Shopping for ham in Spain is like shopping for weed in Amsterdam: The sheer quantity of stores selling prime product can be absolutely dizzying. I’d been in the market for a jamón since Christmas, but had been circling the cured-pork dispensaries the way a group of freshmen circle the keg at a house party. Lots of awkward false starts and half stepping, but my cup was still empty.
But then I remembered the old No Reservations episode where Bourdain first eats at El Bulli but before his epic 873-course dinner, Ferran Adria implores him to stop at Barcelona’s best ham shop. It was intended to be a deep moment connecting the dots between technical wizardry and artisanal craftsmanship. It did no such thing, but the name of the shop never left me: Jamonísimo. Screw the endorsement of the world’s most famous chef, with a name like that, I’d be crazy to buy my jamón anywhere else.
So it was with a certain measure of confidence that I marched up to the tasting counter and told the resident ham carver that I was in the market for a full leg of his best stuff. With a sparkle in his eyes and an arch in his back, he announced that they carried only private label acorn-fed hogs, the finest to roam the Iberian peninsula. I nodded my head with due reverence and the tasting commenced.
One thing you’ll never spot in a great ham shop is a slicing machine; the Spaniards believe the heat generated by the electric blade compromises the delicacy of the product. Instead, my man broke out the traditional jamón blade, long and thin with an edge that could fillet a silk scarf, and went about peeling off tile after tile of ridiculously delicious ham: smooth, rosy slices from Salamanca with the marbling of the best blue fin o-toro; heady veils of flesh from Extremadura, with notes of rosemary from the big herb bushes that grow in the countryside there; and finally, scarlet sheaths of ham from Andalusia, so intense in their porkiness that they scratch the back of your throat on the way down.
The Andalusian ham was blackout good, the kind of sensual stuff you eat with the door closed. I made my pick with a face full of teeth, but when he hoisted the leg onto the scale, my heart sank into my shoes: 589 euros. Exactly four times what I had set aside to spend, and with the Roads and Kingdoms coffers reserved for our next far-flung adventure, I tried to quickly work out a way to escape this bear trap without looking like a total loser. Eventually, we settled on 200 grams of the Andalusian gold, with a promise to come back for more if it did me right. Deep down, we both knew this was my one and only trip to Jamonísimo, that I’d get my ham fix from a more modest dealer downtown, but I don’t regret the trip in the slightest. Even as I type this, my fingers are so slick with jamón fat it’s tough to get off a clean sentence.
For those thinking they’ll return from Spain with a black hoof dangling out of their suitcase, think again. Unfortunately, the USDA still mandates that only canned meat can be brought back to the US from abroad. A tin of Frankenmeat like Spam? No problem. An artisanal jamon with hundreds of years of mastery behind it? Hold it right there, mister. More than once I’ve had my cured meats seized by some cocksure border agent and the resulting rage felt at watching him toss these beautiful products into the trash made me swear off the meat-smuggling trade entirely.
For those who want a more secure taste of porcine perfection, you have two options: You can head to a high-end restaurant and pay up to $50 for a few slices artfully arranged on a plate. Or you can place an order with latienda.com, a Spanish import company that offers jamón de bellota from Fermín. Cheap it is not (a whole leg can run up to $1600 in the US), but a 4-ounce packet will set you back about $50. Still, I feel obliged to offer a word of warning: A few hits and you may be hooked for life.