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Those who have tasted the products swear that the ham, loin, and chorizo from the Spanish black-footed Ibérico pig will, one day, become as famous as Russian beluga caviar or Italian white truffles. Zola executive chef Frank Morales, who got his first taste of the stuff more than 10 years ago in Spain, has been eagerly awaiting the meats here, despite the fact that his American menu may never have room for them. Even an employee with the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which usually takes a cooler approach to imported meats, looks forward to her first bite of Ibérico ham. “The food world is very excited, and I’m excited to get over to Jaleo and try it,” says Amanda Eamich, spokesperson for FSIS.
At present, Jaleo is about the only place where you can sample the pricey, dry-cured cuts from the Ibérico pig, and that’s for one simple reason. Executive chef Josés Andrés is a stakeholder in an exclusive partnership with the only Spanish producer currently approved to ship Ibérico products into the United States. “That I bring it to Washington, for me, is always very important,” says Andrés. “I’m tired that everything happens [first] in New York and in San Francisco and Chicago.”
But Andrés has no apparent desire to corner the market on Ibérico. The Spanish chef’s goal is more nationalistic. “The success of this product in America could be an important part of the success, over the next 10 or 15 years, of Spanish cooking in America,” he says. “Can you imagine Italian cooking without Parmesan cheese and without prosciutto? I tell you that it wouldn’t be as important as it is today.”
The buzz over Ibérico essentially boils down to two things: the small, black pig itself, which roams free in the western and southwestern regions of Spain, and the animal’s diet. During the fall and winter months, known as the montanera, Ibérico pigs gorge on acorns from holm- and cork-oak trees, gaining as much as a pound a day. Ibérico products are graded according to how much weight the pig gains from eating acorns; the highest grade, Ibérico de bellota (bellota is Spanish for “acorn”), is given to products from swine that have gained at least a third of their weight from consuming acorns and grasses during the montanera. The taste of cured, rosy-red bellota meat is unlike anything you’re liable to sample: rich, nutty, and streaked in part with soft, monounsaturated fats that literally melt on your tongue.
For years, the only way you could sample Ibérico was to make a pilgrimage to Spain. That changed last year when the Spanish government certified that Embutidos y Jamones Fermín, a family-owned operation in southern Salamanca province, met all U.S. safety requirements for the slaughter and processing of meats. Others will likely be certified in the years ahead, but Embutidos Fermín is the first, and so far only, Spanish slaughterhouse to make the grade, FSIS’s Eamich notes. To distribute its Ibérico products in America, Embutidos Fermín decided to team up with Andrés and the Portland, Maine, specialty-food import company the Rogers Collection to launch a stateside subsidiary, Fermín USA.
The U.S. subsidiary makes sense for at least a couple of reasons, says Taylor Griffin, president of the Rogers Collection. First, it cuts out the importing middleman, saving consumers at least 15 percent on, for example, an Ibérico de bellota ham that may sell for $140 a pound when it’s available next year. Second, it creates a new specialty brand for Fermín’s Ibérico products, distinct from all the other imported meats out there.
Andrés’ role in Fermín USA—part cheerleader, part shareholder—is more complicated. As the public face of Fermín USA, he gets to chat up the media and generally act as a walking seal of approval for the products. But unlike Griffin, who has a straightforward interest in Fermín, Andrés has placed himself in an awkward position with the company. Yes, he’s a shareholder and can expect a cut of any profits from Fermín USA. But to realize any profit, Andrés must sell to all comers, maybe even competitors who desperately want the product. Could he potentially manipulate the D.C. market in his favor? “Yes, it’s very important to bring success to my restaurant, so that the employees can be successful,” Andrés says. “But it’s very important to me that Spain and Spanish products win, and I only win if this product is sold all across America.”
Zola’s Morales says that, so far, getting his hands on Ibérico product has been more difficult than buying other meats. But there’s a reason for that. The first shipment of Fermín’s meats has been stranded in a warehouse in New Jersey. “The first container is sold out,” Griffin says in late July. “Having said that, it is still sitting in a container, being inspected right now.”
Despite the hassle of securing the meat, Morales firmly believes Andrés has more interest in spreading quality than in controlling the local market. “The thing I got from Spain…is that [chefs] are a tightknit group,” he says. “They’re competitive, but they almost want to level the playing field every time something new happens, so they push each other.”
“For José, I think he’s very happy being in that conundrum,” Morales adds. “No. 1, he’s going to feature this ham, and No. 2, he’s going to make a great deal of money selling this ham.”—Tim Carman
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