Introducing PDO Jabugo
PDO Jamón de Huelva has implented a historic decision: a name change to PDO Jabugo that will not only embrace a term that has long been associated with the top-quality hams made in this corner of southwestern Spain, but will also serve to protect the producers and consumers of this treasured product from imitations, both here and abroad
Since the mid 1990s, the Regulatory Board of Protected Denomination of Origin Jamón de Huelva has been certifying the quality of the cured Ibérico Spanish hams made in thirty-one towns in the Sierra de Aracena mountains and Picos de Aroche Natural Park. The most significant of these are Aracena, Aroche, Corteconcepción, Cortegana, Cumbres Mayores, Jabugo and Santa Olalla del Cala. Located in the dehesas, or wooded scrublands of the westernmost end of the Sierra Morena mountain range – declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – these towns house the twenty-seven cellars-bodegas where these hams are naturally cured and aged.
But the sources of these revered hams are more than just dots on a map. They are a faithful reflection of the area’s unique climate, the special conditions of the naturally-ventilated curing rooms, and the knowledge of those who pass on these treasured gastronomic practices from one generation to the next. But the real star of the show is the Ibérico pig, which roams freely through the singular ecosystem of the dehesa during a several-month-long period known as the montanera, consuming vast quantities of sweet acorns from the area's characteristic Holm oak trees, in addition to grains, tubers, insects and wild mushrooms. This acorn-rich diet infuses the hams with beneficial oleic acids, as well as a prized nutty flavor. Put all of these factors together, and the word that people all over the globe associate with the quality, flavor and singularity of the resulting hams is, Jabugo.
This discrepancy between the popular use of the word Jabugo and the official designation of PDO Jamón de Huelva has led the latter’s Regulatory Board to ask that its name be officially changed to PDO Jabugo. The other reason for the change has to do with protecting and restricting the use of this term, which is currently used indiscriminately. In the words of the Managing Director of the Regulatory Board, José Antonio Pavón Domínguez, the decision was clear. "Which name has the best positioning and is most closely linked with the ham produced in our geographic area for both Spanish and international consumers? Jabugo. And is this name being used by anyone, anywhere, in reference to any type of ham made anywhere in the world? The answer is an emphatic yes!" Though the change was approved last year by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, the publication of the new name by the European Union Commission is still pending. Pavón comments that, "At the Regulatory Board we are working [under the assumption] that the name change will be registered by the next montanera season, but logically, it depends on the European Union’s timetable."
New name, same quality product
In any case, the new name won’t affect the excellence of the hams that are made in this privileged area. According to Pavón, "The equilibrium between the biodiversity of the dehesa's ecosystem, the microclimate of the mountain towns in the province of Huelva located near a Natural Park, and the customary practices of the people [here] are all reasons that make PDO Jabugo hams stand out. They are gastronomic products that are sustainable, limited and exclusive."
The cured hams are classified as either jamones (hindquarters) or the smaller paletas (forequarters) and must come from pure-bred Ibérico pigs, or from cross-breeds that are at least 75% Ibérico and no-more than 25% of the Duroc-Jersey breed. Within the denomination, the hams are further classified into three categories that also take into account the pigs' diets, ages, traditional rearing methods and natural curing processes. According to the PDO, Summum refers to quality grade hams and shoulders that have "achieved harmony in their organoleptic attributes as well as a characteristic aromatic richness". This results from a combination of many factors. First, it reflects the racial purity of the 100% Iberian pigs, traditional rearing methods and an exclusive diet of acorns and free-range grazing on the pasturelands. Secondly, it involves a very slow curing process in the "unique natural conditions and microclimate of the towns and villages of the Sierra de Huelva". Hams that are labeled Excellens share the aforementioned features, but are from 75% Iberian pig breeds. Finally, the term Selección refers to quality grade hams and shoulders that "have been fattened on the pasturelands and processed in the unique microclimatic conditions of the towns and villages of the Sierra de Huelva". Each piece bears a seal and a band showing the vintage year, quality grade and protective identification code, as well as the ham maker’s labeling. According to José Antonio Pavón, an average of some 100,000 hams and shoulder pieces (made by a total of forty companies) are protected each year by the PDO and represent a market value exceeding twenty million euros.
José Antonio Pavón adds that, "The formats for PDO Jabugo products are whole pieces, boneless, portions and sliced. We clearly can’t demand that everyone be professionals at carving ham by hand, but we can inform them about the best ways to enjoy it. In any case, the appropriate control and traceability systems have been developed to ensure that consumers anywhere in the world can taste the products in the format of their choice. The truly thrilling thing is that we don’t know what the formats of the future might be, but we're convinced of the need to keep researching ways to adapt to new types of consumption".
Attracting international palates
These newer formats can be particularly important in terms of export. In fact, sliced ham is currently the most popular product in international markets. According to Pavón, ham has always been exported from this region, even before it became a Protected Denomination of Origin, and "Consumers of PDO Jabugo ham represent different cultures and countries". International consumption represents around 10% of the total, with principal markets including other Mediterranean countries like France and Italy, and some farther afield, like Japan.
Gourmet stores in places like London, Milan and Hong Kong play an important role in international sales, as does its promotion and use by famed Spanish chefs like Juan Mari Arzak, Ferran Adrià and Carme Ruscalleda. Pavón also points out that, "A significant part of consumption in Spain is by foreign visitors." Of course PDO Jabugo ham is no stranger to international gastronomes either, with chefs like Éric Fréchon of three-Michelin-star restaurant Épicure singing its praises at a spring 2016 event in Paris.
Another way that both Spanish and international consumers can appreciate and learn more about this ham-producing region is through the Ruta de Jabugo (Jabugo Route), a recent initiative that invites people to get a first-hand look at the origins of these treasured products. As Pavón states, "A slice of Jabugo has been the flag and ambassador of a privileged region throughout the world. Consumers tasted this product, unaware that it came from a very specific place on the planet. The project to launch PDO Jabugo is an opportunity to link this gastronomic product with its source, and vice versa. This was the reason behind the development of the Ruta de Jabugo, with its dehesas, curing houses, bodegas, restaurants, accommodations, experiences museums, organoleptic tastings, events – all created to cater to all those people who feel attracted to the idea of seeing where and how Jabugo ham is made."
Since the mid 1990s, the Regulatory Board of Protected Denomination of Origin Jamón de Huelva has been certifying the quality of the cured Ibérico Spanish hams made in thirty-one towns in the Sierra de Aracena mountains and Picos de Aroche Natural Park. The most significant of these are Aracena, Aroche, Corteconcepción, Cortegana, Cumbres Mayores, Jabugo and Santa Olalla del Cala