ibérico harder to find and therefore more expensive.
My first experience with jamón came within minutes of our first foray around town. We were walking towards the Palacio Real and passed by a tiny cafe where I spied something remarkable from the corner of my eye. Ham, and lots of it, in all forms and sizes, sitting there tempting me to come in. I had instantly become Homer Simpson, drooling at the delicate slices of jamón arranged artfully on the plates.
I started to walk away, but pulled back. I had to investigate this further. As soon as we approached, the matron of the café came out, said a variety of things I did not understand in Spanish, showed us a menu that I couldn’t read and before I knew it we were seated and waiting. What we were waiting for, I wasn’t sure, but given the ham decor throughout the narrow restaurant, I was sure that I would like it.
The impromptu lunch began with a version of patatas bravas and some bread, followed by a tomato sauce of some sort that I assumed was for bread dipping. The entire time we were munching, I kept my eye on the hostess who very carefully sliced and then delicately arranged the slices on hunks of fresh baguettes. Flashing back to some excellent saucisson in Paris, I was getting excited.
As we were waiting, more and more people began shuffling into the tiny space, each somehow finding a spot at the bar. This lunchtime phenomenon was one that I had not seen before, but later would notice throughout Madrid. Cafeterias and small eateries cater to hundreds of patrons, each of whom belly up to the bar for some tapas or, like us, a small sandwich and munchies. Given the Madrileño proclivity to having dinner at a time most people would consider more appropriate for sleep, this light lunch was but one of the many steps in their daily culinary routine. Later would come tapas and perhaps wine, all leading up to the main event, dinner. I have no idea how people head to work in the morning on what must be a few scant hours of sleep, but somehow everyone manages.
Finally, the moment we had been waiting for arrived. The jamón was brought over and placed before us; it was all I could do to refrain from grabbing the plate of delicious ham from her hands. The sandwich was perfect. It was just the jamón on the baguette with a light spread of some sort – simplicity at its finest. The ham had a remarkable taste with a slight saltiness marking a dry aged ham. We sat there for a while and savored the modest but purely Madrid meal before continuing on our way. Even though it was simple, the lunch at La Mi Venta quickly became a personal favorite.
Throughout my time in Madrid we saw jamón Serrano everywhere in establishments with names such as Ham Paradise and the Museum of Ham, which has several locations throughout the city. Be forewarned though, there are many tourist restaurants advertising huge plates of jamón at alarmingly high prices. Rather than eat on the main drag, head to either La Mi Venta or other similar, neighborhood restaurants that can deliver the same quality meal at a more modest price.
Traveling is about the experiences, and food is an important part of that. Make sure you discover the local culinary favorites and immerse yourself in the culture, like we did in Madrid.