In Spain, the Holy Grail of Ham

By Lisa Provence
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 9, 2001

. My husband is a foodie who's obsessed with ham. First it was salty country ham from Virginia. That was followed by a prosciutto phase. Then a taste of Spanish ham had us on a plane headed to Madrid.

Spain loves ham as much as my husband does. Every tapas bar, no matter how humble, has at least five hams -- with hoofs attached -- hanging from the ceiling in the midst of humanity, cigarette smoke and flying insects.

Classic Spanish ham -- jamón ibérico -- is a lot like Peking duck. It's been savored by a culture for centuries, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't think it's safe to bring into this country -- unless you have the proper paperwork. As a result, it's rare to find it in America, and when you do, it's jamón serrano at $200 a pop.

Jamón serrano whetted our appetites for the primo ham you can't get in the States -- the renowned jamón ibérico de bellota from Jabugo in southwestern Spain, where free-range black pigs eat the sweet acorns -- bellotas -- that make those hams so prized. "That's where we're going," announcedmy husband, Steve, determined to journey to the heart of jamón country.

We arrivef in Madrid, the starting point for most travel in Spain. On our list of jamón landmarks to visit was the Museo del Jamon -- the Museum of Ham, a chain of jamón eateries. Another obligatory museum is the Prado, which we toured for all of about 40 minutes before hunger, jet lag and the hallucinatory qualities of El Bosco, as Hieronymus Bosch is called in Spain, sent us urgently in search of our first jamón.

We ducked into the tiled La Taberna Dolorosa a few blocks from the Prado. Steve ordered the long-anticipated jamón ibérico de bellota, along with olives and a plate of giant anchovies that comes with homemade potato chips.

Before going into salt arrest, I noted that the thinly sliced ham is fattier than jamón serrano, and seems richer than prosciutto, which has had its own USDA headaches getting imported to the States. Mainly, though, I needed a beer.

A stroll around Madrid confirmed that we were, indeed, in a jamón-loving country. Besides hams in every tapas bar, there are many ham stores, such as Paradiso Jamón. The meat slicers there offered us tastings of the different grades of jamón. A jamón ibérico de bellota, distinguished by its black hoof, cost $300, and the helpful guys behind the counter assured us that we could bring it into the United States as long it was shrink-wrapped in plastic.

We were dubious. Three hundred dollars is a lot to hand over to U.S. Customs, should they have been wrong. Also, we didn't want to lug around a ham for the next week, so we postponed our jamón purchases.

A couple of blocks away, on Calle Mayor, we discovered our first Museo del Jamon. At this point, we were too full to contemplate another bite. But we went in to admire the hams that covered the entire ceiling of this two-story restaurant, and bought a bottle of the incredibly cheap, surprisingly good Museo del Jamon house wine.

A car was required to reach Jabugo, so we took the high-speed train 340 miles to Seville and rented one, then drove northwest to the Jabugo region.

The four-lane highway became two lanes as we headedinto the hills. We saw thick-trunked trees seriously pruned and sprouting small shoots. Even unpruned, we wouldn't have recognized these as chestnut trees.

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