About 400 people gathered in the Spanish town of Jabugo's Plaza of Ham for a gala dinner. They ate outdoors beneath an almost full moon, as candles flickered on tables draped with heavy cloths, flamenco guitars thrummed in the background, and liveried waiters served plates of seared tuna and beef tenderloin. But for all that elegance, no one stayed seated for long. Along the edges of the plaza, a dozen of the country's most renowned ham cutters (yes, there is such a thing) carved off glistening slices of jamón ibérico ibérico ham. And even in these troubled times for pigs, the attendees at the fifth World Congress of Cured Ham, which ended on May 8, found the ruby meat an irresistible draw.
"No, I'm not worried about it," said champion carver José Angel Muãoz, as he served up one plate after another of paper-thin slices to a never-ending line of guests. "These people know ham better than anyone in the world. And you don't see them holding back." (See pictures of Spain's tomato festival.)
The 'it' he was referring to is, of course, swine flu. According to the World Health Organization, the number of people infected worldwide stands, as of Monday morning, at 4,694, of which 95 cases have occurred in Spain. And some evidence seems to point to a factory pig farm in La Gloria, Mexico, as a possible source for the virus. But among the scientists, producers, regulators and distributors who had gathered in Aracena, just down the road from Jabugo, to network and listen to scientists discussing the latest innovations in pig breeding and ham raising, no one was willing to admit concern about what the future might hold for their prized product.
After all, jamón holds possibly the top spot on Spain's culinary ladder. There are lesser versions, but the most highly esteemed is made from an indigenous breed of pig called the ibérico. During the last months of their lives, the pigs are allowed to roam freely over a landscape known as the dehesa, feasting on nothing but grass and acorns. The resulting hams, which are dry cured for an average of two years, boast a rich, full-flavored meat that is simultaneously sweet and salty, nutty and grassy. In Jabugo and nearby Aracena, two towns renowned for producing some of the best ham in Spain, a good ibérico ham sells for around $540. (See pictures of what the world eats.)
Which may help explain why officials opened the congress with a manifesto that called on national and international authorities to "avoid adopting measures that unnecessarily hurt the pork sector." (Needless to say, the statement referred to the virus as H1N1, not swine flu.) A few days earlier, Russia had banned the import of Spanish pork products in response to the relatively high number of swine flu cases in Spain. For Anatoly Gendin, a reporter covering the conference for a Moscow-based culinary magazine, the ban is simply a measure of caution. "It's not always easy to explain the fine details [of the virus' spread] to the whole population," he said. "So they did this to be on the safe side." (See pictures of swine flu hitting Mexico.)
But not everyone sees it that way. Fernando Justo, who works for an organization that certifies the Portuguese pigs of Presunto de Barrancos, hinted darkly at the "economic interests" behind the Russian ban, by which, one imagines, he can only mean a sort of ham protectionism. Taking advantage of a break in the proceedings to snack on a ham sandwich, he said: "People who are less educated will give it up at first. But that will pass."
Indeed, congress participants across the board saw little cause for concern. "There's no reason to worry," said Manuel Mayner, whose company, Sepinum, is working with the Spanish government to launch a Ham Route which will guide tourists past some of the country's best ham-producing farms. "We've had hysteria surrounding influenzas before and nothing happened. We'll survive this one too." Even restaurant critic José Carlos Capel, who sparked the conference's biggest controversy when he lambasted the ham industry for its lack of transparency, is sure nothing will displace the product's primacy: "We had mad cow several years ago, and people stopped eating beef. Then we had those Belgian chickens with dioxin, and people stopped eating poultry for a while. But now, no one remembers either of them."
Instead, conference participants focused on more pressing concerns, like the benefits of phytate levels in the acorns the pigs eat, or how to promote ibérico ham abroad. But more than anything, they basked in the glory of their own product. American journalist Peter Kaminsky drew comparisons between the Spanish reverence for jamón and the American love for barbeque. Appreciative murmurs ran through the auditorium when food writer José Oneto showed slides of classic dishes made with ham. And Carlos Infantes, of the European Institute for the Mediterranean Diet, got understanding laughs when, in a talk about the role of jamón in that diet, he noted, "I can't remember my mother nursing me, but I remember my grandfather slicing jamón." (See pictures of the perfect steak.)
Which is not to say that the conference was all talk. In fact, it was hard to ignore the glee with which attendees set upon the nearly endless plates of ham. Not just at the gala dinner on Thursday night, but at daily morning breaks for ham sandwiches, and at the closing lunch, held on the dehesa, where the jamón ran as freely as the wine no one, it seemed, tired of eating the stuff. Standing beneath a cork tree, Piero Sardo, president of the anti-fast food organization Slow Food, reached for yet another slice. "Delicious," he said.