Used to be, when I thought of ham, I thought of something honey baked or square watery lunch meat in plastic. Ever since I was a foreign exchange student to Madrid, Spain nearly 20 years ago, the picture in my mind changed. Whenever somebody says “ham” I kind of feel a pending letdown. It’s not that I don’t like ham but it’s just that I know that they’re probably not talking about jamón.
There is no such letdown at the Museo del Jamón in Madrid. My fellow traveler and I visited the Carrera de San Jerónimo 6 location not once but twice, so interesting were the offerings of the museum. Come to think of it, we only went to the Prado once and probably spent less time there than in the museum devoted to succulent cured swine legs. Somehow, I believe Velázquez would understand.
It is less a museum than a deli showcase of all the types of jamón that Spain has to offer. It is truly awe-inspiring. Legs hang all around the walls, over the bar, over your head and behind the deli counter. They fill golden cañas and plop them before you in pools of beer that would probably quench your thirst even if you could only gaze upon them. The fluorescent lighting serves to make this museum a completely different experience than the smokey, earthy wine and tapas bars of “la Latina”. Everyone here is a commoner. We saw people pay with what appeared to be food stamps and saw fellows who looked like they might have been collecting trash all day talking to a group of abuelitas that were dressed to the nines – including pearls. And for all of this mix of clientele, I did not see one other tourist – gringo or otherwise. Maybe that’s the equalizing effect of the museum.
What was unequaled was the main event – the jamón. We ordered a 1/2 plate of queso manchego and 1/2 plate of the Jamón Iberico de Bellota. What sets this jamón apart from all others is that it is from a free-range, acorn fed pig. It has a velvety consistency on the tongue and a tenderness that is unequaled by any of the other varieties. The striations of delicious fat mix with the full flavored cured red meat on your palate and combine to create a flavor that exists nowhere else. You can taste the meat, the process of curing the meat and slightly taste the nuttiness of the acorn in the flesh. The richness gathers on the back of your tongue and holds there until ushered along by another sip from the caña.
All the while El Museo del Jamón bubbles and breathes around you. Bartenders shout orders to the deli, checks are paid, new patrons arrive, and the hum of the traffic pulses outside. Still, there is no better name for this establishment than “museum.” When one thinks of a museum as a place to experience works of art with your fellow man, this fits the description. It houses products that only a few talented individuals can do, things that are held in high regard the world around, things that may be loved by some and despised by others.
Happily, there is one thing that sets this museum apart from all others. When your done marveling at the works of art, you only need to proceed to the deli counter to take one home.