When you turn onto Carrera de San Jerónimo in Madrid, about halfway up the block you see a building with bright yellow backlit signs and flashing red and blue neon lights harkening from down the street. It looks strangely like either an adult novelty shop in the night on the Pennsylvania turnpike or the Ripley’s Believe it or Not on Hollywood Blvd. in LA. Once you get close enough to read the signs, you realize all this roadside attraction flare is beckoning from the Museo del Jamón, yup, the ham museum (it seems to be a local chain so, like skipping the many Bulldogs of Amsterdam in favor of the one in the red light district, make your Museo del Jamón this one when dipping your toe in the well of well-touristed spots).
Regardless of my appreciation for kitsch, this place looks overdone, until you are within about 100 feet and you realize there are maybe 1000 Serrano hams hanging from every available inch. There is a counter running along one wall displaying every single type of cured meat you can imagine from simple salamis and non-pig offerings (which I am sure some people want) to the hams of the pata negra, the famous black-footed pigs of Iberia. How famous? How sought after are the pigs of the Iberian Peninsula? So much so that in my somewhat absurd phrase book rife with useful sentences for travelers like, “I have swallowed my contact lens,” you can easily find how to say, “I would like the ham of a young pig that was fed on acorns.” Hanging over a case of sausages, patés, and bacons are variations on the true star, ham. Everything from Serrano hams made from white pigs to extra aged (extremo) hams, to hams made only from the center muscle of the leg, considered the finest part. It truly is glorious.
Like the prosciuttos of Parma before them, Iberian hams were not legal for import to the States for quite a long time. Unlike their Italian brethren from Parma, though, the best hams of Iberia, Serrano hams, aren’t really wanting for a new market so only one or two makers have gone through the requirements set by the USDA to qualify them for import. At this point their sausages have started arriving, but since there is time involved in the aging of Serrano ham, those will arrive some day soon, but not yet.
At the moment you must travel to enjoy true Iberian hams. Maybe that’s why it seems so fun to wiggle your way into a crowd at the ham museum and stand around a center island bar with small beers, just to clearly embrace tourism. Maybe it's because it is the greatest cured meat in the world. Eat the fat, taste the acorns, you tell me.