Ibérico cured ham from Fermin brand is promoted in US market by Spanish top chef José Andrés.
Ibérico pig in a traditional dehesa landscape in Spain. Photo by: Anke van Wicjk/©ICEX.
Author: Paula Farmer©ICEX
Spain’s premier pig continues to entice American foodies. Move over Rafael Nadal and Penélope Cruz, Spain’s best export to the U.S. is now a chubby, hairy fellow with a big snout. As of a few short years ago the much anticipated Iberico jamon de Bellota made its way states side to the delight of foodies and Spanish transplants alike and the love affair continues.
A descendent of the wild boar, that had its history in the forests of the Mediterranean shoreline, the Ibérico pig continues to roam free and feasts on acorns. This is the last free ranging and grazing pig in all of Europe and they are exclusive to the ecosystem in the southwestern Iberian Penninsula. As a result, the pig’s meat bi-products are distinctly, delicious and very desirable. The fat is the perfect blend of mild sweetness with a nutty flavor. Until Fermin USA and Jose Andres’ Think Food Group began importing the pork, it was something Americans could only dream about or experience when traveling to Spain.
Getting the highly sought after and desirable dry cured ham is the result of a long, tedious 10-year importation process and reflective of Andres’ and Fermin CEO/President Santiago Martin’s commitment to promote Spanish products in the U.S. Martin remembers vividly the details of the battle. “When Fermin first started working on the US approval, nobody was able to meet the USDA standards. There was not experience with working with such high quality standards, and the Spanish inspectors were not used to work under USDA rule. It was a huge challenge and also supposed an enormous change of mentality. Fermín started working on this project in 1995 and gained the approval in 2005. It was a learning process for everybody: Fermín, the Spanish Ministry, etc.,” Martin reflects.
For however long it took and for however great the effort to get ham to American soil, it seems to have been worth it, from a standpoint of taste and financially. Besides Andres’ Jaleo restaurants in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, Ibérico de bellota is on the menu of several fine dining, multi-starred restaurants throughout the U.S. Not least among them is New York’s Picholine, Per Se and Tia Pol. On the West Coast, the list continues to impress, with French Laundry in Napa, California, Cube in L.A. and Truffle Market in Las Vegas, to name just a few. With such stellar clients, it’s no surprise that this gem among pork comes at a price. It generally retails for $180 to $200 per pound. Fermin’s Martin explains the exclusivity and preparation factor in to the pricing.
Natural curing process
“We're talking about a very limited animal (only found out on the western region of Spain), so the animal and its breeding and feeding are expensive. Then, we need to cure the ham for over 2 years, in a very traditional and natural way- Fermín does natural curing process, not controlled atmosphere, so if you sum every single step of the production, you´ll end up in one of the most recognized and highest quality products worldwide. This is the Rolls Royce of the Spanish gastronomy… Have you ever seen a cheap Rolls Royce? Same happens with Ibérico.”
One can assume that like the cream de la cream among cars, as Martin’s Rolls Royce reference suggests, the highest quality of this pork will retain it’s value and not necessarily be attainable to the masses. Like wines from Burgundy being noted for quality levels based on the land from which the grapes hail, the Iberico pig and its products are labeled based upon diet. Although all Ibérico pigs have a limited diet, some are even more so than others, with the Fermin’s Ibérico de bellota being the most desirable because of the exclusive acorn diet.
That said, if you ever get the urge to splurge, do so. Some of the afore-mentioned restaurants, like Jaleo and Tia Pol are “affordable” and offer relatively inexpensive ways to at least sample the Iberico jamon in one form or another. But warning: once you get past the sticker shock and experience something like a perfectly sauteed version of the pork’s sweet nuttiness melting in your mouth like butter, you’ll have reoccurring dreams and undeniable cravings. This rock star among pigs belies its status with his long, thin legs and a pointed snout perched upon a short, meaty neck. Its hair is dark but scant and the hooves are just as dark, hence the nick name of “pata negra” or “black foot.”
But beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder and what makes this pig so special is its inner beauty. “As happens with Kobe beef in Japan, there are many things that make the Iberico so special. The first is the pig itself, the breed, its DNA and genes, its gift to convert its feeding into mono-insaturated fat, to store intra muscular fat and create a wonderful, complex, well balanced and marbled meat, both when raw and when dry cured. Actually, due to that fat, the Ibérico ham is the longest curing ham on Earth, and allows us to have it hanging from 2 to 3 years, depending on its grade and quality,” boasts Martin.
As one of the one who spearheaded the importation process and President of Fermin USA, Martin knows his product and his passion goes beyond achieving the bottom line for the company. He is clearly the pig’s biggest fan and promoter. “I'm deeply in love with the Ibérico products, and each one has something unique to offer. Jamón (ham), of course, is full of flavor, very complex and delicate. The lomo (loin) is a very marbled and tender dry cured meat…without forgetting some other traditional Spanish dry cured sausages, such chorizo or salchichón. Fermín also has raw meat, with cuts like pluma, secreto or lomo, all of which are worth a try!”
Considering Martin’s enthusiasm for the products and determination to introduce them to the American market, if he had had to do it all on his own taking double the time, he probably would have. But thanks to a collaborative effort among other interested parties, the importing red tape and financial process challenges were met and thankfully won. Fermín USA is a joint venture between The Rogers Collection, Chef José Andrés and the Martín family of Embutidos Fermín. Embutidos Fermín is a small, family-owned firm based in Las Bautecas-Sierra de Franca in Salamanca (Castile-Leon), Spain. Since 1959, when patriarch Fermín Martín founded the company, the Martín family has been raising and slaughtering pigs to produce the highest quality jamones (hams) and embutidos (cured meats).
Paula Farmer is food writer and www.foodsfromspain.com correspondant for US East Coast.