Daily Press - December 19, 2007
Would you pay $800 for this holiday ham?
Patience pays off as a Toano importer gets first dibs on bringing the high-end Spanish cured meat to the U.S.
Toano - When he started taking deposits for the famed Jamon Iberico Spanish hams five years ago, LaTienda.com owner Don Harris warned customers that the pricey delicacy might not ever be allowed into the country.
But Harris was determined to help convince a Spanish company to work with American food regulators to clear the way for his Toano Spanish food company to get some to its customers. The fervent fans of the ham maintained the faith, placing hundreds of deposits since 2002 with LaTienda to be first in line to buy the $800 ham.
You read that right. $800. For a ham. Or $87 a pound, compared to prosciutto imported from Parma, Italy, for $13-$20 a pound, or $9 a pound for a cooked Smithfield ham.
For LaTienda's ham fanatics, a willingness to wait has allowed them to be the first Americans to please their palate with Jamon Iberico. LaTienda is shipping the hams out in time for Christmas. The first hams arrived at an importer LaTienda works with before Thanksgiving, and have now cleared USDA inspections.
"We couldn't believe it until we actually saw it," said Harris.
Harris started trying to find a company in Spain that would be willing to export Jamon Iberico after he opened his family-run Internet business in 1996. It would take a decade before a small company was willing to do the paperwork to convince American food regulators that a special Spanish curing and aging process was safe.
"The big boys didn't want to mess with all the stupid American regulations and said, why bother?" said Harris.
The hams are renowned worldwide for the nutty flavor that comes from the specially bred, free-range black Iberian hogs that get fat on acorns. LaTienda.com is an Internet operation that has grown into a major Spanish food distributor with a large warehouse in Toano, where there is also a small retail store.
Harris has been working closely in Spain with the Santiago Martin family, which runs a company called Embutidos y Jamones Fermin in a mountain village in La Alberca. The Martins teamed up with famed Spanish chef Jose Andres and a European food importer to create Fermin USA, which was dedicated to getting Jamon Iberico into the United States.
Among the large companies that passed at the opportunity to supply a product that is often called "the greatest ham in the world" into the United States: Campofrio, the dominant pork company in Spain partially owned by local pork giant Smithfield Foods.
The deposits that Harris had attracted helped convince Fermin there was enough demand in the United States to jump through the American regulatory hoops. About 100 people have deposits on the regular Ibericos, and another 300 are waiting for an even higher end Iberico.
"We helped demonstrate the demand," said Harris.
The Iberico hog has been in Spain for centuries. It is black and large, with a long snout and slender legs that sport a black hoof. The hogs live only in parts of Spain that have grazing meadows in Mediterranean forests known as "The Dehesa." The ham is cured in mountain air for at least two years, and the intact black hoof is why it's often called "pata negra." The fat transforms into a mono-unsaturated fat similar to olive oil. Because the hogs wander and graze, their fat spreads throughout their bodies and forms marbling. The rich flavor is often attributed to the large amount of fat, which also is part of the reason they can cure so long.
The highest quality Iberico hams, called "Jamon Iberico de Bellota," come from hogs that spend about five months of their lives getting fat by gorging on acorns. They have a deeper, richer glistening fat than the standard Iberica hogs that only eat acorns occasionally.
LaTienda expects to receive the first of these premium Bellota hams next summer, and they will sell for $1,500. Harris's company also launched a new Web site, http://www.jamon.com, dedicated to educating consumers and selling them Spanish ham.
LaTienda has continued to expand into its excess warehouse space all year, and sales have been strong all year. Christmas is always a big time for the business, and this year hasn't disappointed. The company sent 1,000 shipments out in one day this week. The first shipment of Iberico is long gone.
Harris doesn't want people to think Iberico will only be available to rich foodies. He hopes that as the market develops, there will eventually be packages of Iberico slices that more of the public could afford.
How the price compares
Iberico ham price per lb.
Prosciutto ham price per lb.
Cooked Smithfield ham per lb.