Jamon Iberico

Beher Jamon is available for sale from the General de Exportaciones website
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GUIJUELO: Dozens of Iberian black pigs, with their pointy snouts, large ears, tiny eyes and dark skin, grunt as they forage in a wide green field.

The exquisite cured ham called “Jamon Iberico” made from this breed, which is allowed to roam freely to dine on acorns, is the star of Spanish cuisine and it can be sold for astronomical prices.

But the sharp economic downturn gripping Spain since the collapse of a property bubble in 2008 has hurt domestic sales, and producers are looking to boost their fortunes abroad.

To help market the product overseas, they want to tighten the rules regarding what can officially be labeled as a top-end ham made from Iberian black pigs—which are indigenous to Spain—to distinguish them from less expensive hams made from lower quality pork from white pigs.

“They are nothing like each other,” said Ramon Estevez, who is in charge of quality control at renowned Spanish ham producer Beher.

He gazed at the herd of pigs grazing in a field near the village of Guijuelo about 200
kilometers west of Madrid in the province of Salamanca.

“Iberian pigs produce oleic acid, which is similar to that found in olive oil. No other animal in the world does this,” he said, adding this gives pork products made from the animal a more intense taste.

The pigs feed exclusively on acorns between November and March.

During the rest of the year, they eat cereals since it is not possible to store acorns for long after they are harvested.

The acorns give the fat of the pigs its unique, sweet flavor. Cured ham made from Iberian black pigs can cost over 100 euros ($130) per kilo and as much as 4,000 euros for a whole leg of ham that has been slowly cured for over seven years.

But because of the economic downturn, farmers have drastically reduced their herds from four million pigs three years ago to just 2.5 million today.

As good as caviar
Salamanca and the regions of Extremadura and Andalucia are the main breeding areas for Iberian black pigs.

“The pure acorn-fed Iberian ham is one of the world’s most special products, such as good caviar, or good foie gras,” said Alejandra Anson, the head of Elite Gourmet, a nonprofit foundation that affixes a seal of quality on top Spanish products.