Ham it up in Madrid with Spanish delicacy
I didn't have the chance to stop in at the much-heralded ham museum the last time I was in Madrid, but that didn't stop me from taking stock of Spain's national treasure.
In fact, a fascinating jamon discussion in tandem with a delicious jamon tasting ensued my first evening during a whirlwind three-day visit.
The gathering came about in the lobby lounge of my hotel, the InterContinental Madrid, where a few colleagues met me for drinks. We talked turkey at a cozy table when suddenly the discussion took a culinary turn, synchronized at the exact moment I bit into what turned out to be a very tasty snack to which I immediately became addicted.
To be honest, the razor-thin slice of ham didn't look all that exciting sitting there on a bare plate without a garnish of any kind, but my impression changed following that first bite. The taste was rich but smooth and just a tad salty, having a similar effect to that of indulging in fine caviar.
I commented on this comparison to the Madrilenos among us who I could see were not holding back, eating as much as they were talking about the Spanish delicacy.
"Oh, but I would much rather eat fine jamon than I would fine caviar," one claimed.
She went on to explain that, like caviar, Spanish ham is as diverse, with some brands costing as much (or more than) Beluga.
However, my palate isn't so sophisticated that I could discern top-grade varieties from more-downscale selections. So, when we continued on to dinner at Casa Botin and another round of ham of unknown provenance, I was elated rather than disappointed.
I also wasn't disappointed by the atmosphere at this famous eatery, touted as the world's oldest restaurant dating back to 1725 and reportedly the setting for the final scene of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." In fact, it was immediately evident to me why the revered novelist wrote the Casa Botin into his classic novel. To be sure, the old Spanish floor tiles, huge wooden beams and ancient cast iron ovens served as great atmosphere -- for his writing and for mine.
Another impressive scene struck me when I returned to my InterContinental home on my second day in Madrid. It had been a busy morning and I suffered jet lag so my intention was to go upstairs for room service and a quick nap. That plan evaporated when I came across what appeared to be a totally transformed lobby.
The conversation areas with comfy couches and cushy chairs had turned into a massive round table filled with a gastronomic blast of bountiful brunch spread, everything from soup to nuts to roasted chicken to sumptuous desserts of all sorts. Off to the left, a man in a black tie masterfully played a Mozart concerto while elegantly dressed waiters busily attended to every diner's needs. I grabbed a plate, heaped it high with all sorts of goodies, and then added what I am sure was more than my share of ham.
In fact, I ate ham then, at lunch, for tea, at dinner and again for breakfast. I did this all three days I was in Spain.
Much of this absolutely delectable jamon was ingested at the above-mentioned Madrid InterContinental, a former palace almost completely demolished during the Spanish Civil War. Today, the 307-room edifice has been gloriously restored but with the added allure of thoroughly modern amenities. Among the top are a spa sanctuary featuring treatments inspired from around the world, a delightful indoor-outdoor restaurant called El Jardin and one of Europe's friendliest hotel staffs.
What impressed me most about the latter was how well versed each person who works at the InterContinental is about Madrid. The bellman told me how much time to save for exploring the Prado (at least four hours), my breakfast waiter told me about a great art museum next door to the property (the Sorolla), and, perhaps most importantly, the concierge told me where to find the best ham sandwich in whatever section of town I happened to be on my way to visit.
Without a second thought, I went where this connoisseur suggested, wondering to myself each time if there is such a thing as a ham hangover. Apparently not.