«Only salt and meat - and nothing else.» That is the assertion of Malaga-based Czech jamón seller Lukas Benes, proud of the high-quality ham he began distributing internationally in 2011.
Born in Sokolov in what was then Czechoslovakia, Benes, 41, comes from an entrepreneurial background (his family had a printshop) and he studied business at university. He initially came to Spain with his wife while she was completing an Erasmus placement in Barcelona. Here, he was something of a pioneer remote worker, combining his position as a European Union subsidies consultant with overseeing the family business, all from the comfort of his home in Barcelona. He comments: «We liked the Spanish lifestyle more than the Czech one and so, after a year back in Prague, we moved to Granada in 2011.»
That same year, a Czech friend asked him for a new business suggestion. Although Lukas remarks: «I had only first tried jamón about a week earlier», it clearly left an impression. It gave him a simple idea- to sell jamón sourced from Spain to people in their homeland. He immersed himself into the world of jamón, commenting: «I also became a professional 'cortador', which means I'm an expert in slicing the ham. I've done this at many important events, even one attended by [former Atlético Madrid footballer] Tomáš Ujfaluši.»
While the business was initially a side project to his other roles, it quickly grew in popularity and operations spread into neighbouring Slovakia. Nowadays, his «whole world is jamón». Two years ago, he was introduced to Andrew Moore, a Londoner looking for a fresh start. Lukas invited him to join the business and to set up a new operation selling jamón to customers in the United Kingdom. Last year, a British e-shop ( jamon.co.uk) was launched and business is now booming.
In its first year of operations, the British market has doubled the company's overall turnover- no mean feat given that the Czech/Slovakian market experiences a steady rise of 30-40% each year. This means that a total of about 15,000 hams are now exported annually by the company. So, what makes Lukas's product so popular? He underlines: «Most of the products these days are not as natural as in the past, many producers use additives and chemicals, but I try to work only with those that make totally natural hams. Only salt and meat- and nothing else.»
Spain's tradition of jamón ibérico stretches back centuries and sees pig legs salted and left for dry curing for at least a year. At the end, what is created is described by Lukas as «probably the best product of Spanish gastronomy». He explains: «We source our produce from Salamanca and Granada Province, as these places are ideal for dry-curing because of their climate, with quite hot summers and cold winters.» Lukas oversees this production process from the Spanish end. This means he divides his time between Czechia and Malaga, having first come to the city in 2013.
He adds that the explosion of the British market has been a pleasant surprise, given some of the pre-launch forecasts. He explains: «Market research led to concerns that British people would be put off by the hoof that remains attached when we send it.» However, these fears proved unfounded, and Lukas reaped the rewards for not compromising on tradition. For this year, the team has set a goal of increasing sales in the UK by 100%.
While one might have thought that Brexit could be a detriment to the company, Lukas remains positive. He explains that, while completing customs forms is now more time-consuming and costly, demand is still high. This is because it is now «almost impossible» for Spanish producers to sell directly to British buyers, meaning that the structure set up by Lukas is the perfect way for consumers to still have access to jamón. More generally, he believes Brexit has made some in the UK «even more eager» to buy EU goods, as many Brits seek to maintain European cultural influences.
In fact, celebrating culture is one of Lukas's main driving forces. He says: «We send every ham with instructions on how to cut and store it, because we want to create the most authentic experience possible.» For him, «one of the great things about jamón is its ability to bring people together». It is because of this that, during the uncertainties of the past year, sales figures have actually gone up. Lukas suggests: «Buying jamón can maybe be a way to substitute a little bit for all the things we cannot do at the moment, like visiting restaurants or travelling.»
As for the future, Lukas is excited about his company's newly-established own brand of jamón, now available to UK customers, and hopes: «We will expand into other major markets soon, like Germany and France.»
Whatever happens, don't expect his passion for tradition and top-quality jamón to fade any time soon.