The Mystery of Spain's Sublime Ham


Photo by snowpea&bokchoi/Flickr CC

Jamon Iberico de bellota is a Spanish delicacy routinely touted as one of the world's finest cuts of meat. The influential critic Ed Levine urges anyone who can afford the $96 a pound delicacy to indulge, calling it "ham as God would make it." The celebrated secret to Iberico de bellota's succulence is pigs that roam oak forests to fatten themselves on a steady diet of sweet acorns.

While Iberico de bellota was garnering media attention three months ago, after the USDA declared that it could not be imported attached to its hooves, I found myself pondering a more basic question: if acorns are so essential to Iberico de bellota, how do Spanish pig farmers guarantee a steady and well-timed supply?

Acorns are popular, after all, not only with pigs but with insects. While insects aren't smarter than pigs, they're more resourceful when it comes to monopolizing a food supply. Throughout Spain, in fact, weevils, wasps, and moths can take an average 49 percent of a tree's acorns before they fall. And when they do fall, wood mice compete for them. So how do these famous pigs get their share--which is 20 to 30 pounds of acorns a day?

Speaking for niche producers of pork, Heath Putnam said, "It isn't sustainable, it isn't very natural, but it tastes great."

To answer my question, I called Heath Putnam, founder and owner of Wooly Pigs Farms, which produces niche European pork in Washington State. Putnam believes that at least some acorns consumed by Iberico pigs are imported to western Spain, most likely from Tunisia or Turkey. A Spanish newspaper report supports his claim. Futher backup comes from Viktor Nordstrom, a student of Iberico production, who has gone so far as to suggest that Spanish producers might soon be importing acorns from the United States.

Needless to say, the charge is huge, challenging nothing less than the core identity of Iberico de bellota. Indeed, the image of rampant Iberico pigs living in a state of nature is, well, rampant. Just as much as they value its taste, consumers value the image of Iberico pigs eating a diet provided entirely by nature under all-natural conditions. Google up "free range" and "Iberico" and you'll get the point.

Intrigued as I was, I had my doubts about these wayward acorns. And Putnam, after all, is raising pigs in this country to compete with a very expensive Spanish rival that has a very well-established mystique. To try to confirm his rather grim description of what's so commonly praised as "nature's slow food," I checked in with Alberto Solis, director of sales and marketing for Fermin USA, an importer of Iberico products. His reaction to the charge? "I have never heard of anybody importing acorns into Spain to feed the Iberico pigs." His colleague, Jonathan Harris, an owner of La Tienda, another Iberico importer, agreed, telling me: "That would be cheating."

Welcome to the world of trying to figure out how food is made.

For all the disagreement, one thing is certain about the Iberico diet: the hogs eat more than the sweet acorns that fall from the majestic oaks under which they frolic. Iberico hogs consume a diet of ("all-natural") commercial feed while in confinement for the first nine months of their lives. Once released to the dehesa, their diet is carefully structured through an arrangement of continued commercial feed, acorns gathered and placed in strategic locations, acorns that have fallen naturally, and access to a man-made watering hole located a set distance from the food. The logic behind this gently engineered system is that the animals will move around just enough to enhance flavor.

For now, the ultimate source of the Iberico acorns might have to remain a secret of la dehesa. But the attitudes about what those acorns represent are out in the open, and worth considering. Don Harris, Jonathan's father and another owner of La Tienda, bluntly admits that "people want the romance" of nature in their food. Solis, the Iberico importer, goes further with the romance, telling me in an email, "James, these are the luckiest, happiest pigs in the world. No other pig spends the last 4-5 months of its life eating its favorite food (acorn), living in the wild, and practicing safe sex...."

Putnam, for his part, is generally unfazed by the romance. Speaking for niche producers of pork in general he explained, "We'll do what it takes to get the fat and flavor as good as possible...It isn't sustainable, it isn't very natural, but it tastes great."

So it seems you can have your Iberico and eat it, too. But even at $1,300 a hock, there's very little that's "all-natural" about it.