Jamón Experience: Tasting Spanish ham in Barcelona on a Budget
Unless you fancy yourself a bit of a sweet talker, convincing a vendor at Barcelona’s world-famous La Boqueria market to sell you just one slice each of six different kinds of jamón isn’t likely to happen. I’ve enjoyed once or twice the feeling of hammy contentment after copping a free (tiny) taste of a top-quality acorn-fed jamón Ibérico de Bellota simply by smiling and asking a few questions in Spanish about the ham’s production region and the pig’s diet. However, most often, if you would like to buy the good stuff there’s a 100-gram minimum, costing you anywhere from 10€ to €15 per 100 grams (or in some cases much more). In a restaurant, a 100-gram portion cut to order often surpasses €25, and since most restaurants carry only two different jamónes at best, options for a real comparative “tasting” of Spanish ham in Barcelona are limited. Various tour companies offer luxury jamón tastings with lessons in carving and a very deep look into the vast world of this, the “pride of Spain”. However, for the curious gastro traveler on a budget, the business of experiencing high-end jamón is limited to a one-time splurge on a plate of sometimes questionable product. There’s often no guarantee of any real information being given, nor any guidelines to help a curious taster discern the intricate complexities of a truly-great jamón.
But not to worry, for on Las Ramblas of Barcelona (specifically the central, flowery section of the famous street dubbed “La Rambla de les Flors”) the Jamón Experience offers a rare look into the life cycle of the prized Black-footed Iberian pig; from birth to tasting room. Opened in May 2014, the 2,200 sq meter space consists of shops, a cafeteria/bar, tasting room, a private function area, and an audio-visual tour gallery, full of informative narration with both digital and physical visual aids. The tour winds through a series of eight dark rooms in the building’s basement, showing representations of typical dehesa landscapes, the pig’s diets, how the jamón is cured, and where the jamón is aged in both traditional, and modern processing facilities. The audio-guided tour (available in eight languages) lasts about 25 minutes and is followed directly by a 30-minute tasting of six hams from the Enrique Tomás collection; one “Serrano” (non-black-footed pig of everyday quality), one 24-month-cured Iberian jamón, and four 36-month-cured, acorn-fed Iberian hams from each of the four Denominations of Origin for ham that exist in Spain. The best part? This is all available (plus a glass of Spanish beer, wine, or Cava as a pairing during the tasting) to someone walking off the street for just €19.
The first and only place of its kind, the Jamón Experience “museum” is the result of a 4 million euro investment by Enrique Tomás, an enterprise that began with one shop in the small city of Badalona in 1982 and now has more than 50 shops in Spain, one in London, and ships internationally, making them the largest single buyer of jamón in Spain. And though the space is fascinating in its own right, what really makes the experience is the tasting. Though each jamón is offered as a single slice only, the professional tasting format is rarely found elsewhere in Barcelona, and the concept of tasting low, medium, and highest quality products side-by-side is a perfect way of educating one’s palate on the truly unique product that is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (salted and cured ham from Black Iberian Pigs that have feed free-range on wild grass and acorns, or bellotas) is one of the top gourmet products produced in Spain, and because of a combination of region, diet of the pigs, skill of the producers, time of ageing, and skill of the final carving, hams made in the same method (from pig’s with a very similar diet) can taste drastically different depending on their provenance. Just like wines of the same grape varietal but from different soils, the best-of-the-best Spanish hams must be tasted side-by-side in order to fully appreciate the mostly-subtle (but sometimes quite bold) difference. It’s hard to decide which is best when offered an intensely-flavourful, firm, 36-month aged acorn-fed jamón from D.O Huelva and an equally old but more herbal and delicate ham from D.O Pedroches.
In the whole of Spain there are only four Denomination of Origin jamónes ibérico de bellota: D.O Guijuelo (home of the famous Joselito Gran Reserva that sells for around €500 for the entire leg), D.O Extremadura, D.O Pedroches, and D.O Huelva (which contains within its geographic limits the famous sub-region of Jabugo; a town whose famous “Cinco Jotas”-brand jamón is prized as supreme by not only the 2,300 some odd residents of this Andalusian hamlet, but by the entire world, selling for €70/kilo for the whole leg, and upwards of €100/kilo sliced by hand). In short, this stuff is expensive, but to most Spaniards, it is well worth the price. However, if you are on a budget but looking to taste these delicacies, the Jamón Experience might be the way to go.
Another option that is a bit more expensive and arguably less touristy is a pre-arranged jamón tasting/carving class at the Reserva Ibérica Ham Shop on Barcelona’s elegant Rambla de Catalunya (on the corner of Aragó). The details of the tastings and bookings are available here, but only in Spanish (at the time of this article being written), but the tastings themselves are currently available in English, Spanish, and Catalan, with French and Italian in the works—request the tasting in English without issue. These tasting workshops cost €45/person and teach participants—over an hour and a half—the nuances of jamón cultivation, production, carving, tastings, and pairing. Four hams are tasted, first on their own, then paired with Fino sherry, Cava, and local red wine. These tastings are only offered upon previous request, and are capped at 10 people.
In short, there are countless places to taste jamón in Barcelona, but few where you can really have a “tasting”. Which option you choose is not as important as simply making sure that you experience this unique product at its finest, and having a professional guide through the process is invaluable. Either way, do a little planning ahead of time and reap the rewards of a deep, complex flavor you will never forget.
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