[For an explanation of what’s going on here, you might read Incognito ergo sum.]
The day I left Albarracín, I was standing at the bus stop, waiting for the bus—and I really mean the bus, as there is only one per day that goes to the provincial capital—when I started chatting with an elderly couple, also waiting for the bus. They were adorable, well dressed and diminutive—I could easily have rested my elbows on their heads, though as you might suspect, this is not considered polite in Spain either—and happy to chat with the loopy foreigner who just won’t leave town. The old man (89 years old, as he announced to me), pointed to some lumpy overhanging rocks protruding from the mountainside, looking a bit like suspended bundles, and said “You know why those are still there?” I politely answered that I did not. “Because they’re not ham!” And he laughed.
Never mind the coatrack,
here’s the hamrack!
This little joke only makes sense (if indeed it can be said to at all) if you know that this region is famous for jamón serrano, the cured ham eaten in endless amounts in Spain. It is the Spanish equivalent of Italian prosciutto, and is much less well-known in the United States, in part because it is illegal to bring it into the country unless you have a special license. Exactly why this is I am not sure, though I suspect it has something to do with the American distrust of food that is not thoroughly cooked and wrapped in plastic. Indeed, jamón (in Albarracín you don’t need to say jamón serrano, because it’s the default ham) can be seen anywhere but in plastic: hanging on walls in restaurants and bodegas, hanging over the bar, lying on the counter in a special ham-slicing brace, even hanging outside a bar as a sign.
I believe that the European habit of displaying dead animals—or large portions thereof—in prominent places like shop windows in order to stimulate the hunger of passersby is one of the things North Americans find most off-putting when they first cross the Atlantic. I have certainly seen many Americans blanch when they see a dead hare or pheasant hanging on a hook. My philosophy is that if you’re going to eat something, you might as well acknowledge where it comes from. Not that most Americans eat pheasant, of course, and not that I have a dead chicken hanging in my living room.
Something for everyone.
So the ultimate vegetarian’s nightmare must be the Museo del jamón, a chain of restaurants that can be found in the larger cities of Spain. This establishment, the “Museum of Ham”, serves ham in every possible way, and lest the customer fail to understand this, the place is decorated with hundreds of hams hanging in thick curtains everywhere possible, and all the walls are mirrored to boot. The effect is such that a more appropriate name might be “Fun House of Dead Pig Haunches”. Not likely to be a major competitor to Euro Disney, all things considered.
But back to the sierra. Indeed, serrano means “from the mountains”. While talking with my 89-year-old diminutive jokester friend about the area and what a wonderful place it is, I asked whether the Sierra de Albarracín was the sierra after which the ham is named. “Of course!” he said, as any self-respecting individual with a greater sense of regional pride than desire for accuracy would do. I was not fully convinced, but I was happy to be able to share a bit in his love of the place. To be sure, I have spent just under ninety years less in the area, but I understand why he is so happy with it. Pass me the ham-colored glasses!
Posted by: Gregory