Iberian Ham from… Texas? Just Keep Your Hands Off My Paella
Sure, you might not think that something as simple as ham could be the biggest story of the year. But in Spain, ham is a thing of national security (or at least national pride).
Spaniards have a fanatical devotion to jamón ibérico de bellota, the acorn-fed Iberian ham served up in tapas bars across the country. It’s as Spanish as siesta, paella, and being really good at football, so when two American companies recently announced plans to produce Iberian ham in the U.S., there was sure to be outrage.
But what’s the big deal?
Iberian Ham: Made in Iberia
Jamón ibérico is the greatest thing to happen to any carnivore; just one taste and you’re hooked for life.
Experts say that you there are up to 50 unique flavours in any slice of Iberian ham, from sweet nuttiness imparted from the acorn diet of the pigs to a punch of salt and umami from the meat. And don’t even get me started on the fat. That melt-in-your-mouth, glistening streak of white fat on the slice of ham is the best part of the pig. You just want to spread it on toast like butter.
The secret to this Spanish delicacy is the way they raise the pigs. These aren’t your typical hogs. In fact they’re more like wild boars. Black, furry, and muscular, they’re the Incredible Hulk to the normal Bruce Banner pig.
These are Iberian pigs, native to the oak forests of southern Spain and Portugal. To make the best ham, the pigs spend the last few months of their lives grazing freely in the dehesa; green pastures full of acorns, olives, chestnuts, and rosemary. (Just saying, these pigs have a better diet than I do).
The signature flavour of Iberian ham comes from the diet of these happy pigs and 3-6 years of curing in an underground, labyrinth-like cellar. Good ham takes time, patience, and Spanish sunshine.
Just promise me one thing. This is the caviar of Spain: never do it the dishonour of putting it on a sandwich. And at 100 euros per kilo, it’s not something you’re going to want to waste!
But here’s the thing.
Iberian ham has to come from Iberia. That’s not just what the Spanish say, it’s the law. According to the EU, only ham made in the traditional way, in Spain, can carry the label of jamón ibérico.
So when two American companies entered the market, the Spanish weren’t just worried about losing profit. For them, it’s a matter of pride.
Both companies have imported the native Iberian pigs of Spain and set up their own versions of a dehesa. But, horrifically, Iberian Pastures has opted to ditch the acorns in favour of local pecans, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
I can already hear the cries of Spanish anguish coming from outside my window.
What’s in a name?
So who really cares?
The purists will always say that jamón ibérico americano (as it’s called) is just a shallow imitation of the real thing. It’s not like Spain exports much of its best ham anyway, so competition isn’t really a factor.
But this is about a name.
The U.S. has played fast and loose with protected names for quite some time. You can still buy oxymoronic “American Champagne“, even though the rest of the world recognised in 1919 that Champagne should really just come from Champagne. (Fancy that).
The same is true of Parmesan. Buy Parmesan in the U.K. and you’re buying Parmigiano-Reggiano, king of all cheese. In the U.S., supermarket Parmesan is more likely to come from Pennsylvania than Parma.
But it’s not just the name. While Italian Parmigiano is only made with three ingredients (salt, rennet, and milk no more than 20 hours old), Kraft Parmesan also includes cellulose powder, potassium sorbate, and other added ‘cheese cultures’. Yum.
Unlike the protections given to traditional foods in Europe, names don’t mean much in the U.S.A. You can add cellulose to your cheese, new grapes to your Champagne, and raise your pigs on pecans instead of acorns.
That’s why Kraft is forbidden from selling its “Parmesan” in Europe.
Food is About Place
The names of traditional foods aren’t just about protecting a place, they protect a traditional way of making things. They’re also a guarantee to the consumer. These labels are a promise: this thing you’re eating comes from a place that has always made it, with respect to nature, tradition, and your taste buds.
When you slap that name on any old thing, you’re not just stealing someone else’s identity, you’re leaving the door open to corrupting it.
I know what good Iberian ham should taste like. I know that it comes from a special place in rural Spain, a place where the pigs are a natural and important part of their ecosystem. And I know that nothing except salt has been added, and that someone has spent more than 5 years of their life invested in its deliciousness.
That’s why I’m happy to pay 100 euros per kilo and 20 euros per plate. And that’s why I won’t be buying jamón ibérico americano any time soon.
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