Saturday, May 16, 2009

Eternity and Ham, Part II

After writing yesterday’s essay I returned home and started rummaging in the refrigerator for dinner. Then I found it. A container of cold asparagus salad with ham vinaigrette (I told you I’d made every ham recipe you could imagine). The salad was still good, preserved by the oil and vinegar, so I finished the asparagus off for dinner, but I’m still worried that another ham dish may be lurking somewhere in the refrigerator—maybe behind the pickled green tomatoes or preserved lemons.

I am not entirely sure why eating an entire ham seems so difficult. I’m not usually bothered by eating the same food each day. Ham has an assertive flavor, though, and it’s not part of the normal palette of flavors in my diet. That’s not true everywhere. In Spain ham is a national obsession—asparagus with ham vinaigrette is a Spanish recipe.

There is a popular fast food restaurant called Museo de Jamon—literally, museum of ham. I visited one in Madrid and was entirely bewildered by the selection. As you can see, there are hundreds of hams and all of them are different both in price and, to the Spanish palate, taste. I quickly ordered a bocadillo (small sandwich)—the attendants are notoriously rude if you hesitate--with a random, moderately priced slice of ham. The sandwich was bread and ham and nothing else. The Spanish don’t believe in obscuring the taste of the ham with condiments.

Spanish ham is different from the ham we typically buy in the United States. Dryer, saltier, smokier, and aged, it is ham meant to last even without refrigeration. Such hams used to be common in the United States, but as James Beard writes in his classic American Cookery, “Nowadays one seldom finds a ham aged more than two or three years. Formerly it was not uncommon to find them aged six and seven years . . . .” While we have lost our taste for serious ham, the Spanish have not and debates about the best hams, generally acknowledged to be jamon iberico, and the best regions for ham, Huelva seems to be popular, are taken as seriously as debates here over the best wines.

The Spanish seem to eat ham almost every day, maybe more than once per day. Ham, for the Spanish, is important not only for cultural reasons, but as a tradition buttressed by religion, and that’s a topic to discuss tomorrow.

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