Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of Spanish cuisine is its focus on charcuterie, in particular the focus on pork products. Sure, Spain has paella, gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), tortillas (Spanish omelets), gazpacho, and a whole host of other specialties, but let’s face it: we went to Spain for the pig.
So Much Delicious Ham
After our first day in Spain sightseeing in Madrid, we were exhausted, jet-lagged, and hungry. We wandered around the streets, looking for something that wasn’t overpriced and touristy. We wandered, and wandered, and wandered some more. I was getting so grumpy I think Jeremy wondered what he had gotten himself into marrying me. Finally, we stumbled upon a little bar where no one spoke English and everyone in there knew each other. This looked promising. Having almost no idea what anything was on the menu, we just pointed at a few different things, to the bartender’s amusement. Apparently we had ordered a whole racion of everything a.k.a. enough food to feed an army. We changed our orders to medias raciones and a few minutes later this thing of beauty appeared in front of us:
Isn’t that just beautiful? The redder slices are chorizo; the pinker ones are salchichon. Both are dry-cured pork sausages, the main difference between them being that chorizo is seasoned with pimenton (Spanish paprika) and salchichon is seasoned with black pepper.
Although the chorizo and salchichon were excellent, what we were really looking forward to trying was jamon Iberico. It seems you can’t walk five feet in Spain without seeing these gorgeous ham legs hanging in storefront windows:
On our second day in Madrid, at dinner we ordered a charcuterie plate to try jamon Iberico. I’m pretty sure we had ham at every single meal from then on while in Spain. Jamon Iberico is so incredibly delicious, it feels sinful just looking at it. The fat is so beautifully marbled, it’s sliced so thinly that it looks like stained glass, and it truly does melt in your mouth. There are several different kinds of jamon Iberico. The king of all hams, jamon Iberico de bellota, comes from wild, black-hooved pigs that live in the southwestern part of Spain and eat nothing but acorns for their entire lives. Yes, acorns. As you might imagine, you will pay a hefty premium for eating these special pigs. We got jamon Iberico de bellota maybe once on the whole trip- it’s definitely something you have to try. But honestly, any kind of Spanish jamon is heavenly.
One of my favorite things about jamon is that they make special stands for holding the legs when they’re being carved. How cool is that? It is not uncommon to pass by a shop and see an employee shaving off layer after layer of the thin, cured pork. Something about this display just makes you want to stop in and have a snack, and we did. Several times.
We enjoyed Spanish charcuterie so much that by the end of the trip, Jeremy was joking, “Do you think a ham leg could count as my carry-on item on the plane?” But at the several hundred Euro per kilogram price tag, we knew that purchasing a whole cured ham leg for personal enjoyment was, sadly, just not in the budget.