Sight, touch and experience are essential to select the best examples of one of the jewels of Spanish gastronomy: 100% Iberian acorn hams. The eye checks that the piece is well profiled, full, without kinks. The fingers press, look for tightness, measure the texture of the fat sliding the yolks on top of it as if they slip in oil. But only years of practice can give the final verdict. "The pieces are selected one by one", says José Antonio Cruces, responsible for purchases of fresh The English Court, leader in Spain in the Iberian ham market with a 30% share. Over his head hang hundreds of black paw copies of the Cinco Jotas winery, a complex of 90,000 square meters located in Jabugo (Huelva), where nothing is left to chance.
Fernando Solano, quality director of the firm belonging to the Osborne group, says that the engineers of the company traveled to Maranello (Italy) to study the Ferrari wind tunnel. "There is no refrigeration here," he explains in the penumbra of the winery that preserves the same labyrinthine structure since its founding in 1879. The hams are naturally cured in this humid and fresh environment thanks to the play of currents between corridors and the location of the ship, 600 meters high embedded in the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche natural park.
This is the time of sacrifice, during which the company triples its staff to carry out a production that remains manual. From profiling to salting, drying and ripening ham in the cellar, a tradition of generations merges with high technical standards.
The black leg is the jewel in the Iberian crown, but its production is limited. Of the 6.4 million Iberian hams sealed in 2017, only 594,868 had this surname, according to the Interprofessional Association of the Iberian Pig (Asici). The scarcity of resources – the pigs feed on dehesas based on acorns, mainly oaks and cork oaks– and the long production times, in the case of the Cinco Jotas of up to five years from the birth of the pig to market, make them a luxury product appreciated throughout the world.
"The ham evolves over time," says Cruces. Each pig raised for Cinco Jotas has two hectares of pastureland. During two montaneras, from October to March, the pigs feed on grass and acorns, rich in oleic acid that infiltrates the animal's muscles and turns into unsaturated fat. This will mark the character of the hams, each one different from the other.
Cruces repeats thousands of times the same thorough selection operation with your team. Last week he toured several of the most emblematic wineries in Spain to set aside and mark the specimens that will be part of the black paw assortment of El Corte Inglés establishments (Club del Gourmet, supermarkets El Corte Inglés, Hipercor and Supercor), pioneer in offering this product to the cut to the great public.
The company, which for 30 years has chosen the pieces one by one and has invited a group of journalists to Jabugo to explain the process, will sell the hams selected from the next Christmas season, a period that concentrates more than half of sales of acorn-fed ham throughout the year.
The history of the Iberian pig has romantic touches. This breed remained intact while in the rest of the continent the pigs mixed with specimens from other places and intensive pig farming, which sought to raise animals leaner and faster, moved like a locomotive in the second half of the last century. Strong reeds, black hooves, descendant loin, narrow muzzle and ears thrown in front of the face, these animals that reach up to 14 kilometers a day in search of the best acorns are the redoubt of a bucolic scene that is losing
In 2014, Spain tried to put order in a market marked by tradition but also by fraud with a quality standard that ended up raising controversies inside and outside the sector, since it allows to classify as Iberian products of animals that are not of pure race.
According to this regulation, only the ham of 100% Iberian acorn-fed pigs can have a black seal, the individual DNI of each piece whose color varies according to race and feeding of the animal. If Iberian is 50% or 75% (of Iberian mother and pure father of another race or Iberian to 50%) and fed with acorns the seal is red; if it is pure or crossed but raised with feed in the field the label is green. The white one, that monopolizes more than half of the sector's production (3.2 million heads in 2017), is for pigs fed on farms. "There is a structural change," says Elena Diéguez, technical secretary of the Spanish Association of Iberian Pig Breeders (Aceriber), who believes that there is a risk of discrediting the sector.
The professionals of El Corte Inglés receive continuous training to be able to give the best treatment to the merchandise. Cruces recommends in any case always check the label. "We want the consumer to know why things are happening," he says, "100% Iberian acorn-fed hams are the heritage of this country."