Given the endless selection of venues to choose from, you would think that finding a suitable one to dine in would have be an otherwise effortless act in a city so chock full of restaurants. But just like one of those five page menus that you find in a diner, where you don’t know where to begin, we became entangled in a mess of indecision. Finally, Javier took the initiative to put an end to it all and summoned us to La Trucha, a legendary Andalusian tavern right at the corner of the Santa Ana Plaza. Juan arrived first and told us that the restaurant was closed.
“Closed as in Tuesday closed?”
“Closed as in ‘we ain’t never gonna open again.’”
The poor old Trucha. I couldn’t imagine that place ever succumbing to the weight of the Gran Crisis. Everyone needed an occasional caña and fried boquerones. You would think it would never give in. But maybe it wasn’t just the recession that turned it into a piece of Madrid’s history. Maybe the chain restaurant craze which has stormed the center of the city also served to hammer the final nail in the coffin. It’s ironic. For a city which is enjoying a major eatery resurgence of its downtown, so many of the classic cervecerías and restaurants which gave the area its particular flavor for decades have become afterthoughts. They are joining the swelling club of haunts that now only drift in our collective memories.
But that was of little importance to us at the time, since we needed to find somewhere to see to it our stomachs were well treated. Luckily, the answer wasn’t far off. Just down the street was another classic, the Lacón, a mesón that flaunted an uncannily cheesy 1960s interior design, a décor that made it so loveable.
Just where did it get its name from? Did it mean “Laconic” and represent a kind of end-of-the-line joint for society’s outcast? Hardly. Lacón is another word for Spanish boiled pork shoulder ham. Essentially it has a look and feel of ham, the ham we all are familiar with, but from a different part of the body. It is not the famous “jamón” which has made this land so famous around the world. At least to those who buy it. Let me clarify because the ham situation in this country has never been an easy one to follow.
Let’s start with the sliced ham most people easily recognize in the supermarket. In Spain that’s known as “jamón de York”, or York ham, named after the English city from where it’s reputed to come. Since there is nothing particularly special about that meat other than that it goes great for sandwiches, let’s get to the real macho version of ham… “el jamón”. And when I say, “jamón”, I mean “JAMÓN”. This dried cured ham is the source of such pride in this country that essentially you can raise the issue of stellar cuisine from around the world and still find someone with their hand up to say, “Yeah, yeah. But there’s nothing like a good Jamón de Jabugo.” This will always be followed by a “Here, here!” from the crowd.
This dry-cured version is generically called “jamón serrano”, but over the years, that has become a term of derision, since it suggests a low-end sample of the meat. The reason jamón serrano is looked upon with condescendence is because it comes from the standard common pig, as opposed to the more highly-prized Black Iberian swine. The quality of the Jamón Serrano can range from chewy and insipid to a flavor which is more than acceptable; some can be downright delicious, and often costs a fraction of the price.
Nowadays, it has become fashionable to offer and order jamón ibérico, which has become the new standard of excellence. In fact, just about anything with the gastronomic hashtag of “ibérico” represents superior quality, and often times it is, but it also entails hiking the price twofold and more. Jamón ibérico is aged longer and the animals are often given special feed. Jamón de bellota, for example, indicates that the pig was been stuffed with acorns before being slaughtered, bled, cleaned and dipped in a vat of chunky salt for several weeks. This special diet is supposed to add a nutty flavor to the pork, and usually does. The meat is darker, greasier and very tender. It takes a special bendable knife to
Top-of-the-line hams from the southwest use names like “Cinco Jotas” (5 J’s) – which I think refers to a ranking system where the more “j’s” you get, the better the piece is. Something like the stars for a hotel or a Michelin recognized restaurant. They refer to hams which come from 100% purebred Iberian pigs. The stand for “Jamón-jamón-jamón-jamón-jamón”. I mean a real ham. It’s great marketing.
So where does lacón come into the picture? It’s hard to say; it’s hard to tell. To me, lacón is just ham on a bone, but it’s officially a lightly dried pork shoulder that is later boiled and served, often with potatoes, olive oil and paprika. How does that sound for appetizing? It’s typically prepared in Spain’s Northwest region of Galicia, but you can find it all over the place.
The Lacón, the restaurant, has that center-of-Madrid musty feel to it. A restaurant “de toda la vida”, as they would say here. The walls are covered with plaster and drably painted. We never got past the bar, and had all our food and drink served to us there; the way we like it. They had three tapas to choose from for every round: seafood soup, battered chicken kabobs, and paella.
Then we moved on to greater aspirations. Padrón green peppers and fries. After we added two dishes grilled vegetables, a plate of sepia calamari fried in olive oil, garlic and parsely, carrillada (which is tender cow’s cheek), two pound-and-a-half steaks with fries, clams, and, of course, the lacón. All was washed up with beer and wine and a liqueur. The Christmas season had begun.