Five Questions to Ask About Jamón Ibérico
Like Kobe beef and halibut sushi, much of what you see labeled as jamón ibérico is not what you think it is. Though the narrative of acorn-fattened pigs roaming the woodlands of western Spain is popular, it appears to be a misleading one: Most ibérico pigs spend their short, unremarkable lives slopping up provender on factory farms.
Since the price and quality of jamón ibérico vary widely—high-end examples can fetch more than $200 a pound—Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture rolled out designations a few years back that minimize the guesswork. White, green, and red tags denote pork that’s typically mixed-breed and frequently fed with grain, not acorns. Purebred, acorn-fed ibérico pigs are tagged with black labels.
Outside the Iberian Peninsula, where shoppers are less conversant in Spanish ham-speak, the color-coded tags will likely prove useful. Roughly 20,000 tons of the black-hoofed hams were exported last year alone, up 25 percent from the year before. Eighty percent of exported ibérico goes to EU countries such as Germany, Italy, Portugal, and France. Japan, the U.S., and Mexico make up the majority of the remaining 20 percent.
But there is a movement in the U.S. to develop its own American versions of the world's most exclusive cured meat. Acornseekers, based in Flatonia, Texas, was the first to bring Ibérico pigs, a breed indigenous to Spain and Portugal, to the U.S. for commercial production. La Quercia, an Iowa-based farm that sells its pork to high-end shops such as Eataly and Murray's in New York, has its own "acorn proscuitto," made from nut-foraging Missouri Tamworth pigs. And on Feb. 5, Georgia-based White Oak Pastures held a dinner to celebrate its first harvest—featuring its pigs flown in from the dehesa savannas in southwest Spain—and included chefs from Spain who led the preparations.
Compared with conventional hogs, the indigenous Iberian species matures far more slowly, bears smaller litters, yields less meat, and requires vast swaths of acorn-rich pastureland (the Spanish government mandates at least five acres per animal). Which is why, according to the Asociación Nacional de Industria de Carne de España, the largest association representing the Spanish meat industry, 95 percent of jamón labeled as ibérico is actually mixed-breed. And why authentic jamón ibérico is so much pricier.
“It’s a labor of love, making this ham,” said María Castro Bermúdez-Coronel, director of communications at Cinco Jotas, a well-regarded jamón ibérico producer from Andalusia. “Prior to the new regulations, ham labeling was a free-for-all,” Ms. Castro said. “Mass-produced pork with no connection to the artisan tradition could feature acorns and bucolic scenes on their labels, even if the pigs were fattened on grain in feedlots.”
With that in mind, here are five questions to ask before your next jamón purchase if you’re seeking quality over price, whether traditional Spanish or the newest American offerings:
Breed: Was the pig pure-breed or mixed?
Diet: Was it fed wild acorns or industrial fodder?
Lifestyle: Was it free-range or farmed?
Curing: Was it three years (the minimum for pure-breed ibérico) or 700 days (the minimum for cross-breed)?
Lifespan: Did the pig enjoy one or two years of grazing? If the latter, it leads to a more complex final product.
Avelino García, a bespectacled charcutero who’s been carving ham in Madrid’s Pacífico market since 1970, said his customers spring for the acorn-fed stuff on holidays and special occasions only, for the most part. “Sure, we’ve come a long way since the dime-a-dozen chorizo sandwiches of the Franco era, but jamón ibérico will always be a luxury product.”
Corrects second-to-last paragraph about the curing process