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Food and Drink

Iberian ham confuses buyers, beats recession

It's a sight that causes tourists to gawk: cured Iberian ham filling Spanish shops to the bursting point. But what is the stuff, anyway? And why are its producers now writing manifestos? DW takes a look.

Symbolbild zu Essen Spanien Jamon Schinken
Bild: Fotolia/Phranc #20001332

Symbolbild Essen Spanien Jamon Schinken

Entering a Spanish deli is a daunting experience. And Jose Jimenez's shop in the Moncloa district of Madrid is no exception.

Jamon iberico, or cured ham from the Iberian Peninsula, is everywhere. It's stacked on the counter in small cuts or sitting in the windowsill in packets; pig legs dangle from the ceiling.

Other products are on sale as well: cheese, chorizo - a pork sausage - as well as other types of ham and smoked salmon. But jamon iberico is the unequivocal star, and a bewildering array of categories, labels and prices means that buying the beloved ham is a lot to ask of a delicatessen novice.

A small shop with a yellow sign pokes out of a red brick building
Photo: Guy Hedgecoe for DW

Jose's shop has survived the spread of large chain stores

Which kind of jamon should one buy and how much of it? Is ham that costs 90 euros per kilo really that much better than ham that costs 15?

Jose understands this concern and attempts to put his customers at ease, offering advice without pressure. He points out that because there is so much choice when buying jamon iberico, trust is everything.

“If you trust the person who's selling, you're going to come back for more. People aren't stupid,” he told DW.

Hidden behind a hanging row of cured Spanish ham, a Spanish man smiles at the camera
(Photo: Guy Hedgcoe for DW)

Jose has been running his shop for more than 30 years

A long journey

Jose Jimenez's shop in Madrid is a long way from the forests of Andalusia and Extremadura, the rural areas in western and southern Spain where black Iberian pigs, the raw material of jamon iberico, are fattened up on acorns. The process is carefully controlled, with the pigs even put on slopes to make their legs fleshier before slaughter. The meat is then left to cure - sometimes for up to four years - before reaching bars, restaurants and delis, where it's eaten as a snack with a glass of beer or wine, or as part of a full meal.

Jose believes that soon it will be harder for customers to be fooled into buying inferior jamon iberico. In December, a group of lobbyists published the Iberian Pork Manifesto in the country's press, calling on the government to push ahead with new rules. In a reflection of the earnestness with which Spain takes its jamon, the manifesto was excerpted and widely discussed in the Spanish press.

Large chunks of marbled red and white meat hang from meat hooks.
(Photo: Guy Hedgecoe for DW)

A question of purity: the government aims to classify ham more accurately

The government is currently preparing a set of norms to improve the regulation of jamon iberico. The current byzantine system of categorizing the meat will be simplified, and quality standards will be reinforced. Of primary importance to Spanish jamon producers is the establishment of labeling that clearly differentiates between purebred and crossbred Iberian pigs.

Jose and many of his colleagues in the sector are celebrating what they feel is a long-overdue set of rules that will benefit serious sellers.

Jamon boom

Just outside Jose's shop, Spain's economic crisis is all too visible. The Moncloa area of Madrid is middle-class, yet street corners are occupied by beggars, and many businesses have been boarded up. Yet for Jose, sales have remained surprisingly steady.

Jose's experience is reflected in figures across the industry. In 2011, when Spain was already deeply in crisis, total sales for the sector increased 10 percent compared with the previous year. Last year's figures look similarly healthy.

A man slices meet with an industrial meat slicer
(Photo: Guy Hedgecoe for DW)

Jose's business has flourished throughout the recession

As Jose thoughtfully sharpens a narrow, 12-inch carving knife, he reflects on the three decades he's spent running his business. They are years that have seen Madrid - and Spain as a whole - change immensely. And yet, the hunger for the salty taste of jamon iberico remains as hearty as ever before.

DW.DE

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