Toano, VA (Vocus) February 10, 2009
Less than a year after the first shipments of the prized Iberico de Bellota Pata Negra arrived in the USA, the culmination of a ten-year effort to import Spain's iconic gourmet ham, a recent USDA ruling means that all future shipments will arrive 'pata negra sin pata' – without the telltale black hoof. In addition, a new 100% duty on all bone-in hams from Europe means that any Spanish hams imported after March 2009 will cost twice as much.
Carving a Pata Negra with the hoof attached is emblematic of traditional Spanish hospitality. The black hoof is an important element in the presentation of the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, and a guarantee of its authenticity.
"It's a double whammy", La Tienda owner Don Harris groaned, "First, I don't think the officials are aware of the profound cultural implications of what they are doing – you might say they're ham fisted! Second, after the bureaucrats significantly devalued the pata negra's presentation, the politicians stepped in to double the price by slapping on a punitive 100% tariff." Once the last hams with hoofs are sold, no more hoof-on Pata Negra Jamón Ibérico hams will reach the American market.
Last year, the American culinary world was set astir by the arrival of the first Jamón Ibérico to the American shores. Perhaps the finest of all hams, Iberico Bellota Pata Negra retails for about $1400 per ham. The ham is so prized that several hundred aficionados placed $199 deposits and waited up to seven years to secure the rights to purchase one of the hams from LaTienda.com as soon as they were available.
Now, in a strange turn of events, a change in the USDA ruling requires the hooves to be removed from all whole hams imported to the USA, beginning in January 2009.
The fabled Iberico de Bellota hams are from pigs of an ancient breed, Cerdo Ibérico, which graze free-range in forest meadows and gorge on acorns, giving the hams a unique taste and healthy fat similar to olive oil. This venerable breed is differentiated from the garden variety pink pig by the color of their hoofs, which are normally coal black. For this reason, they have been traditionally referred to as "Pata Negra," or "black hoof."
There was a scandal in Madrid 9 or 10 years ago when a company was caught painting the hooves on its white Serrano hams black in order to pass them off as the far more valuable Iberico Pata Negra. Apparently, some of the paint finally rubbed off on an unsuspecting shopper and there was public outrage.
The newspapers followed the story, chronicling the plight of the duped ham lovers and the evil doers who had sold them a faux Ibérico ham with a painted hoof. The government finally intervened, and the populace was calmed. Even today, you can spot the occasional ham shopper in Spain rubbing the hoof to make sure that its color is natural.
After January, the Iberico hams imported into the United States will be identical in quality, but without the hoof. Producer Embutidos & Jamones Fermín of La Alberca, Spain is concerned about the fall out from being required to remove the hoofs. Owner Santiago Martín addressed his distributors saying, "We hope this new development does not raise suspicion from our customers. We would like to reassure them and guarantee that Fermín Ibérico ham is 100% from the Ibérico breed. in spite of the lack of hooves, the hams are truly the Ibérico breed, or Pata Negra, and we guarantee this unequivocally."
LaTienda.com, a family-owned gourmet Spanish food importer and online retailer based in Williamsburg, VA, was the first to bring Jamón Serrano to homes across the United States in 1997, and the first to retail Jamón Iberico in the USA.