• Posted by Califia Suntree on August 9th, 2010, 1:59 PM

    Q: I was in Madrid recently and splurged on some memorable Ibérico ham. I was tempted to bring some back to the States, but since you can now buy it here I thought I’d avoid the risk of having it confiscated at customs. Which raised the question—if you can buy it in the U.S. now, why are they still throwing it away at the border? The ham dealer in Madrid told us it was because it’s not actually the same ham. Is that true?

    Some day, I am confident that we will look back at this age of forbidden pork products as an American folly. Ibérico ham is truly the apex of cured pork products, and Spaniards have been eating ham made from wild pata negra pigs, cured in caves in the mountain air, literally since prehistoric times. But the USDA doesn’t take millennia of hale and hearty Spanish ham eaters at face value, and insists that imported meat products be processed in USDA approved facilities. (But ammonia-treated pink-slime burgers are totally A-OK. That’s logical.)

    Since December 2007, Ibérico ham has been legally imported to the U.S. by a single company, Férmin, which, according to Donald Harris, an owner of Spanish-goods retailer La Tienda, was simply  “willing to go through the time consuming (and very cautious) bureaucratic process” of getting USDA approval. This fall, two more companies will jump into the American market, Cinco Jotas and COVAP.

    Even in Spain, Ibérico ham–and especially Ibérico de Bellota, which is made from free-roaming, wild-acorn-fed pata negra pigs–is extraordinarily expensive. When I was in Spain, bellota was roughly 100 Euros per kilo, or $70 per pound. That same jamon in the States, though, can cost twice that. (Hence the $40 ham sandwich.) Still, Hispanophiles and hardcore cold-cut-lovers’ are putting it in their shopping carts. Are they getting what they pay for?

    According to Miguel Sanz of the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano, “There are absolutely no differences between the ham exported to the USA and the ham marketed in Spain. The raw material and the method of curing are the same.” However,  only a couple of relatively large companies have been able to afford the investment required to pass USDA muster, which involves making changes to traditional facilities. Says Sanz, “The Ibérico sector consists mostly of small companies that have no financial capacity to face such investment.” Moreover, “the USA market for this kind of product is really very small, which is not a commercial incentive to invest in adapting any company facility … In 2009 Spain exported just 379 tons of dry-cured ham (Serrano and Ibérico).”

    Harris, of La Tienda, concurs, and says that American and Spanish Ibérico hams are “identical, and all are bred in Spain.” He argues that factory farming of pata negra pigs doesn’t exist: For one, there are simply not enough of them to fill a factory, and the market is too small to warrant it (only 8% of Spain’s ham production is Ibérico). Plus, pata negra sows produce just a few piglets per litter, and “the animals live for a full two years before slaughter—sacrifice is the Spanish term. In the USA must pigs live only a matter of a few months [before slaughter], not years.”

    It is worth noting that serrano ham, which is also completely delicious, has been available in the U.S. longer and costs a mere $40 5o $50 per pound. This is because it is made from ordinary white pigs, and while it is cured in Spain, Harris says the pigs are often “slaughtered in Holland and Denmark (due to the shortage of USDA approved slaughterhouses in Spain).”

    Whether you are buying ham in the States or in Europe, it’s about the producer. Says Harris, “certainly there are some boutique ham producers in Spain which are so small that all of their product is sold domestically, and depending upon the producer, they might among the best. We have a delicious one called Encinar de Cabazón–which Pedro carefully produces from his own herd. But we only sell it on our Europe site as he does not have his own slaughtering facility and is too small to go through all the hoops to get USDA approved.”

    So in the end we are missing out on some of Spain’s best Ibérico–and Pedro is missing out on an increasingly ravenous American market. But there’s no reason to dismiss the jamon we do have access to. If you can afford it, go for it. Eventually that will lead to wider, and presumably less expensive, Ibérico offerings for the rest of us.

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