Spain’s star ham fights for greater prestige

The exquisite cured ham called Jamon Iberico made from distinctive Iberian black pigs, is the star of Spanish cuisine, but the economic downturn gripping Spain has hurt domestic sales and producers are looking to boost their fortunes abroad.

Spain's star ham fights for greater prestige
Iberian black pigs are herded near Santa Teresa, near Salamanca. Photo: Pierre Philippe Marcou/AFP

To help market the product overseas, they want to tighten the rules regarding what can officially be labelled as a top-end ham made from Iberian black pigs — which are indigenous to Spain — to distinguish them from less expensive hams made from lower quality pork from white pigs.

"They are nothing like each other," said Ramon Estevez, who is in charge of quality control at renowned Spanish ham producer Beher.

He gazed at the herd of pigs grazing in a field near the village of Guijuelo about 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of Madrid in the province of Salamanca.

"Iberian pigs produce oleic acid, which is similar to that found in olive oil. No other animal in the world does this," he said, adding this gives pork products made from the animal a more intense taste.

The pigs feed exclusively on acorns between November and March.

During the rest of the year they eat cereals since it is not possible to store acorns for long after they are harvested.

The acorns give the fat of the pigs its unique, sweet flavour. Cured ham made from Iberian black pigs can cost over 100 euros ($130) per kilo and as much as 4,000 euros for a whole leg of ham that has been slowly cured for over seven years.

But due to the economic downturn farmers have drastically reduced their herds from four million pigs three years ago to just two and a half million today.

Salamanca and the regions of Extremadura and Andalucia are the main breeding areas for Iberian black pigs.

"The pure acorn-fed Iberian ham is one of the world's most special products, such as good caviar or good foie gras," said Alejandra Anson, the head of Elite Gourmet, a non-profit foundation that affixes a seal of quality on top Spanish products.

"This is something very special that Spain does not know how to sell."

There are currently eight different denominations of origin for cured ham made from Iberian black pigs. Officials fear this will confuse consumers and allow some producers to take advantage of the uncertainty to mislead them.

The top label is given to ham made from the Iberian pigs which put on at least 45 kilos during their final months of life by eating just acorns.

"It is unthinkable to try to enter international markets with eight different types of ham," said Fernando Burgas, the director general for the food industry at the agriculture ministry which plans to reduce the number of denominations of origin to three.

As he strolled through his sprawling warehouse where 100,000 hams were hanging to dry in the arid air of Guijuelo, Arturo Sanchez praised the "hard to match quality" of pure Iberian ham.

Like Beher, which sells around 30 percent of its production abroad, Sanchez is counting on exports to support the family brand that bears his name and which has been produced since 1917.

"This crisis has helped us launch ourselves abroad," he said near a room where thousands of sausages were being smoked over a fire.

"A few years ago, our exports accounted for only one to two percent of our business. Today there is ten to fifteen percent," he said.

Sanchez fears the government's plans to reduce the number of denominations of origin may not do enough to protect the product's top range.

He thinks it is up to his family business "to fight to assert our quality".

Ramon Estevez of Beher also has doubts.

"Everything regarding the breed of the pig and the way it is raised must be tightly controlled," he said as he tended to his pigs.

They still have a few more kilos to gain before they will be killed next year.

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Spain’s ‘jamon’ conquers China

The aroma is so extraordinary it's like "a punch in your mouth" says Luqi Wu, one of several Chinese businessmen standing in a cellar in southwestern Spain surrounded by thousands of hanging ham legs.

Spain's 'jamon' conquers China
File photo: SubbotinaDepositphotos

While he samples the product, three of his colleagues learn to cut the ham as finely as possible – a crucial detail that they will put into practice back in Shanghai at tasting events for their own customers.

The world's top pork consumer, China has started getting a serious taste for Spain's world-famous “jamon” which is sold there as a luxury product and is getting one over on its French and Italian competitors.

“At the beginning, customers were just looking for elegant products because they're rich,” says Wu, a sales manager at Jiarui Fine Foods, a Chinese company that specialises in importing luxury gastronomy products.

“But more and more they want to learn more and educate themselves… to know why it's so good and why it's got such a high price.”

€3,000 a ham leg

The Italians got into the Chinese market early on with their Parma ham.

But Spain soon caught up and is now leading sales of dry-cured ham in the Asian powerhouse, making 1.8 million euros ($2 million) in sales last year excluding Hong Kong, according to the French Federation of Pork Industries (FICT).

By comparison, Italy made €1.4 million in 2016 and France tailed far behind with just €30,000, as there is only one producer in the country equipped with the necessary authorisation to sell ham in China compared to 13 in Spain.

So it was that in March, several Jiarui Fine Foods employees travelled to the village of Jabugo in the southern hills of Andalusia, invited by the Cinco Jotas brand that specialises in high-quality ham.

In pasturelands covered in oak trees, herds of purebred black Iberian pigs gobble the last acorns of winter — the very food product that gives the ham its unique hazelnut taste after a three-year maturing period.

There, Cinco Jotas workers give the Chinese sales managers a run-down of how the dry-cured ham is made.

They will use this knowledge to attract customers in China where classic dry-cured ham sells for 10 to 20 percent more than in Spain, and the highest quality ones command even fatter margins.

A leg of “pata negra” ham, the most sought-after, can go for up to €3,000 in Hong Kong.

Forced to diversify

Like 12 other Spanish ham makers, Cinco Jotas got authorisation to sell its ham in China at the beginning of the decade, and the world's most populous country has now become its number one market after Spain.

According to Jialin Shen, head of Jiarui Fine Foods, the overall market for high-quality ham in China is between 20,000 and 30,000 units a year.

Rene Lemee, head of Cinco Jotas's international department, travelled to China 16 times last year and has a dozen sales managers working there.

In his office hangs a world map with China at the centre, “to understand their point of view.”

And the effort has paid off as sales of Spanish dry-cured ham in China have doubled between 2012 and 2016, says Jesus Perez Aguilar, spokesman for the Inter-professional Association of Iberian Pork.

“China has become the second foreign market for Spain's porcine sector, after France,” he says.

He adds that sales abroad took off after Spain suffered a crippling economic crisis in 2008 when a domestic property bubble burst, compounding the global financial crisis, pushing the companies to seek new export markets.

Risk of copycats

But for Ibericos Torreon, a medium-sized company based in Salamanca in the northwest – another major producing region – success was not immediate.

The firm was forced to patiently go from trade fair to trade fair to introduce their product to the Chinese, who were more used to adding pork in soups or fragrant dishes rather than eating it on its own.

But “in the last two years, sales have taken off,” says Laura Garcia Hernandez who manages exports for the company, refusing to reveal specific figures.

The risk of being copied in a country infamous for creating counterfeits does not appear to worry Spanish producers who say their dry-cured ham is the fruit of a specific climate, vegetation and animal.

“What is made in Spain is very exclusive to the peninsula,” says Santiago Martin, chief executive of Embutidos Fermin, another producer of dry-cured ham.

Still, the sector is working on creating a certification along the lines of Europe's protected designation of origin, to try and avoid any future problems.