The Spanish ham that’s proving a hit with Hollywood

A small producer from Salamanca is a favorite with Mark Zuckerberg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Gloria Estefan, not to mention the resident of the White House

Ham legs being cured at Embutidos Fermín.
Ham legs being cured at Embutidos Fermín.Phil Mansfield

In Hollywood, its fans include Mark Zuckerberg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Gloria Estefan; in Washington DC, it takes pride of place at the President’s table after receiving a vote of confidence during Barack Obama’s election campaign. Yes, we are talking about Spanish ham – not just any ham but the Ibérico acorn-fed ham produced by Embutidos Fermín, an artisanal family business in La Alberca, in the province of Salamanca.

 The company made headlines in 2005 when it pioneered the export of Ibérico ham to America after being accredited by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) at a time when there was still no bilateral agreement to export meat from animals slaughtered in Spain.

 Now the famous and not-so famous can get a taste of Ibérico ham stateside from Fermin USA – a branch of the original Salamanca firm - or they can order it in restaurants owned by Spanish chef José Andrés, one of the most influential figures in American society and a partner in Fermin USA.

Our presence in America has also opened up markets in Canada, Singapore and Australia, where there is little direct competition

Santiago Martín, Embutidos Fermín

 Andrés, whose eateries have expanded into an empire, discovered Fermin’s Iberico ham at a Spanish Embassy event in Washington DC.

 “José Andrés told me he wanted an Ibérico acorn-fed ham on his menu because he considered it the Rolls-Royce of cuisine; my products are now recognized in the US thanks to him,” says Santiago Martín, director and co-owner of Embutidos Fermín. “He is friendly with the chefs at the White House and the celebrities who come to his restaurants.”

 Red-carpet recognition

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 The brand aims to open its first delicatessen in New York this year.

 To date, the US Specialty Food Association has awarded Fermin products with four Gold SOFI awards. “They are the Oscars of the food world,” says Martín. “The Association gives awards to food and drink products from all over the world. It is quite an achievement that a small family business such as ours, based in La Alberca, should be awarded four of them. We are the only Spanish ham producers with the accolade. We also have two FABI awards from America’s National Restaurant Association, one European Business award and various Spanish endorsements.”

 The company’s annual turnover of €8 million derives from products made from black pigs of the Ibérico breed, known popularly as “Pata Negra” (literally, black leg), which produce the best-quality meats. Three quarters of revenues come from sales of “Ibérico de cebo” ham, made from pigs that are grain-fed, and “Ibérico de bellota” ham, from pigs which are acorn-fed toward the end of their lives. Both kinds of meat are cured between three and four years. Fermin exports 90% of its ham and its Ibérico products can be found in delis and select restaurants in more than 20 countries.

Over 10 years knocking on the same door

Embutidos Fermín first asked for permission from the USDA to export to America in 1995. At that point, no Spanish slaughterhouse had USDA certification – Spanish Serrano ham had been exported to America since 1997, but it came from pigs slaughtered in abattoirs in accredited countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.

For the next 10 years, inspectors from the US Department of Agriculture examined the Embutidos Fermín slaughterhouse and all its facilities with a magnifying glass before issuing a license.

During the process, the company invested €13 million in infrastructure, even though its plant already complied with Spanish regulations and was certified for export to Japan since 2000.

Today, Embutidos Fermín is the only Spanish ham company with direct accreditation from the US government, though a subsequent bilateral agreement, signed by Spain and the US, means the Spanish government has been able to accredit export companies itself.

 As much as 80% of the company’s sales are in the US, which is why New York has been chosen for its first retail outlet. “It will be located in one of the luxury malls in the city,” says Martín. “We will open this year and it will be a pilot project for other countries. Prices in the shop will be more accessible – by the time my products are distributed to 42 US states, the price has been tripled. An entire leg of ham sells in stores for an average €750.”

 A trained doctor, Santiago Martín took over the family business on the death of its founder and set about going global. “To sell oil or wine in America, you need to position the brand, but I had to actually create demand for Ibérico products from scratch because they were new to Americans,” he says. “They eat Parma ham, known there as cured ham, and they equate that with Spanish Serrano ham [made from non-Ibérico pigs and cured for just one year]. I had to prove that neither of these products was comparable to our Ibérico ham from Pata Negra pigs.”

 Even today, the ICEX – the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade – speaks about the need to differentiate between Serrano ham and Ibérico ham, and recommends educating consumers on the superior quality of the Ibérico ham, which they describe as “the best cured meat in the world, produced from the finest pigs”.

 Meanwhile, Cinco Jotas, Embutidos Fermin’s competitors who have been using Fermin’s infrastructure since 2008 to export to the US, credits the company with opening doors to new business opportunities for Ibérico products in a market of more than 300 million people.

 Room for manoeuver

 COVAP – the livestock Cooperative of Valle de los Pedroches – is another company producing Ibérico products and it also has a certified meat processing center that has been selling to the US since 2010. Aljomar and Marcos Salamanca arrived on the US scene later, and other producers are working on accreditation. But there’s still room for growth; cured ham is becoming increasingly popular in America and the market is worth almost €158 million, with more than half of sales coming from imported meat, above all from Italy.

Head start

 Undoubtedly, getting established in America five years before their competitors has given Embutidos Fermín a competitive edge. “We sell around 30,000 hams and 45,000 Ibérico products a year in the US and we could multiply that by 10,” says Martín, who also mentions China as one of the company’s biggest growing markets.

“Our presence in America has also opened up markets in Canada, Singapore and Australia, where there is little direct competition. We poured our energy into those countries when the price of Ibérico products fell in Spain by half during the crisis.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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