On a vast farm dotted with oak and cork trees, about 350 pigs are enjoying the final weeks of a short but blissful life. They roam freely, sleep outdoors or shelter in spacious pigsties. Above all, autumn is when they get to feast all day on acorns recently fallen from the trees.
“Pigs are known for eating everything, but when it comes to their favorite acorns, they are real connoisseurs and very selective — and the sweeter the acorn, the better,” said Juan Carlos Domínguez Lorenzo, 49, who was born on the farm and has been looking after its pigs since he was a teenager.
The way these pigs of Spain’s Ibérico breed are fed and raised here is a far cry from how most meats are produced almost anywhere, making the cured ham a delicacy prized for its unique texture and taste, which is enhanced by the sweet and nutty flavor of the acorns the pigs eat.
So when the World Health Organization, in a recent report, linked processed meats to colorectal cancer, the news came as an affront to many Spaniards, who have been eating cured hams produced this way for generations.
Today, Spain’s Ibérico hams are increasingly sought after worldwide, particularly among Chinese consumers concerned about the safety of their own homegrown food.
“Spanish ham is a very unique product, but it’s also seen as healthy, which is a real asset when you’re selling to the Chinese,” said Oliver Win of Olivier Pacific Limited, a fine foods distribution company based in Hong Kong that imports the Cinco Jotas brand of Spanish ham.
Spain’s producers, in fact, took no small measure of umbrage at the World Health Organization’s attempt to lump their luxury ham together with cheaper products like processed sausages and hamburger meat.
A single leg of the finest ham from Cinco Jotas — weighing almost 18 pounds — costs about $670 in Spain. (In the United States, the price is about double.) Even the way the ham is sliced is considered something of an art form.
Cinco Jotas pigs feeding on acorns in Aracena, Spain. The way that pigs from Spain’s Ibérico breed are fed and raised makes the cured ham a delicacy prized for its unique texture and taste.
“This ham is as natural as food can get — no added heavy metals, preservatives or colorings — and it comes from an animal that has built up muscle by eating the best food and exercising a lot in beautiful surroundings,” said José Gómez, the owner of Joselito, another top brand of ham. “There are thousands of products that present a higher cancer risk.”
With a passion for pork products, and rising incomes, the Chinese have entered the market for Ibérico hams with gusto, even while paying slightly more for Spanish ham than prices set for the American market. The next step, according to Spanish producers, is to get China to lift a cumbersome restriction that forces them to remove the bone from the leg.
In fact, the Chinese appetite for Spanish pork stretches all the way down its production chain, including innards that Spanish companies struggle to export to many Western countries.
Fresh pork exports to China from Spain — including heads, ears and other parts — rose 35 percent last year, making it the second-largest market in volume after neighboring France, according to figures from the Spanish Meat Export Office.
A Cinco Jotas master carver, Severiano Sánchez, during a tasting session. The way the ham is sliced is considered something of an art form.
Last year, Fosun, one of China’s largest financial and industrial conglomerates, bought a stake in the parent company of Cinco Jotas, one of Spain’s top brands of Ibérico ham, which is based in Jabugo.
“We generally think that our culture is closer to that of America, but when it comes to ham, Chinese gastronomy is really in tune with ours,” Bernardino Rodríguez, the general director of Cinco Jotas, said during a tour of cellars where legs of ham are hooked from the ceiling and left to age.
“I can’t think of anybody more capable of distinguishing between different qualities of ham than the Chinese,” he said.
But the health and quality of the animals have also become a big driver of Chinese demand. Early this year, the Chinese police arrested more than 110 people who were accused of trafficking pork from diseased pigs.
The packaging area of Cinco Jotas. Spain’s Ibérico hams are increasingly sought after worldwide, particularly among Chinese consumers who are concerned about the safety of their own homegrown food.
“Many Chinese come and buy food in Hong Kong and have turned it into a parallel import market largely because of their safety worries about food in China,” Mr. Win, the importer, said.
Paradoxically, however, the same things that have lured the Chinese about the natural way the pigs here are raised, slaughtered and cured are some of the chief sources of tension between Spain’s producers and the United States.
Ibérico ham was banned in the United States until about a decade ago over concerns about swine fever and traditional curing methods, and even today just a handful of Spanish slaughterhouses have been authorized to export to the United States.
Today, Francisco Espárrago, the chairman of Señorío de Montanera, a midsize producer of ham, said he found it much easier to get Chinese importers, as opposed to those in the United States, to view Spain’s best ham as a luxury product.
“The Americans believe that everything should follow their own processes, so they don’t seem to understand that allowing the ham to sweat in the heat spreads the flavor but doesn’t destroy the meat,” he said. “For the Chinese, that concept isn’t a problem.”
The finest Ibérico ham is produced in southwestern Spain, a region that also has strong weather changes.
For instance, Jabugo has some of Spain’s heaviest rainfalls, resulting in a damp winter climate that helps spread the salt into the meat as it is cured, using a method dating to Roman times. The hot summer months, in contrast, favor the so-called sweating and drying of the ham.
“If you don’t have the right climate, you simply can’t produce,” Mr. Gómez of Joselito said. “Ham is a bit like wine, because several small steps and adjustments make all the difference between an average product and premium quality.”
The growing Chinese fascination with the hams has also been helped by an increase in Chinese visitors to Spain, where they have the opportunity to taste firsthand the country’s wide array of pork-related gastronomy.
“We open at 1 p.m., and the first clients who then cross the door are now almost certainly Chinese,” said José María Ruiz Benito, the owner of the eponymous José María restaurant in Segovia, famous for its roasted suckling pig.
As a result, some producers are also wary about sharing their skills with China, noting that a few years ago Spain already had to pressure the Chinese authorities to stop some producers from breaching copyright rules by labeling their ham as “Jabugo.”
“My worry is that the Chinese are willing to import today so that they can work out how to produce their own great ham tomorrow,” said Ricardo Sánchez, managing director of Arturo Sánchez, a Spanish producer.
For now, however, the idea that his pigs will end up on Chinese plates seems very remote to Mr. Domínguez Lorenzo, the farmer.
“I make everything right for these pigs, and if that work is recognized on the other side of the world, that’s just fine,” he said.
He then turned toward his pigs and produced a loud “tuueeeeh!” to draw their attention, before leading them, almost like a shepherd, toward another clump of trees in search of freshly fallen acorns.
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