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The Pata Negra Is Going Extinct

Posted December 05, 2008

The last of the hoofed hams - the pata negra is going extinct in North America.

As fellow Jamón enthusiasts, we wanted to share with you some alarming news. As of November 2008, the USDA has outlawed the importation of cured hams with the hooves attached. La Tienda, of course, immediately bought all the remaining stock. We did not want to be caught flat hoofed.

Those outside of our group of ham lovers might laugh this off or even feel secretly relieved that the hoof will no longer adorn that ham on the table that Uncle Santiago
always brings to Christmas dinner. However, the hoof is where it's at. And a little black hair too, if possible.

Ah, the pata negra: its black hoof acknowledging for its audience the provenance and the breed of the world's best ham, the Ibérico de Bellota. Nourished on acorns and wild herbs as it roams the medieval oak forest of the dehesa, the Ibérico pig, with its ebony hooves and solid black body, exercises the rich fats from the acorns deep inside its muscles. 

This marbling allows the hams that go to cure to age for much longer than the normal 12-24 months of a Serrano or Parma ham. The largest and best of these hams are aged 4 or 5 years, sometimes even longer, as the flavor gains in complexity each season. The hams go through an extraordinary transformation that results in a thin wafer of ham truly without par in the world of fine food.

Letting the pigs roam around eating acorns for two years costs money. So does holding a ham in inventory for five years while it cures. Thus, many out there are tempted to sneak a cheaper ham off as Ibérico. There was a scandal in Madrid 9 or 10 years ago where a company was caught painting the hooves on its white Serrano hams black. However, I guess 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 pretend Ibérico ham with a painted hoof. The government finally intervened, and the populace was calmed. Even so, our friend Hans told us that even today you can spot the occasional hoof rubber, closely inspecting a white cloth to make sure that the hoof is a natural hue. We've all heard of lipstick and pigs but mascara? 

As you can tell, we are big fans of the Pata Negra and we worked very hard for years to bring this ham to the United States. Now the US Government has decided to force us to cut the black hooves off the black hoofed ham. You can imagine how we feel. 

Should we cut the hooves off here in the United States to make sure we are not getting snookered? Alternatively, do we trust that our vendors in Spain will not be tempted to try the old bait and switch? You can of course test the meat for oleic acid, but which or our customers has a spare oleic acid testing kit lying around?

Cutting the hoof off a pata negra ham is like...hmm, let me think...taking the feathers from Indians? No. How about removing the horns from a long horned steer? Maybe. It's just wrong - a bad thing to do, it disturbs cosmic balance. It's bad for humanity, bad for food lovers and insulting for black pigs.

La Tienda of course bought all the remaining stock, which unfortunately amounted to only 175 hams. We still are slicing a few Bellota paletas in order to serve our more restrained pata negra aficionados.)

Could it be that this paltry number are the last black hoofed hams to be allowed in the USA in our lifetime? Or, will King Juan Carlos flex a little muscle to change the minds of the fearful USDA? – Maybe another foray with the Armada, with better results! Are they afraid someone will eat the hoof? Are they worried the uber American vacuum packaging (not required by law) will rot the foot?

So what can you do? 

Well, you could start by squirreling away an authentic pata negra ham, only sharing it with your most trusted friends -- like a dusty bottle of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild. Then you can sign a petition, requesting that the USDA lift this unnecessary and benighted rule. After that, you can tell your friends and get them fired up – maybe we can all march to Washington to protest this outrage, just as brethren did in Madrid when their smudged hands belied a painted hoof on their prized ham.

Save the Pata Negra. Long live the hoof.