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Dec 05 2019

China Develops A Taste For Iberian Ham

A new trade agreement has allowed Spanish ham on the bone to be exported to China, feeding a huge appetite for premim-quality jamón in the People’s Republic.

Ibérico ham from Spain. @ICEX.

Chinese cuisine has been heavily pork-centric since prehistoric times. Archaeological digs at the fabled Zengpiyan Cave have found remains to prove that pigs were domesticated, roasted, and eaten around cooking fires amid the saw-toothed mountains of Guangxi Province some 10,000 years ago. Today, China has the world’s largest swine population (estimated at more than 700 million), and pork accounts for 70% of all meat consumed across that vast landmass.

Spanish Iberian ham, however – premium cured shoulder and leg ham cut from the bone – is an entirely new concept, and a new taste, in the modern People’s Republic. So new, in fact, that it was formally introduced only this month at the International Import Export Forum in Shanghai, after more than a decade of commercial lobbying and government-level negotiation. That process was “very complex”, says María Naranjo Crespo, who is Food, Wine and Gastronomy director of the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX). To access the Chinese market, each nation has to make its own bilateral petition on a product-by-product basis.

In the case of ham on the bone, this involved detailed agreements on quality inspections and verifiable limits on the minimum curing period (now established as 313 days). Co-signed in Madrid by Prime Minister Sánchez and President Xi Jinpeng during the latter’s visit to Spain in 2018, the resulting “Protocol for Pig Meat Between Spain and China” has finally led to the first such exports in this last quarter of 2019. (Pork loin and sausage are also covered by this protocol, while other meats like lamb and beef are still under negotiation.)

Ibérico ham from Spain. @ICEX.

The reputation of Iberian acorn-fed bellota ham preceded its arrival at exhibition stands in Shanghai. That meat “is perceived as a luxury product in China,” says Crespo, “especially appreciated by an increasingly powerful upper middle class across the country.” Those consumers, she continues, are particularly interested in the precise and almost ritualistic way that Ibérico and Serrano are shaved off the bone, the element of “show or art that surrounds the world of Spanish ham, which provides a focus of attraction and added value.”

That aesthetic element is in fact so foreign to Chinese experience that the export process carries with it the obligation to train both servers and consumers in exactly how this meat should be served to maximum effect. “We have enormous work to carry out with the catering sector,” says Crespo, “but there is a total predisposition to adopt this product into the local diet.”

Above and beyond the aspirational appeal of buying an exquisitely presented cut of high-grade Spanish ham is the simple fact that it tastes like nothing else, even in a country so naturally and traditionally accustomed to other forms of pork. According to María Castro, communications director of the premium brand Cinco Jotas, thousands of years of gastronomic culture have given the Chinese “a very refined palate and a true passion for food.”

Ibérico ham from Spain. @ICEX.

Their country’s present, robust economy and expanding market for luxury comestibles has led them to demand Cinco Jotas ham in particular, “in the same way that they demand the best wines, caviar, truffles, oysters”. The growth of Chinese tourism has helped build awareness of the brand itself as Spain’s leading purveyor of 100% Iberian acorn-fed ham, raised in the mountain pastures of Jabungo and cured by artisans in cellars that date back almost 150 years.

But buyers only become true consumers once they’ve actually tried it. The particular flavour of Cinco Jotas product may be nuttier, sweeter, and more complex than most local hams, notes Castro, but also shows the clear presence of that fifth “umami” taste associated with the most agreeable savoury foods. “It adapts completely to the Chinese palate,” she says. Industry professionals and home-cooking enthusiasts “quickly recognise its quality and potential, and have true creativity when it comes to incorporating it into traditional recipes.”

Cinco Jotas has been at the cutting edge, so to speak, of efforts to export and promote Spanish ham on the bone in China – developing partnerships with high-profile clients like Mr & Mrs Bund, and working with prestigious Hangzhou chefs Yu Bin (of the Relais & Chateaux Seven Villas Resort) and Wang Yong (of the Four Seasons Hotel at Jinsha Hall). But the new protocol allows for other suppliers to carve out their share of the market too. 

Carlos Marquina, regional director for Castro y González, says the challenge now is to widen that market beyond the big cities and their flashy entry points, and move “little by little into the really Chinese channels, which we know are an important future business opportunity.” That future will see a push for pork loin and other Spanish pig meat products, but for now, says Marquina, consumers in China are very clear about what they cannot get enough of: “that sweet taste from the fat of the acorn ham”.

Looking ahead another 10,000 years, perhaps the archaeologists of some distant epoch will dig up one of those customised ham-holders on which legs of jamón ibérico are locked in place, and wonder how the delicious pigs of Spain’s dehesa became so beloved in the Far East. 

Text: Stephen Phelan



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