Span­ish ja­mon con­quers China

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste -

THE aroma is so ex­tra­or­di­nary, it's like "a punch in your mouth", said Luqi Wu, one of sev­eral Chi­nese busi­ness­men stand­ing in a cel­lar in south­west­ern Spain, sur­rounded by thou­sands of hang­ing ham legs.

While he sam­ples the prod­uct, three of his col­leagues learn to cut the ham as finely as pos­si­ble – a cru­cial de­tail that they will put into prac­tice back in Shang­hai at tast­ing events for their own cus­tomers.

The world's top pork con­sumer, China has started get­ting a se­ri­ous taste for Spain's world-fa­mous ja­mon, which is sold there as a lux­ury prod­uct and is get­ting one over on its French and Ital­ian com­peti­tors.

"In the be­gin­ning, cus­tomers were just look­ing for el­e­gant prod­ucts – be­cause they're rich," said Wu, a sales man­ager at Jiarui Fine Foods, a Chi­nese com­pany that spe­cialises in im­port­ing lux­ury gas­tron­omy prod­ucts.

"But more and more, they want to learn and ed­u­cate them­selves ... to know why it's so good and why it's got such a high price."

3,000 eu­ros a ham leg

The Ital­ians got into the Chi­nese mar­ket early on with their Parma ham.

But Spain soon caught up, and is now lead­ing sales of dry-cured ham in the Asian pow­er­house, mak­ing 1.8 mil­lion eu­ros (RM8.8 mil) in sales last year ex­clud­ing Hong Kong, ac­cord­ing to the French Fed­er­a­tion of Pork In­dus­tries (Fict).

In com­par­i­son, Italy made 1.4 mil­lion eu­ros (RM6.8mil) in 2016 and France tailed far be­hind with just 30,000 eu­ros (RM147,000), as there is only one pro­ducer in the coun­try equipped with the nec­es­sary au­tho­ri­sa­tion to sell ham in China, com­pared to 13 in Spain.

So it was that in March, sev­eral Jiarui Fine Foods em­ploy­ees trav­elled to the vil­lage of Jabugo in the south­ern hills of An­dalu­sia, in­vited by the Cinco Jo­tas brand that spe­cialises in high-qual­ity ham.

In pas­ture­lands cov­ered in oak trees, herds of pure­bred black Ibe­rian pigs gob­bled the last acorns of win­ter – the very food prod­uct that gives the ham its unique hazel­nut taste, af­ter a three-year ma­tur­ing pe­riod.

There, Cinco Jo­tas work­ers gave the Chi­nese sales man­agers a run­down of how the dry-cured ham is made.

They will use this knowl­edge to at­tract cus­tomers in China, where clas­sic, dry-cured ham sells for 10 to 20% more than in Spain, and the high­est qual­ity hams com­mand even fat­ter mar­gins.

A leg of "pata ne­gra" ham, the most sought-af­ter, can go for up to 3,000 eu­ros (RM14,700) in Hong Kong.

Forced to di­ver­sify

Like the 12 other Span­ish ham mak­ers, Cinco Jo­tas got au­tho­ri­sa­tion to sell its ham in China at the be­gin­ning of the decade, and the world's most pop­u­lous coun­try has now be­come its num­ber one mar­ket af­ter Spain.

Ac­cord­ing to Jialin Shen, head of Jiarui Fine Foods, the over­all mar­ket for high-qual­ity ham in China is be­tween 20,000 and 30,000 units a year.

Rene Le­mee, head of Cinco Jo­tas's in­ter­na­tional de­part­ment, trav­elled to China 16 times last year and has a dozen sales man­agers work­ing there.

In his of­fice hangs a world map with China at the cen­tre, "to un­der­stand their point of view".

And the ef­fort has paid off, as sales of Span­ish dry-cured ham in China have dou­bled be­tween 2012 and 2016, said Je­sus Perez Aguilar, spokesman for the In­ter­pro­fes­sional As­so­ci­a­tion of Ibe­rian Pork.

"China has be­come the sec­ond for­eign mar­ket for Spain's porcine sec­tor, af­ter France," he said. He added that sales abroad took off af­ter Spain suf­fered a crip­pling eco­nomic cri­sis in 2008, when a do­mes­tic prop­erty bub­ble burst, com­pound­ing the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis and push­ing the com­pa­nies to seek new ex­port mar­kets.

Risk of copy­cats

But for Iberi­cos Torreon, a medium-sized com­pany based in Salamanca in the north­west – an­other ma­jor pro­duc­ing re­gion – suc­cess was not im­me­di­ate.

The firm was forced to pa­tiently go from trade fair to trade fair to in­tro­duce their prod­uct to the Chi­nese, who were more used to adding pork in soups or fra­grant dishes rather than eat­ing it on its own.

But "in the last two years, sales have taken off," said Laura Gar­cia Her­nan­dez who man­ages ex­ports for the com­pany; she re­fused to re­veal spe­cific fig­ures.

The risk of be­ing copied in a coun­try in­fa­mous for cre­at­ing coun­ter­feits does not ap­pear to worry Span­ish pro­duc­ers, who say their dry-cured ham is the fruit of a spe­cific cli­mate, veg­e­ta­tion and an­i­mal.

"What is made in Spain is very ex­clu­sive to the penin­sula," said San­ti­ago Martin, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Em­bu­ti­dos Fer­min, an­other pro­ducer of dry-cured ham.

Still, the sec­tor is work­ing on cre­at­ing a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion along the lines of Europe's pro­tected des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin, to try and avoid any fu­ture prob­lems. – AFP Re­laxnews

Legs of 100% Ibe­rian ham hang from the ceil­ing of a fac­tory in Jabugo, Spain. China has started get­ting a se­ri­ous taste for Spain’s world-fa­mous ja­mon, which is sold there as a lux­ury prod­uct, and is get­ting one over on its French and Ital­ian com­peti­tors. — AFP

A plat­ter of Ibe­rian black ham. — Filepic

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