Spain’s Premier Pig Continues to Entice American Foodies
Author: Paula Farmer/©ICEX
Move over Rafael Nadal and Penelope Cruz, Spain’s best export to the U.S. is now a chubby, hairy fellow with a big snout. As of a few short years ago the much anticipated Iberico jamon de Bellota made its way states side to the delight of foodies and Spanish transplants alike and the love affair continues. A descendent of the wild boar, that had its history in the forests of the Mediterranean shoreline, the Iberico pig continues to roam free and feasts on acorns. This is the last free ranging and grazing pig in all of Europe and they are exclusive to the ecosystem in the southwestern Iberian Penninsula. As a result, the pig’s meat bi-products are distinctly, delicious and very desirable. The fat is the perfect blend of mild sweetness with a nutty flavor. Until Fermin USA/Jose Andres’ Think Food Group began importing the pork, it was something Americans could only dream about or experience when traveling to Spain.
Getting the highly sought after and desirable dry cured ham is the result of a long, tedious 10-year importation process and reflective of Andres’ and Fermin CEO/President Santiago Martin’s commitment to promote Spanish products in the U.S. Martin remembers vividly the details of the battle. “When FERMIN first started working on the US approval, nobody was able to meet the USDA standards. There was not experience with working with such high quality standards, and the Spanish inspectors were not used to work under USDA rule. It was a huge challenge and also supposed an enormous change of mentality. FERMIN started working on this project in 1995 and gained the approval in 2005. It was a learning process for everybody: FERMIN, the Spanish Ministry, etc.,” Martin reflects.
For however long it took and for however great the effort to get ham to American soil, it seems to have been worth it, from a standpoint of taste and financially. Besides Andres’ Jaleo restaurants in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, Iberico de bellota is on the menu of several fine dining, multi-starred restaurants throughout the U.S. Not least among them is New York’s Picholine, Per Se and Tia Pol. On the West Coast, the list continues to impress, with French Laundry in Napa, California, Cube in L.A. and Truffle Market in Las Vegas, to name just a few. With such stellar clients, it’s no surprise that this gem among pork comes at a price. It generally retails for $180 to $200 per pound. Fermin’s Martin explains the exclusivity and preparation factor in to the pricing. “We´re talking about a very limited animal (only found out on the western region of Spain), so the animal and its breeding and feeding are expensive. Then, we need to cure the ham for over 2 years, in a very traditional and natural way- FERMIN does natural curing
Products from Spain in America’s Largest Cheese PurveyorSpanish Cheeses and specialty foods gain popularity at New York’s Murray’s store
Author: Paula Farmer/©ICEX
In addition to being a landmark of New York’s West Village and one of the City’s top destinations for 71 years, Murray’s Cheese store is the leading purveyor of cheese in the U.S. and maintains legendary status worldwide. With such a reputation one might expect a grand physical presence and an over abundance of staff. Instead, the cheese icon is seemingly small and unassuming, maintaining a quiet, yet welcoming persona nestled among other eateries of the residential neighborhood downtown.
Once drawn in past the trademark red and yellow entrance, one is captivated by how much is going on in what appears to be a relatively small space that is deceptively expansive, with its main floor retail service center, an upper level dedicated to classrooms and catering, and a lower level housing cheese caves. The Murray’s ambiance is enticing and infectious with friendly and knowledgeable staffers who hustle to keep up with the customer demands and tourist photo ops as early as 10:00 a.m. and the eye-popping beauty of mounds of cheese and specialty food products that are displayed creatively throughout.
As impressive as Murray’s is as a shopping spree or tour site, it’s even more amazing as a wholesale business, with its reach way beyond West Village NYC. The Murray’s you don’t see that makes cheesemakers worldwide long for it to liason between their product and customers. With 500 wholesale clients and thousands of mail order customers, Murray’s is a world onto itself accurately reflecting the diversity that is food globalization , in the best sense of the term. A good portion of their vast cheese inventory is from Europe, long known for pioneering the art of cheese making. To date, over 100 cheeses of the Murray’s inventory come from Europe, with Spanish cheeses maintaining a respectable portion of the European product line.
Core to Murray’s success are the long-standing relationships that owner, Rob Kaufelt, has developed with cheesemakers overseas. Although Murray’s works with various importers for their cheeses from Europe, Kaufelt was instrumental in igniting the European connection and collection and is a personal enthusiast of their cheeses and other food products from Spain. He also encourages staff to partake in on-site visits to Spanish producers. “Our staff has visited many producers in recent years and always receives a warm reception. We’ve visited the farms and production facilities of Manchego, Drunken Goat, La Serena, Leonara and Valdeon,” Kaufelt explains. “On a recent trip to visit manchego producers, our impressions were that their focus is on technology as well as health and safety practices in cheese. They are working to build larger farms without compromising their quality.”
As a result, Murray’s has amassed an impressive showing of cheese from Spain as part of their overall inventory. Included are more well known examples such as Manchego, Drunken Goat and Mahon. But Kaufelt and Murray’s are not just about the crowd pleasers, so they bring in and promote just as delicious lesser known Spanish cheeses in the U.S. Kaufelt explains that among them are “cheeses such as Garrotx, which is a wonderfully moist and cakey aged goat cheese that sports a suede jacket of grey mold. Belying these rugged looks are lingering flavors of white pepper and damp wood, thanks to cave-aged origins.” Rob goes on to describe another personal and staff favorite called Idiazabal, a cheese made with the raw milk of Laxta and Carranza sheep. “Idiazabal is lightly pressed and aged for 2-10 months resulting in a buttery mouth-feel and an intriguing gamy character,” Kaufelt details.
King of Spanish cheese in America is, without a doubt, Manchego, a pasteurized sheep milk cheese. This classic cheese from La Mancha is a crowd pleaser for American audiences as it is the top selling Spanish cheese in the U.S. and at Murray’s. For this and other reasons, the store offers young versions of it as well as aged. While Kaufelt and his staff are thrilled that Manchego, with its signature thick and waxed rind, is single-handedly responsible for ushering in interest in cheeses from Spain, they know it’s just one of many. “I’m glad that so many of our customers now recognize and enjoy Manchego, but it’s important that they learn that it’s not the only thing that Spain has to offer,” declares Murray’s marketing director Deena Siegelbaum.
Manchego is traditionally paired with sticky membrillo, better known as quince paste, and Crianza level Rioja wine. While Murray’s does not sell the Rioja wine, they are well stocked in the paste, along with other specialty food items of Spain. While perusing the Spanish cheese section, one can have samples of Marcona Almonds. These nuts that are fried in sunflower oil and sprinkled with sea salt are sweeter than California almonds and are habit forming. Not far away from the almonds (and not for sampling) are the Apricot Bars- chewy treats made by four brothers in Valencia, Spain.
It’s no surprise that while Manchego and other cheeses from Spain are gaining popularity among Murray’s retail customers, the products are garnering a larger wholesale client base as well. Rob admits that part of that growth may be attributed to the recent surge in popularity of tapas and wine bars in New York and the U.S. It wasn’t that long ago that Murray’s had only a handful of restaurant clients overall, and only a select few among them served a separate cheese course. Now Murray’s boasts a restaurant client base of over 75 just in New York, with many of them including Spanish cheeses among their selections.
Let’s not forget though that Murray’s is a full service cheese Mecca, including not only retail and wholesale sales and in store storage, but also cheese education. As such, Spanish cheeses are often featured as part of their classes, especially when it comes to cheese and wine pairings. Rob shares some of his thoughts on recent pairings as delivered to students of the Murray’s classroom. “We say, what grows together goes together, so we love to pair Spanish cheeses and wines.” He continues with an obviously well thought out list of pairings promoted in class recently:
In addition to the general cheese and wine pairing classes, typically once a month there is a Spanish cheese and wine class offered to customers. “Harmony of Wine and Cheese: Viva Espana!” is a favorite class that often sells out. In it, attendees get a oenophillic tour of Spanish wines and cheeses with Spanish wine expert and owner of Tinto Fino, Kerin Auth, and cheese educator Waldemar Albrecht.
Whether a cheese student, cheese customer and afficionado, a restauranteur, or just a lover of cheese, Murray’s is not to be missed. For someone with a Spanish specific palette, the appreciation intensifies as Rob and company continue to procure cheese specimens and other specialty products from Spain. The results are a diverse range from the common traditional, to the hard-to-get and obscure. Immersed throughout the process is an undeniable passion that drives Rob and his staff to seek out, educate and cultivate. Murray’s knows cheese and Spain knows Murray’s.
For Murray’s Spanish cheese selection information or to place an order, go to