My new bite-sized series, A Moveable Feast, will feature anecdotes and lessons learned from my favorite Spanish foods. The second installment is about the famous Spanish ham. Because jamón is a way of life, not just the quintessential Spanish food.
The local markets always fascinated me. I wandered into the famous outdoor covered market La Boqueria off of the touristic Les Rambles a few days after arriving into Barcelona and was wowed by the colors and smells: the brightly colored juices that attracted swarms of tourists and flies, the artistic stacks of fruits and vegetables, the giant blocks of cheese, the fish on ice with eyes open, and most intriguing of all, the butchers who hacked at chunks meat with a cleaver while making blunt small talk with their customers.
I hardly knew the names of all the meat, let alone all the cuts. I lurked behind, watching the effortless slices of the giant knife with big eyes, trying to follow the conversations with untrained ears. It was here when I first watched a butcher face the giant back leg of a pig with his weapon of choice. The knife did more caressing than cutting; this blade was smaller and thinner, made to create long, thin cuts of the cured meat along the grain. The jamón was a deep raspberry red streaked with white, chewy fat.
Sometimes when I got hungry between classes, I would skip down the stairs to the cafeteria to pick up a simple jamón sandwich made with fresh baguette and a bit of tomato flesh. The jamón had an intensely salty flavor and was delightfully greasy, made even more mouth-watering when olive oil was drizzled over the top of the meat. Slices of salty jamón tore apart like tissue paper, so it was easy to come back for more. The best jamón—the kind that workers are gifted by generous employers at Christmas—literally glistens when sliced as the fat begins to melt at room temperature. Picking at jamón like this at a party would leave my fingertips smelling like jamón for hours; I couldn’t complain.
Jamón is one of the few genuine sources of national pride. The Spanish are all too happy to tell a foreigner everything that is wrong with their country: corrupt politicians, expensive public universities, bureaucratic nightmares, economic downfall, lack of jobs. “So why don’t you leave, live abroad?” I asked after hearing the same rant dozens of times.
“Because there is nowhere like Spain,” they would tell me, and I would nod my head, because it was true. “And because it’s so difficult to find good jamón,” they added, popping another strip of the cured meat in their mouth. It seemed justifiable.