But is that acorn-fed Iberian black pig or shoe leather you’re chomping?

Black Iberians ranging free-ish, Sierra de Aracena, Andalusia, Spain.

Black Iberians ranging free-ish, Sierra de Aracena, Andalusia, Spain. Image: Stijn Nieuwendijk.

Christmas time is ham time. It’s also a time when, knowing that some of you may have had one or two bottles too many, some tapas bars and restaurants will flog you cheap ham as something rather better – cat for hare, as the Spanish say. In the run up to Christmas last year the Andalusian agriculture councillor announced that there was twice as much local jamón ibérico product on sale as there was local production, and that she had just seized 17 tonnes of fakes. (There was a lovely cartoon in El Jueves: a civil servant asks whether an Iberian pig has four legs; yes, says his colleague; we’re producing for eight, says the first.) Massive shipments of similar-looking product from far cheaper markets like Hungary, certificated where appropriate by corrupt Protected Geographical Status administrators, provided high-status dainties for all at lower prices than you would have expected given factors like the construction bubble and the shortage of reliable and affordable swineherds.

Various techniques have been used to try to halt this and similar fatty frauds (check the Olive Oil Gazette re the resale of cheap oils as mamma‘s favourite Italian premium brand). Chemical approaches – chromatography was the classic – looked for typical compounds, but evasion was pretty simple. Physical methods – infrared spectroscopy is popular (check this wonderful article about the application of artificial neural networks to pig carcase analysis) – will presumably also be defeated at some stage, given that acorn-fed ham from Iberian black pigs can go for 6-7 times as much as Spanish-produced, white pig jamón serrano. And you’re quite unlikely to be carrying an appropriate hand-held spectrometers as you head down Barcelona’s Ramblas. Finally, as far as I know, despite DO regulations specifying admissible racial mixes (here are the Extremaduran rules) and vague EU noises about traceability, the first DNA-certified ham was only marketed in 2010 – a Maldonado “Albarracena” at €1,500, and if you manage to acquire one then do let me show you how to cut it.

So the best advice is probably not to pay good money for something that looks crap, and not to give up if you get fed a couple of duds along the way. If that doesn’t sound like particularly good news for you, then there may at least be a brighter future in store for your snack. While the Maldonado super-porkers had up to 10 hectares of dehesa each, the Royal Decree 1469/2007 approving quality standards for Iberian pig meat, ham, palette and loin determines that you can cram two pigs into each hectare, and that this will ensure access for all to the tree-full of acorns required on average to generate each extra kilo of flesh. However, a splendid recent article by Vicente Rodríguez-Estévez, Manuel Sánchez-Rodríguez, Antón García and A. Gustavo Gómez-Castro, Feed conversion rate and estimated energy balance of free grazing Iberian pigs, makes a convincing case that each pig should get a double that – one hectare – rather as every Englishman has his metaphorical castle.

Want to cure your own pig, or export phoney Chinese meat products to Shanghai? The FAO has some fascinating general info.

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