Jaime Pastor

Jaime Pastor

Japan is just beginning to discover the delights of Iberico ham, says the Asia rep of a renowned Spanish food company


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2009

photo by Chris Betros

Photo by Chris Betros

The most revered ham in the world, jamón Ibérico, comes from a very distinctive animal. Iberian pigs are bred only in Spain, grow to an enormous size, and have developed a genetic abnormality that allows them to store large fatty deposits. This is what accounts for the characteristic white streaks that give the ham its prized marbled texture and aroma.

One of the leading producers of 100 percent Iberico ham is Sanchez Romero Carvajal, whose 130-year history makes it the oldest such company in Spain. According to area manager Jaime Pastor, the Cinco Jotas (5J) brand of ham is a particularly sought-after product. Based in Beijing, Pastor is a regular visitor to Tokyo, but he also looks after China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Australia for Sanchez Romero and its parent company, Grupo Osborne.

In Japan, Pastor works with his local distributor to contact clients and organize events. “We sell the leg and shoulder to high-end supermarkets in vacuum packs and high-end restaurants such as Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse,” he says. “Whenever I am in Japan, I introduce myself to chefs and attend hotel events and food exhibits. Earlier this year, the Four Seasons Hotel in Marunouchi hosted ‘Art of the New Spanish Cuisine,’ where eight or ten Spanish chefs came to Tokyo. Jamón was an important product, so we participated. Everything is about networking.”

Availability of Iberico ham is limited because there are only about 350,000 of the pigs in Spain, according to Pastor. “Each year, we kill around 110,000. Overall, our international business is less than 8 percent of the total output, the rest being in Spain. Our goal is to be in the best places all around the world.”

So what makes Iberico ham the best? First of all, the breed of black pig is unique to the Iberian peninsula. The animals are also only fed bellota (acorns), and all of the meat is hand-sliced.
This last point is an important factor, explains Pastor, who was born in Madrid and worked in banking and consulting in Spain and China before joining Sanchez Romero Carvajal a year ago.

Courtesy of Sanchez Romero

Courtesy of Sanchez Romero

“We don’t use machines, because machines would burn the fat. We have eight people in a special room, dressed as if they were aliens, cutting jamón the whole day. If you don’t cut it properly, it won’t taste the same. It has to be a thin, translucent slice.”

Iberico ham is also healthy because it produces “good” cholesterol—in fact, the pigs have so much oleic acid in their system that they’re often called “olive trees with legs.” Pastor recommends eating the ham with bread, tomato and olive oil, along with sherry or wine.

Pastor said he still has a lot of work to do educating Asian consumers. “When I joined the company, I studied a lot and I went to the factory in Jabugo, Spain, for a week to see the process and take carving lessons,” he says. One point he emphasized is that amid the recent swine flu fears, Iberico ham products are “100 percent safe.” It takes an average of 36 months for the jamón to be cured.

Being a regular visitor to Tokyo, Pastor has found some pretty good Spanish restaurants, including Sant Pau in Nihombashi (www.santpau.jp), Ogasawara in Jingumae (www.ogasawaratei.com), El Castellano in Shibuya (03-3407-7197) and La Taperia in Yotsuya-Sanchome (03-3353-8003). He’s also pleased to see that the locals are leaning more and more about Spanish food products. “Many Japanese used to just think of bullfighting and football when they thought of Spain. Now they know about our wine, olive oil and ham.”

Chris Betros is the editor of Japan Today (www.japantoday.com).