We are sitting round a farmhouse dining table in Extremadura, close to where Spain bumps up against the Portuguese border. Outside, a forest of holm oaks, rolling away into the far horizon, is the backdrop for a landscape that is more Africa than anything on our neatly packaged continent. Among the dark-trunked trees, a herd of black pigs graze quietly on the day’s last acorns, their neat hooves comically juxtaposed with their dumpy, thick-set bodies.
Inside, we are having an informal blind tasting. On the table are plates of finely sliced Spanish ham, each with a different provenance and made by different methods. Around the table are cooks, farmers and professional tasters, our aim being to see whether we can taste the difference between ham made from pigs that have grown up roaming on the plains of Extremadura and that which has come from intensively farmed animals, sold widely for a fraction of the price.
Much of Spain’s fine jamón comes from pigs raised on the dehesa – the wilderness that sprawls over 2.4m hectares of Spain’s south-western flank. For millennia, the cerdo ibérico (Iberian pig) has been the rightful lord of this landscape, animal and habitat working in perfect harmony. The cerdo ibérico’s diet of acorns, grass and roots is a major factor in one of the world’s most exquisite delicacies. A leg of the finest jamón ibérico de bellota, with its depth and resonance of flavour – it is rich in umami, the tantalising, savoury fifth taste – from a top producer such as Joselito, Plácido Cárdeno or Sánchez Romero Carvajal can fetch thousands of dollars.
Yet tottering piles of boxes containing legs of jamón – plus a stand and knife – have started appearing in discount supermarket chains across Europe. In the last few years, thousands were sold at Lidl, under the Realvalle label, each with the black toes popularly thought to be an unequivocal sign of quality. The labelling includes the words “jamón ibérico”; the cord of green, white and black around the leg directly (and, as it turns out, misleadingly) echoes the colours of Extremadura’s flag. This, and the ham’s strangely pale yellow surface – a fine ibérico acquires a mottled grey-brown bloom from its two-year cure – might surprise the aficionado. But what is really astonishing is the price – as low as €50 ($59). At this price, are the hams what they claim to be? Earlier this year the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that as many as 90% of all hams sold as ibérico may be falsely labelled. Given that the ibérico sector brings in €1bn annually from sales at home and abroad, the stakes are high.
At the heart of the matter is the term itself. Strictly speaking, ibérico refers to a breed of pig indigenous to south-west Spain and Portugal, characterised by its charcoal-black, near-hairless body and hardy constitution. Bound up in the meaning of the word, however, is the concept of terroir – in this case, the dehesas of Extremadura and south-west Andalucía – and the traditional process of salting and air-drying.
What exactly it takes for jamón to be ibérico has historically been a source of confusion – and for many in Spain the Royal Decree of 2014, intended to bring order to an insufficiently regulated sector, has made a proverbial pig’s ear of it. The legislation establishes four different grades, each with a colour code (black, red, green and white), which corresponds with varying requirements regarding breed purity, diet (the balance of acorns to feed) and time spent in the dehesa. Essentially, the more acorns the better, as the oils and enzymes they contain are essential determinants of the true ibérico flavour. At the top end, there’s the “black label”, which applies exclusively to pure-breed animals fattened on acorns in the dehesa. The intermediate categories – red (purely acorn-fed but not pure-bred) and green (some acorns) – account for a minority of hams, though they can offer genuine flavour and value for money. At the bottom is the white-label ibérico de cebo grade, for hams derived from animals reared intensively on feed, kept indoors in small pens, and with as little as 50% ibérico in their breed profile, the rest being standard white-pig DNA. The new legislation led to a torrent of ibérico de cebo hams flooding the market; of the 2.3m Spanish hams sold as ibérico last year, just 105,000 came from pure-breed pigs that had spent the last winter of their lives gorging on acorns.
Low-cost ibérico that conforms to the 2013 regulations is not fraudulent. Even so, small-scale producers in the south-west, committed to the prestige of the breed and the conservation of its natural habitat, are furious at what they see as a power grab by Big Meat, which they believe has co-opted the term ibérico for an industrial product that barely deserves the name. When black-foot pigs can be kept in cages two metres square, on closed feed lots in distant Catalonia and Murcia, they claim, it’s clear that the atavistic connection between breed and terroir has been broken.
“The big players are ruining the essence of something we have in Spain that is quite unique,” declares Germán Arroyo, buyer at Brindisa, the Spanish-food specialist. Other industry voices go further: one describes a “legalised fraud” that is dragging the whole sector downmarket. “Though the government wants to call it ibérico, an animal that lives its life in a cage is not an ibérico pig,” rages another.
There are those who argue that budget hams represent an affordable introduction to the excellences of genuine acorn-fed ibérico, democratising a delicacy previously only available to the rich. To which purists reply that this is like promoting lumpfish roe as a gateway to Oscietra caviar. The contrast with champagne is revealing: the rigorous policing of its name through the Appellation Contrôlée system has maintained the integrity of the brand. In the world of ibérico ham, such brand protection is conspicuous by its absence.
Ultimately, however, the crucial issue is not marketing, but taste. As the winter sun slides down the horizon, casting a grey-green pallor on the holm oaks, and the black-foot pigs settle down for the night, we get busy with the slivers of jamón.
At one end of the table – unlabelled – is a Realvalle ibérico de cebo ham from Lidl, produced by Cárnicas Villar in Soria province, north-east Spain. At the other end, a jamón 100% ibérico de bellota Gran Reserva by Joselito in Salamanca province, the product of a pure-bred pig that must have roamed the dehesa for two winters, gorging on an average of 9kg of acorns a day.
Perhaps predictably, the two are as different as button mushrooms and black truffles. Where Realvalle is pallid and dull to the eye, Joselito is a deep, rich red flecked with white crystals of the amino acid tyrosine – the unmistakable, un-fakeable sign of a genuine acorn-fed ham. The tasters note the oddly slimy texture and saltiness of one, the sweetly nutty, intensely reverberant flavour and close texture of the other. Where the former might just do for a lunchtime bocadillo, it is agreed, the other would be the star attraction at a Christmas feast.
At €775 for the whole leg (online at joselito.com) the price of the top-flight ham might seem prohibitive; while at a fraction of the price, the other might seem like an astonishing bargain. But, as one of our panel put it, “lo barato sale caro” – which is a Spanish way of saying that, in gastronomy as in life, you get what you pay for.