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There are few times when I will blatantly or generally discredit my own home culture and upbringing.  For me, it has always been too easy to hold something at a higher level of appreciation simply because of its apparent exotic or undiscovered nature.  This is an adolescent and ironically myopic view of life. To belittle my own way of life to which I have grown accustomed, a way of living that has produced who I am today, doesn’t really do me any good.  I travel not because I hate where I’m from, but because I desire something new in where I am going.  As I grow more pragmatic, there are few times when I want to say, without hesitation, “they just don’t know how to do this where I’m from.”

But, well, this is one of those times.  And I have evidence to present to the court.  

Some may dread the idea of getting philosophical when it comes to food. But in Spain, as I assume in much of the world,  it is often natural and even automatic (especially after a few glasses of some provincial spirit).  Every night in cramped bars across Madrid, there are heated food-related discussions, often of superiority and inferiority, arguments and agreements about region, preparation, age, and quality.  And there are also discussions of football, sex, the day at work, Zapatero, the lottery, family, children, and between all the long-winded exchanges, there is always a cornucopia of food, eaten slowly and with particular convention, and designed over generations to facilitate the progress of the night.  I can’t remember when I had a satisfying, enthusiastic debate over an olive loaf sandwich.  In Madrid, the food is both a subject and a catalyst.

Some Spaniards find it silly when a foreigner becomes enamored with something apparently Spanish.  And often rightly so.  But they often simply cannot imagine the absence of such perceived cultural gems. Even though they are plentiful, they may be taken for granted. For example, I am still in the stage of my Spanish expatriate life where I lust after all the food that I see displayed in windows everywhere I look in Madrid.  As I walked along the street with Madrileño friend, I marveled through the glass at a shop with a rotating display full of handmade sweets, breads and chocolates.  I mentioned to her that we really don’t have this kind of thing where I am from.  She said, somewhat jokingly, “What kind of place is this where you’re from anyway?” But I suspect that they like this admiration, at least a little bit.  I know myself, however, and I must be on constant guard against sentimentality and my pathetic habit of over-romanticizing life.  Yes, I can see, ultimately, that Paz Vega is not really the most gorgeous thing ever to walk the earth. I know that Almodóvar movies sometimes drag, and that not every Madrileño dresses to the nines every day, and that Zapatero’s socialist government is not a real attempt at utopian humanity.  I know that sometimes the bar food is stale and unenthusiastically prepared.  And although I have not yet seen it in person, I may not enjoy seeing bulls stabbed in the shoulders for 3 to 6 hours.

But, then there is the ham.

Jamón Serrano, or simply mountain ham, has a diminishing name.  It is not that hurriedly packaged, vaguely reddish meat of unknown origin, cut in sandwich squares.  And it’s not that glazed, neatly shaped orb poked with cloves found on your Thanksgiving table.  Here, the leg of the pig is there for all to see, right there on the counter, little hoof and all.  They are in home kitchens, in the windows of tapas bars and restaurants, and hanging from ceilings with paper cups underneath them to catch the dripping fat and gristle.  The preparation is long.  Covered in salt for a couple of weeks, it is then cleaned and hung in a dry, cool place for up to 18 months.  The secaderos, or drying sheds, are usually found in relatively higher elevations, hence the name mountain ham.  At its point of presentation, it is thinly sliced bits of heaven, simply placed in layers on a plate, often with some tart cheese as a companion. It has a rich flavor that somehow explains to the eater the specific, rural history of each slice.  I asked a Spanish friend if it is difficult to slice the meat so thin like that.  He said, “You would definitely destroy the first half of your ham. I would not suggest it.” This simple method of presentation is not pretentious; it is a result of practicality and necessity, and it shows a strong, direct connection of the farm to the mouth.  Speaking for myself, much of the food I’ve eaten in bars and pubs throughout my hurried college and post-scholastic life is careless and disconnected from its origin.

Jamon Serrano and Jamon Ibérico appear similar in presentation but differ in quality.

As I watched on TV Anthony Bourdain devour a bonanza of tapas at Mercado San Miguel in Madrid,  he mentioned his appreciation that the food was made right next to where they were sitting and eating it.  His guide, in what I have noticed a very Spanish quirk, just shrugged his shoulders with a look that seemed to state, “of course.”  I’m not sure he really understood what Bourdain was talking about. This immediate attention to food is not a common, expected sight in the bars of the United States (sorry, dropping a bag of frozen chicken fingers in a vat of grease and squirting ranch dressing in a cup is not attention to food preparation and origin). Granted, once this leg of ham arrives at the bar or restaurant, there is not much actual work, but the near brutality of slicing a piece of food from the leg of an animal is refreshingly real.

In case you’re wondering, there are laws and regulations in Europe that (in theory) ensure both the quality and safety of this food.  Jamón Serrano has Protected Geographical Status (TSG), which is slightly misleading in that it means that in order to call it such, this ham must be prepared only in a known and traditional way.  In contrast, imagine Hormel or Cargill pumping out billions of cookie-cutter, leg-shaped ham products, filled with chopped up animal parts, feces and androden trenbolone acetate.  Jamón Ibérico is even more regulated, and thus higher in quality, as it must originate from a specific geographical area and be prepared in a certain traditional way (with specific feed, range area and breed requirements).  I believe these regulations of quality and origin are a reflection of the Spanish attitude about its food.  Many Spanish wines have similar governmental oversight (a whole other blog entry).  In short, the ham that you find on your plate in that noisy, smoky Madrid bar should have come from a pig that walked around on an actual Spanish pasture, and it must have been fed real pig food that did not contain other pig body parts or chemicals to alter its normal growth.

Stacks of cured jamón waiting to be bought at Mercado de San Miguel.

It appears to me that this sad loss of food quality to which I’ve grown accustomed is a direct result of a market-driven system of business that encourages mass production and makes obsolete the importance of quality and works to diminish the value of history and tradition.  Even when I was a professed vegetarian, I was once presented with a giant steak in a Buenos Aires hot spot, the blood oozing out of the striations of cow flesh.  I sliced up and gorged on this pile of meat like it was my last meal.  It should be said I was starving at the time, and I could not be asked to defend myself as that inconsiderate guest with a list of seemingly trivial dietary requirements. But among the reasons I finally abandoned my veggie diet was the fact that I had a pretty good idea where this meat came from and how it was raised.  Through my own cursory look at meat production practices in Argentina, I found a conspicuous absence of deplorable living environments and standardized hormone injections. In fact, the man who handed me my food (and the my local friends at the table) led me to the conclusion that this meat came from an actual cow that lived relatively near, and this cow walked around and ate grass and some other foods that were meant to make it healthy, fat and strong (granted, not for its own benefit).

I am not so naive to think that there are no artificial influences in South American meat production or that all pigs in Spain live happy lives in lush green fields, free of the human greed and shady practices of their owners.  A blog post of standard bacon and pork production would likely have a different tone, at least.

A Black Iberian Pig pondering his fate as a tapa.

In Spain there are rules about food, both cultural and officially sanctioned.  Some are followed, some are not, but it seems the plethora of high quality cheeses, wines, meats, and seafood that I find everywhere in Madrid speak of an overall attitude.  Jamón Serrano and Ibérico are classic examples that show in Spain, quality matters.  To sit at a table with friends and eat these little pieces of meat, also forces me to see, again, that overindulgence is not a prerequisite to a good time.  I am reminded:  slow down, stop looking at your Blackberry, and have a real-time personal conversation or two.

And my grand personal discovery of cured ham is just scratching the surface of Spanish cuisine. I took the photos below on a quick 10-minute walk from my apartment.  Each picture deserves an entire article of explanation.  Spaniards probably find my taking pictures of food in the windows of tapas bars strange.  But if there are any Madrileños reading this, take it from a traveled epicurean guiri–you’ve got something great.  Don’t let your rich gastronomic habits erode to a processed food waste dump. It is has happened elsewhere, and with stunning speed.  We need these things of quality in our lives.  And when they’re lost, our lives will have become that much more generic and impersonal.   And then, we’re in trouble.