As Spanish ham goes global, will Spaniards be priced out of a holiday delicacy?

Jamón ibérico de bellota is a staple of Spanish holiday fare from Christmas through Epiphany. But as international demand and local shortages cause prices to spike to almost $50 per pound, many are being forced to rethink their menus.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Pilar Fraile says sales of 'jamón ibérico' are down this holiday season because prices are up by 20 percent from last holiday season.

Of all the delicacies that Spaniards splurge on at the holidays, none is more sought after than the beloved jamón ibérico de bellota, ham produced from black-footed pigs that feed on acorns and that has of late become an international sensation.

At lavish lunches and dinners starting at Christmas Eve, running through the New Year, and ending at Three Kings’ Day (Epiphany) on January 6, dishes will alternate between lamb and suckling pig, between squid in black ink sauce and giant platters of shellfish. But the one constant at each sitting is a plate of dark pink jamón, nutty and tender and sliced perfectly, itself part of the art and the inspiration of not a few local cutting contests.

Looking for the perfect gift to impress? A leg of jamón has long been considered one of the most prestigious presents to offer a Spanish family this time of year.

Yet as this season is in full swing, prices have spiked for an item that just a few years back was considered one of Spain’s best-kept secrets.

This is the biggest time of the year for sales, so “we didn’t notice it until now,” says Pilar Fraile, wearing a Santa hat behind the counter at Dibéricos in the old town of Bilbao. Their leg of jamón ibérico de bellota, bolted to a special cutting board, is selling for 88 euros per kilogram ($47 per pound), up from 70 euros per kilo ($37.6 per pound) last season.

The result? “Customers are buying less this year.”

More demand, less supply

Jamón ibérico de bellota is the finest ham on offer, and some Spaniards don’t even consider it ham, at least anything associated with what is called ham in the US or elsewhere. The Iberian pigs graze in pasturelands of western Spain, known as dehesa, feeding from the acorns that fall from trees. Once they’ve grown, they are slaughtered and salted and hung to cure for months, the best for four years.

Like most things in Europe today, Spain’s jamón problem traces back to the financial crisis, which hit the Iberian Peninsula in 2009 and 2010. The small and medium producers who raise the breed couldn’t keep afloat, with a dearth in demand and no access to credit. Because the entire process takes about half a decade, by the time the economy started to pick up – and with it, domestic demand – the jamón market couldn’t catch up. This coincided perfectly with its popularity abroad. “That’s why today we find ourselves in this disequilibrium between levels of stock and demand, both domestic and international," says René Lemée, the international director for the brand Cinco Jotas.

Their prices for black label bellota, which means the pigs are 100 percent Iberian – part of a new classification put into place in 2014 that guarantees the breed and the upbringing of the pig – have shot up: a leg weighing 7.5 kilograms (16.5 pounds) that sold for 400 euros ($475) in Spain four years ago is now going for 600 euros ($712).

For Mr. Lemée, this is part of a coming of age of jamón ibérico de bellota, finding its rightful place alongside truffles, foie gras, smoked salmon, and the finest cheeses. “The majority of Spaniards feel proud that their iconic gastronomic product, which just a few years back was only consumed essentially in Spain, is now becoming high gastronomy in the whole world.”

In fact, he says, their legs of ham have now become a prestigious gift in China, for Chinese New Year.

This has led some media outlets to warn of a ham shortage, and that the Chinese are at fault. Jesús Pérez,the spokesperson at the Interprofessional Association of the Iberian Pig, says such fears are overblown. China might be the biggest international market for Cinco Jotas’ black label, but over 80 percent of the exports of Spanish ham – not limited to just jamón ibérico but jamón serrano and all the various kinds – goes to Europe, including France, Germany, Italy, and Britain. The market to Asia is just over 4 percent.

“When we talk about there being an increase from China, yes there is, and we welcome that, but this is not going to provoke a scarcity of the product in Spain, or an increase in prices of the product in Spain,” says Mr. Pérez.

Hampering the holidays?

You can’t blame the Spaniards for being spooked. They’ve already seen seasonal traditions stamped out. One of the most typical meals around Christmas and New Year’s used to be angulas, or baby eels. But because of Asian demand and overfishing, now a kilogram can fetch 1,000 euros ($1,180) or more.

On the Saturday before Christmas, the lines outside the main fishmonger in Bilbao were not for the impatient. A sign posted to the mirror advertised that they had baby eels. But only the richest, and the chefs of the finest restaurants, buy them anymore, says Izaskun Urrutia, who was in the line to purchase shellfish for Christmas Eve. Her family, like so many Basque families, used to fish angulas themselves. “I haven’t tasted them in, I don’t know, it’s been 15 years,” she says.

Ever pragmatic, the Spanish came up with a mock version. They are called gulas and are made of surimi (fish paste), and Spaniards swear they taste almost like the original, especially when cooked in a pan soaked in hot olive oil and garlic.

That same kind of judiciousness is on display today as ham prices creep up. According the Ministry of Agriculture, Spaniards consumed 13,000 tons of jamón ibérico from July 2016 to July 2017, amounting to 4 billion euros ($4.75 billion) in sales.

Price increases don’t mean they’ll eat less ham, but that they are simply turning to cheaper mixed varieties – long a staple of everyday meals, snacks for children, and breakfast over baguettes with freshly crushed tomatoes and olive oil. “There are many prices,” says Toño Calvo, a Bilbao resident shopping for his family’s upcoming meals. “You have to find the right equilibrium between price and quality.”

He also recalls when angulas were the norm at this time of year and shrugs. At least there is no shortage of grapes: Spaniards consume 12 of them at each stroke of midnight at the turn of the New Year.

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