Jamón It Up, Legitimately

The Wall Street Journal


April 6, 2013

Now we can get Spain's most swooned-over pork stateside—and know it's the real thing
Katy McLaughlin

WHEN SPAIN'S MYTHICAL Iberian ham—aka jamón ibérico—was first imported to the U.S., in 2007, it was heralded as the best in the world. Turns out, in spite of the fanfare and sky-high prices, much of what was then labeled ibérico wasn't…entirely. Now, more and better hams are coming to the U.S. market, prices have dropped and companies are specifying pedigree in preparation for upcoming legislation in Spain that will require them to do so. The world's best pork is finally getting a stateside debut we can applaud unreservedly.

Ibérico is a stupendously umami-rich, silken ham that leaves Italian prosciutto and Spain's equivalent, jamón serrano, in the dust; fresh meat from ibérico pigs is juicy as rib eye and tender as filet mignon. In Spain, an acorn-fed ibérico ham on the table is the ultimate status symbol.

But for all its exquisiteness, the ibérico tradition has been beset by the same boom-and-bust syndrome, and accusations of fraud, that have plagued Spain recently. To understand, one must first go back thousands of years to Phoenician times, when black-hooved pigs (another name for the breed is pata negra, or black hoof) were introduced to an oak-grove ecosystem in southwestern Spain known as the dehesa. Pigs thrived there, gorging on acorns for months prior to slaughter. Cured hams and fresh meat from these pigs, at first a regional specialty, became, over the centuries, Spain's most prized national delicacy.

Around the turn of the millennium, Spain experienced an economic boom and an unparalleled rise in the global reputation of its cuisine. Both trends set off a revolution in the artisanal ibérico sector. A 2001 law allowed producers to crossbreed ibéricos with heartier, more productive Duroc pigs and still label the result "ibérico." This led to intensive farming in which crossbred pigs live in confinement, eating grain, and a huge increase in "ibérico" populations since 2000.

Soon, ibérico became akin to caviar, sold internationally with a mind-boggling array of quality classifications and plenty of temptation to fudge the provenance. Today, just 6% of Iberian pigs are purebreds, according to Spanish government figures. The vast majority of what is sold as ibérico in Spain comes from crossbreeds raised in confinement, a fact that has prompted outrage there. Though U.S. retailers have focused on high-end, ostensibly pure product, they say the murkiness of the Spanish market has meant they haven't always been sure ibéricos are what they claim to be.

Charles Passy joins Lunch Break with a look at Iberico ham from Spain. The top of the line ham costs around $1,200, but with all the special carving utensils it can add up to $3,000 from a company such as LaTienda.

Oversupply—due to increase in production and low consumer demand amid Spain's economic crisis—has brought several new brands to the U.S. and pushed prices down by 20% to 30% since last year, said Tim Harris, CEO of Tienda.com, an online retailer of Spanish foods. To secure authentic purebred ibéricos "and because there is so much confusion and misinformation," Mr. Harris said, Tienda just launched its own brand, Peregrino.

Lighthouse Trade began importing fresh meat from purebred ibéricos, under the brand Ibérico Fresco, two years ago, and plans to import cured meats by the end of the month. "We are trying to get people to think of ibérico as what it really is," said Lighthouse president José Ignacio Martínez-Valero, "one of the jewels of Spanish cuisine." High-end chefs across the U.S. have already begun to embrace it as such.

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Brands like Peregrino, Cinco Jotas and Ibérico Fresco are ahead of the curve, but soon all companies will have to be equally clear about their pigs' provenance. Spain's new regulations, expected to pass by June, will require labels to list percentage of ibérico genetics in the breed. Imagery of the dehesa can't appear on the package if the pig wasn't raised there.

Experts quibble over how big a part pedigree plays. For Mr. Martínez-Valero, it's a "night-and-day" difference; Mr. Harris says other factors, like feed and curing, are key. Aaron Fuchs, an importer of fresh ibérico meat from Fermín, a producer that uses purebreds and 75% ibérico crosses, said that "both types have a role in the market," because crossbred, grain-fed meat can cost significantly less. More ibérico genetics, however, mean more nutty, meltable fat in the result, Mr. Fuchs said.

Steve Benjamin, executive chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, said he recently switched from crossbred ibérico ham to purebred. He finds it softer, less salty, with a distinctive acorn flavor. "It's the best ham in the U.S.," he said.

Labels are increasingly specifying how pure the pigs are, in advance of laws that will require them to do so. The pig's diet, where it was raised, the cut and the cure also significantly impact flavor.

100% Ibérico de Bellota

The king of Iberian pork, from a purebred pig that lives its entire life in the oak groves of the dehesa, in southwestern Spain. In the last three months of its life, it grazes almost exclusively on foraged acorns. Its silky fat is full of omega-3s; it is umami-rich and deeply flavorful. About $85 per pound for whole ham (Cinco Jotas brand), laespanolameats.com

Ibérico de Cebo de Campo
(Free-Range and Grain-Fed)

From a crossbreed, usually 75% ibérico. This pig ranges freely, feeds on grain and may also do some grazing, including on acorns. When the new labeling laws take effect, producers will have to specify the ibérico percentage in the breed. About $37 per pound for whole ham, tienda.com

Fresh Ibérico
(Acorn-Fed and Grain-Fed)

Fresh, uncured meat from ibérico pigs is also exquisite: extremely flavorful and tender, with luscious, meltable fat. Add salt and pepper, sear quickly and serve fairly rare. From $6 per pound for pork belly to $26 per pound for acorn-fed hanger steak, wagshalsimports.com

Paleta Ibérica
Hams made from the front legs of the pig, which are smaller and slightly stronger in flavor. About $68 per pound (acorn-fed), tienda.com

Other Cured Ibérico
Ibérico meat, both acorn- and grain-fed, is made into a variety of cold cuts, such as lomo, which is cured loin; chorizo, a paprika sausage; and salchichon, similar to salami. From $25 per pound for chorizo (grain-fed) to $80 per pound for lomo (acorn-fed), laespanolameats.com

A version of this article appeared April 6, 2013, on page D11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: JamónItUp,Legitimately.

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