Iberico ham brings a luxe touch to food imports of Spain, Liu Zhihua reports.
In 1879, Spanish entrepreneur Rafael Sanchez Romero founded 5J Cinco Jotas to offer meats from 100-percent Iberian black pigs, an animal species descended directly from the prehistoricMediterranean boar.
More than 130 years later, the company’s premium ham is capturing the hearts of Chinese foodies, while it has become a national treasure of Spain.
“Iberico pigs are called ‘running olive oil with four legs’,” says Beli Simeon, the company’s master ham carver, at a recent tasting event in Beijing.
“The purer the breed is, the better the Iberico ham will be.”
Simeon joined thecompanywhen she was 24; she had developed a strong interest since the age of 16, when she began slicing ham while working for her family store.
“China has become the largest market for the company outside Spain,” says the company’s China representative, Emily Li, at a recent tasting event in Beijing.
“Chinese people are getting rich, and are willing to spend money on the expensive hams that we call ‘affordable luxury’.”
The price of 80 grams of the company’s ham in a supermarket is 300 yuan ($45) to 400 yuan, making 5J among the most expensive Iberico hams, she adds.
Collectively, Chinese imports from Spain rose 35 percent last year, according to media reports in December, making it the secondbiggest importer after France. A single 18-pound leg from one of Spain’s famous acorn- and oliveeating pigs can cost up to $670 in Spain, and double that in America,
commercial director in China of 5J Cinco Jotas
according to The New York Times, and Chinese consumers pay even more for Iberico ham than Americans.
The Spanish delicacy has a distinctive taste, aroma and texture. It also provides health benefits due to its high content of essential elements and healthy fats.
The World Health Organization announced last year that eating processed meats could increase the risk of colorectal cancer, but Chinese consumers see hams produced trace in Spain as a safe choice.
“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,” Oliver Win, a Hong Kong fine-foods distributor, told the Times.
Spanish authorities have categorized Iberico hams into four classes based on the purity of the pig breed, whether or not they are raised freerange, and whether they are acornfed or fodder-fed. Since 2014, the percentage of Iberian ancestry in the pig must be specified on the labels.
The finest Iberico ham is from pigs raised on the Iberian peninsula: They roam free-range in oak forests and are fed on acorns in the weeks before slaughter to increase the healthy unsaturated fatty acid content in the meat. The most expensive Iberico ham is cured for 36 weeks.
While most jamon producers use crossbred pigs, 5J is among the few brands that use 100-percent Iberico pigs, according to Simeon.
The company raises its own purebred pigs with strict quality control, and has masters at each step of the ham-making process, she says.
Beli Simeon, a senior ham carver, demonstrates proper slicing at a recent tasting event organized by a producer of Spanish ham, 5J Cinco Jotas. Emily Li,