Why Spain’s luxury ham makers are feeling the pandemic’s pinch

Sales of "pata negra" cured hams, the 'caviar' of Spanish cuisine, have plummeted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why Spain's luxury ham makers are feeling the pandemic's pinch
Photos: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

The sun is shining as Salvador Pereira Menaut’s pigs trot between the oak trees in search of acorns — but he does not look happy.

Sales of premium “pata negra” dry-cured hams, the “caviar” of Spanish charcuterie, have suffered as restaurants and hotels have closed and celebratory events where it is usually eaten have been put on ice because of the pandemic.

And that has pushed down the value of the hams made by Navarretinto, the company Pereira runs, as well as the 13,000 Iberico pigs raised each year in the sparsely populated region of Extremadura in southwestern Spain.

“We had managed to carve out a place for ourselves in the best restaurants and hotels in Madrid. But almost all of them have closed since the start of the pandemic and they no longer buy,” he told AFP.

A cured leg of “pata negra” can sell for more than €500 ($600) but restaurants are now paying 30 percent less for the delicacy than they did before the pandemic.

A plate of Spanish Jamon Iberico (Iberian ham) ‘Pata Negra’. The secret of the Iberian ham taste is down to the pigs diet of acorns. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

This amount does not cover the cost of the pigs’ feed during the summer months when there are no acorns, Pereira explains.

Navarretinto only transforms a small part of the pigs it raises into hams, and sells the rest to other ham producers. But the price of pigs has also dropped.

Since the pandemic hit last year, the price Spanish pig farmers receive for their livestock has plunged 20-25 percent, according to the ASICI association of pork producers.

And the plunge in price for purebred Iberico pigs like those raised by Pereira is around 50 percent.

“If this goes on for too long, it’s possible some (breeders) will disappear, including us,” he said.

No more parties

Farming cooperatives in Andalusia, the main region that produces cured ham, estimate sales have halved within Spain and the loss for pig breeders in 2020 stands at 250 million euros.”The industry is facing a lot of uncertainty because it doesn’t know what it’s going to sell,” said ASICI president Antonio Prieto, pointing out that “all traditional and family parties have been cancelled” and many restaurants have closed.

Curing a ham takes a minimum of two to three years so ham makers are paying less for pork because they don’t know how much they will be able to charge for the end product, he explained.

And “cortadores” — those skilled in the art of finely slicing dry-cured legs of ham — have also been hit hard.

Their skill lies in cutting ham into slices so thin they are almost transparent, called “lonchas”, or chunks called “tacos”, and they are often hired to staff special events.

“It affects us a lot because there are no more ceremonies, weddings, banquets, ferias or business meals,” said Florencio Sanchidrian, Spain’s most famous “cortador”.

Exports also hit

Pereira has set up an online sales service but said it is “not enough” to make up for the fall in sales through traditional channels.

His small firm’s efforts to boost exports to make up for declining business in Spain have also struggled owing to travel restrictions preventing its sales manager from going abroad to meet potential new customers.

Exports of Spanish dry-cured hams of all grades fell about three percent on-year in volume in 2020, according to ASICI.

The pandemic is reviving fears of a repeat of the 2008 global financial crisis, which pushed thousands of small ham producers into bankruptcy.

But Prieto said the sector has become more professional, with a system in place to quickly inform farmers of changes in market conditions so they can reduce production when prices fall.

“We may lose money, or not earn the money which we should, that’s for sure,” he said.

“But there have been no closures so far, even if each farm is earning less.”

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Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Not everywhere will offer you free tapas in Spain, but there are some cities where the tradition lives on. Read on to find out where they are, how you can get a free 'tapa' and the slight differences between each place.

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Tapas are an important part of Spanish culture, not only because of the gastronomical aspect but because of the social aspect of sharing dishes too. 

The word ‘tapa’ – meaning ‘lid’ – is thought to derive from a 13th-century law passed by a Castilian king requiring taverns to serve food with alcohol, perhaps in a bid to avoid inebriation of the serfs.

A ‘tapa’ was a small plate of ham or olives used as a lid to keep insects and dust away from a drink and usually came free. 

The tradition of free tapas has died out across much of Spain, but there are still some cities where it is alive and well. Most of these cities can be found in three regions – the eastern part of Andalusia, Castilla y León and Galicia. 

READ ALSO: Fourteen classic Spanish dishes to celebrate World Tapas Day


Granada is the undisputed king of free tapas in Spain, famed for its offerings which can be anything from a piece of Spanish tortilla to almost a whole meal, such as a mini burger and fries or small fried fish. It works like this – each time you buy a drink, you will be given a free tapas dish. If you order consecutive drinks in the same bar, each of the tapa dishes you get will be different. Free tapa will come with everything from beer and wine to soft drinks and sparkling water, but not with coffee or tea. Keep in mind that the price of drinks in Granada is slightly higher than in some Spanish cities, which helps to cover the cost of the food.

Calle Navas, Calle Virgen del Rosario and the area around the Cathedral offer some of the best tapas in the city. Remember that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, ask for una tapa vegetariana o tapa vegana. While most bars in the city should have a suitable alternative, some of the more rough and ready ones might not, or you may just get something simple like bread and cheese. One of Granada’s best-loved vegetarian tapas dishes is berenjena con miel (deep fried aubergine drizzled with treacle). 

READ ALSO: What to order at a restaurant in each region of Spain


Just southeast of Granada on the coast, Almería is another of Spain’s great free-tapas cities. The tradition is a little different here than in other Spanish cities because you get to choose your tapa instead of just getting a surprise. Many of the tapas menus here are vast and you’ll be spoilt for choice. It could be anything from a goat’s cheese and caramelised onion montadito (small sandwich) to paté on toast. Almeríans love their toast, so don’t be surprised if you find many different variations of topped toasts on the menu.

You’ll also have to speak up here, waiters will often come over to ask for your drink order, but not come back and ask for your tapa order. It’s best to tell your waiter what you want when your drinks arrive.

You may be able to get a free pulpo (octopus) tapa in Galicia. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP


The city and province of the same name to the north of Granada is also known for its tapa gratis when ordering a drink. Like in Granada, here you’ll be given the tapa of the house and generally won’t be given a choice in what you get. The prices of beers here are not as high as in Almería, but tapas portions are generally pretty generous, meaning you can easily have enough for dinner by going to just a few places.

Dishes here may include a plate of migas (fried breadcrumbs or flour with pieces of meat and fried peppers) or morcilla (blood sausage or black pudding). You can try asking for a vegetarian or vegan tapa here too, but the bars may not be as accommodating as the ones in Granada and may not have so many options, although they will try with what they have. 


It’s not just the eastern provinces of Andalusia where you can get free tapas. One of the best foodie cities in northern Spain that has carried on this tradition is León. Some of the most typical tapas dishes you may be served here include patatas leonesas (León-style potatoes), or morcilla de León (blood sausage or black pudding from León).

During the pandemic, a few bars in León started charging around €0.30 to €0.50 for tapas, but you’ll be happy to know that the majority of them still offer it for free. Bars will generally charge less for the wine, beers and other drinks here than in Granada too. The best places to go are around the famed Barrio del Húmedo or the Barrio Romántico. There are even some bars that will offer free tapas with your coffee order for breakfast here, which is unheard of elsewhere. 


In almost every bar in Ávila you will be served a free tapa along with your drink. You’re unlikely to be served a simple piece of bread with a topping, here the dishes are almost like mini meals. Much of the cuisine here is based on meat, so you might expect a small plate of stewed wild boar or kidney with potatoes.

You will also find that they’re pretty big compared to free tapas in some other cities and filling too, but along with that, you will be paying slightly above average for your drink. The best street to head to for free tapas here is Calle San Segundo.

Alcalá de Henares

There may only be some bars left in Madrid that will offer you a free tapa with your drink, but head just east to the student town of Alcalá de Henares and you’ll find that they’re given out freely. Lots of places here will let you choose what you want too. You’ll pay above average for a caña here, around 3, but for that you’ll get a fairly decent tapa which could include patatas bravas, burgers or scrambled eggs with potatoes.

READ ALSO: Top ten Madrid bars serving free tapas, one for each barrio

Santiago de Compostela

When you’ve finally completed the Camino, what could be better than sitting down to a nice cold beer and plate of free tapas? The majority of bars here offer simple tapa such as a piece of bread with some type of meat on top, such as jamón or sausage or a small slice of tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette).

Another Galician place, known for offering free tapas is the walled city of Lugo. Here you’ll be given a free snack with your glass of Albariño wine or beer. Lugo’s tapas scene works differently from elsewhere too, here a waiter will come around with a tray of various types of dishes and you’ll select the one you like the look of best. These may include anything from pulpo (octopus) to empanadas (Galician-style pies), tortilla rellena (filled omelette) or anchoas (anchovies).