Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jamonisimo, Barcelona

September 4th, 2009. 12PM.

This is it. The Best Ham In the World. I do feel like it changed my life, albeit slightly. Conversations about ham will never be the same again, because other people will praise the merits of Parma, or Iberico, or San Daniele, but I'll know that I had The Best. Of course, I don't have a lot of conversations about ham, so it won't be much of a problem. I should also say up front, "Thanks Chuck."

Be warned: this is a bit outside the normal bounds of the tourist areas. Do not try to walk there, as we did. It's picturesque for a while, then you get bored of the picturesquity of block after block of 6-story buildings and quaint squares at every intersection, but you still have the second half of the walk to get through. Also, note that they close from 1:30 to 4 or 4:30, so you'll need to eat on an American schedule. You could go somewhere for a proper lunch afterward, if you were a glutton for punishment.

So yeah, we were pretty happy when we finally got there. However I was a bit confused on first appearances, because it just looks like a deli  - fine, a deli with a whole lot of pig legs hanging around, but after only a few days in Spain I already thought that was normal. And a very clean, cool, modern deli at that, which was a bonus after a long, hot walk. I don't know what I was expecting - more restaurant, I suppose. Certainly I was confused at not seeing any tables, because I had been expecting for months to settle in to one for big plates of ham. It was a bit awkward getting started due to language issues, but once we talked to the Italian assistant, he set us straight and we got to work. They do have tables in back - two of them, in separate nooks that also hold fancy cookbooks (El Bulli, Charlie Trotter, etc) and racks of wine - and we claimed the bigger one with a resolution to eat ham until closing time.

I like to think the history of Jamonisimo goes like this: basic corner butcher really likes ham. Starts selling good ham. Starts looking for the best ham. Finds it. People start beating a path to the door. They can't resist eating on the sidewalk as soon as the ham is sliced. The butcher says "Why not sell them some cava too?" and renovates the shop to include two tables just for those odd customers who insist on viewing a butcher shop as a restaurant (the renovation appears quite recent). Famous people visit. Worldwide fame ensues. That brings us up to date. But to be hospitable, there's a proper menu, and it includes different varieties of meat, various cheeses, and the odd vegetable to make you feel like you're not just eating ham.

It's the varieties of ham that are really stunning though. We were stunned. You may actually find it too fussy if you just want slices of ham - not only can you choose between three locations (Andalucia, Salamanca, Extremadura), but you can also choose which part of the leg you want the meat cut from. For some reason it never ocurred to me that the front tastes different from the back tastes different from the top (this is in 'living' view, not 'slicing' view). But they sure do, and of course each origin of pig tastes different too. Regardless of the location, each of the legs is handled from birth to ham by one farmer (of course, they prefer to say 'artisan'), cured for a minimum of 30 months and made in quantities of only 8,000 per year. This only sounds like a lot if you don't think about industrial production volumes. For instance, the US alone slaughtered a shade under 84 MILLION pigs in 2009 through September (most recent USDA national data, I think).

Here's the key word: industrial. As a result of Jamonisimo, it has entered our vocabulary as a derogatory term for food. After we started eating and drinking, we all got more friendly - I think they were waiting to see if we'd be weird, but after several plates of ham we were buddies. And eventually we got around to asking the waiter what he thought of various hams. The best thing that's available in Japan is, I think, Prosciutto San Daniele, which is Italian but does come from the north and not too far from Spain. So, we said, as an Italian, what do you think of San Daniele. "Well," he said, "it's OK, but it's industrial. We don't really have a ham culture in Italy." Imagine that? An Italian says (paraphrasing) "Y'know, Italians really don't understand cured ham. That's why I came to Spain to work in this shop and study ham." Telling, damning, interesting, however you want to put it, we liked to hear it. Everyone likes to think they're clever.

Enough of the pontificating, let's get to the porn. Being American, I can't resist something labeled 'EXTREME', so even though this was from Extramadura, which probably has nothing to do with extremism, we started with it. This was just a plate of the good stuff, not Jamonisimo's 'tasting in textures' treatment. More on that later.

Shoulder of Extremadura, just to see what it's like...it's not even worth trying to describe these. They're just the best ham you can imagine.

Even after that we started thinking the pork was a little heavy. We ordered tomatoes, and the waiter popped out to get them. I hope the green-ness means they're an heirloom Spanish variety, but I'm not sure.

You know what these are? They're the best anchovies in the world. I think they were actually labeled that way on the menu. After growing up with anchovies being a bit of a punchline, something people would refuse to eat, I've come to the point where I like anchovies crumbled up in sauces or pastas, and I'm OK with whole ones on pizzas. But these were an entirely different species. They were incredible. As they should be, at almost 2 euros per fillet.

Spanish cheeses are a little limited in range, but nice. I think this was manchego and idiazabal, both of which come in at a really nice points on the soft-hard and sharp-mellow scales as far as I'm concerned. With some quince paste. Again, tasty, but an afterthought.

I was really worried before we arrived that my companions wouldn't be up to the challenge. I was wrong, and I'm sorry. We also ordered the mixed sausage plate to see what it was like...you'll recognize the salami-like thing nearest the viewer, and also the chorizo on the far side (both of which were, predictably, awesome). The thing I had read about but not had is the lomo in the middle.

It looks almost like a processed capicola (industrial, but I still like it) but is made rather more extravagantly from cured pork loin, which of course comes conveniently in this shape. Again, awesome. Yawn.

Why we didn't go 'whole hog' on the first order is beyond me, but for the second main plate (again, thanks for the stamina, guys!) we went for the Texturas of Salamanca. This means you get a three piles of slices, each from a different of the leg. I'd like to say I formed a distinct preference for the front or back or tip or whatever, but it's really too specific for me. The differences in taste and texture were clear at the time, but the memory is fuzzy!

Fuzzy...

All of this made me very happy. I'd like to think Luigi had a pretty good time too. [I'd like to think his name was Luigi, but I didn't ask.] He certainly looks happy. It's good to be proud of your product and watch people enjoy it.




We closed the place down! And went directly for a siesta.

Jamon jamon!
++93 439 08 47

7 comments:

  1. Hey, no fair commenting in Chinese! Stick to languages I can read!

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  2. A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour..............................................

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  3. sounds great...do you mind me asking how much it cost?

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  4. One hundred and fifty three euros and 70 cents according to the picture I took of the receipt. Obsession has its benefits...
    First plate, EUR25. Big black plate, EUR33. Salami assortment EUR16. Anchovies EUR12 (and well worth it). Cava, dead cheap like it is everywhere. Just don't call it recession champagne.

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  5. Awesome pictures and insights...I am planning my trip to Lisbon and Barcelona. Couldn't get a reservation at El Bulli so I will have to get my ham on elsewhere!

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