ON A spring morning in Extremadura, a few miles from the border with Portugal, a herd of brown Ibérico pigs is gambolling in the dehesa, the open parkland that occupies a broad swathe of south-eastern Spain. The pigs are clean and friendly. They live outdoors and are grass-fed. Next winter they will fatten on acorns. They will be slaughtered at around 18 months, and after curing with sea salt and years of natural drying, will start going on sale in 2023, says Jaime García of Montesano, the family-run company that owns them.
Ibérico ham is the beluga caviar of the porcine world. It is slow food. The best hams will hang in Montesano’s drying rooms on a hilltop outside the town of Jerez de los Caballeros for up to six years, sweating gently when the windows are opened. This breaks down the fat and lets it seep into the muscle, producing micro-marbling (detectable only when a slice is held to the light). It is this, and the bellotas (acorns), which give Ibérico its sweet, melt-in-the-mouth nuttiness. The finest legs retail whole for up to €900 ($1,100), or much more if sold sliced.
But some ham sold as Ibérico in supermarkets in Spain and elsewhere, at suspiciously low prices, is actually a cut-rate substitute. The pigs may be crossbreeds, and have never met a bellota in their lives. Spanish critics call this fraud. Andrés Paredes of ASICI, the industry association, disagrees: “What we have to do is to inform the consumer about what they are really buying.” A decree issued in 2014 set four categories, each denoted by a colour-coded collar attached to the pigs’ ankles. A black collar means a 100% Ibérico pig, reared free-range and fattened on bellotas; white denotes a pig reared in feedlots and sired by a non-Ibérico.
Mr Paredes says this offers budget-conscious consumers a choice. To police the system ASICI has set up a database called ITACA (the Spanish acronym for identification, traceability and quality) which means each leg or shoulder can be traced by farm and parentage. This year, for the first time, all the hams released to the market have the collars.
Traditionally, hams in Spain were sold whole. Now half of sales are sliced, as are most exports to growing markets in Europe and Asia. The next step should be to colour-code packets of sliced ham. Mr Paredes says ITACA can do that. But the big processors are against it. Others, like Mr García, would like to see a simpler system, with the Ibérico tag only for purebred pigs fed on bellota. “I think we have to defend the purity of Ibérico,” he asserts. Barring that, buyers will have to keep in mind that some Spanish pigs are more equal than others.