Alex Casey investigates a chilling international mystery involving a luxury ham brand, the Mad Butcher, and a golden retriever named Sudo.
Rafael Fonseca was walking his dog at lunchtime when he discovered the leg of the deceased. The toes had blackened, the withered shin was peeking crudely out of a black bag. It appeared that someone, or something, had attempted to hide it in a patch of flax in Hobsonville Point.
Ashen-faced, Fonseca dialed 111.
The voice on the phone asked him if he required fire, ambulance or police. He said police. It was only when another person answered and asked “what’s the nature of your emergency” that he realised he hadn’t in fact called 105, the community police number, as he intended.
“This isn’t quite an emergency,” he said, “but I found a leg of ham.”
Jamón ibérico is some of the most expensive ham in the world. Sourced from the jet black Ibérico pig in a small southern region in Spain, the meat is cured for at least 12 months. At the luxury artisanal end of the jamón ibérico scale is the 130-year-old brand Cinco Jotas, the self-professed “iconic premium, gourmet brand that produces the most exclusive 100% acorn-fed Ibérico ham in the world”.
The Jabugo natural park, home to the Iberian-native pigs that become Cinco Jotas hams, has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by Unesco and accepted by many as home to the best ham in the world. According to their website, a full leg of ham will set you back around $2,399, shipped directly to New Zealand from the factory in Jabugo, Spain. They are currently sold out online.
So, how did one end up discarded in a bush in Hobsonville Point?
Fonseca was not the first passer-by to encounter the ham. Jon Tabumpama, a Hobsonville Point resident of three years, was preparing to drive to his Monday night basketball game when he noticed a peculiar shape sticking out of a patch of bush by his car. “There were kids coming home from school so I thought maybe one of the kids chucked their schoolbag,” he said.
He pulled on the edge of the bag, and that’s when he saw the hoof.
“I thought ‘what the heck, there’s a dead animal here?’” He was right, in a sense, but Tabumpama thought he was looking at something even more morbid. “It’s very common, back home in the Philippines, to see a dead cat or dog in a pile of rubbish,” he said. “But not in New Zealand – we are very animal friendly here. Who would do something cruel like that?”
What puzzled Tabumpama further was the bag – a neoprene guitar shape with gold embroidery. “It looked like a Louis Vuitton bag or something,” he said. “It looked expensive.” Tabumpama recalled being “scared” as he tugged gently on the hoof, immediately feeling it “had a bit of weight to it”. As the contents of the bag were revealed, Tabumpama realised he had found a “huge leg of ham”.
It was something he immediately recognised as a feature of posh delis, and a few fancy parties. “You know when they cut the fresh prosciutto or whatever for you on the rack? It looked the same as that.” His immediate assumption was that someone must have mistakenly dropped it, although it didn’t look like the kind of ham you could buy from the local Countdown or New World.
In Hobsonville Point, a relatively new Auckland suburb filled with young families and riddled with parking dramas and visible laundry issues, there’s only one place to go for suburban pork dramas. “The best way to approach the entire community is the community Facebook page,” said Tabumpama. “There’s always kids losing their scooters, or someone who lost their hat.”
But nobody had ever lost a giant ham before. Tabumpama posted the photo of the crime scene with the caption “Someone left what looks like a meat/animal leg” and the location on the Hobsonville Point Community Facebook page, and headed off to his basketball game.
It was only during a break in the game that he was able to check his phone to see hundreds of comments appearing beneath the leg. Someone had posted a photo of a goat with a prosthetic leg, others made hamburglar puns, but nobody had claimed that the ham was theirs. “You wouldn’t accidentally drop something like that, it’s too big to not notice,” said Tapumpama.
“Hobsonville drama is normally all illegally parked cars – because we are very small, parking is very challenging, so you see cars parked in very unusual ways..
“But I’ve never seen anything as strange as this, no, never.”
His theory? It was an animal theft. “In Hobsonville we see a lot of Tesla and Porsche cars, there’s a handful of people that are really rich in this area,” he explained. “They might have left the Tesla in their garage open and probably a cat or a dog might have hauled it and stashed it, hoping to come back later that night and have a feast.”
The next day, Tabumpama’s wife said she saw a man pick up the ham and carry it away.
That man was Rafael Fonseca, who would soon be on the phone to emergency services. He recognised the leg from his childhood in Brazil, where his mum ran a bar that used to serve a similar product. “I knew what it looked like, but I never spotted one like this in a fancy neoprene sleeve,” he said. “It made me think ‘this cannot be right, someone dropped this, or could there have been a moving truck nearby that dropped it?’”
The person on the other end of the 111 call fell silent as he explained that the ham he had found was, in fact, jamón. “And as soon as I said that she said ‘oh, yeah, I’m a vegan but even I know what those are’.” Fonseca was connected to a police officer and opened a case file. The police officer told him it was one of the oddest things anyone had found in the area, took his details, gave him a case number, and told him to expect further instructions by the end of day.
If he didn’t hear back by the end of Tuesday, he was told to call back and mention the ham. In the meantime, Fonseca was told to not tamper with the ham in case it needed to be seized. They reminded him to ring 105, not emergency services, and hung up.
Fonseca didn’t quite know where to put the huge leg of jamón that was now in his possession. He had carried it home from the park – nobody had batted an eyelid – and it was now sitting on his dining table. His well-behaved golden retriever Sudo, who first discovered the ham, was waiting patiently at his feet. “I just sort of sat there looking at the ham going ‘what am i going to do with this’,” he recalled.
Needing to leave to go to some appointments in the city, he propped the ham up vertically – fleshy part down, trotter up – and headed out.
Five minutes after Fonseca left the house, his partner arrived home to find a bizarre and confronting scene. The vengeful jamón was lying on the floor, having toppled from the table and violently ricocheted off the wall. Fonseca estimated the ham weighed around 8kg, and on its descent it had punctured a large hole in the drywall, roughly the size of Adam Driver’s fist.
“At this point it’s just getting weirder and weirder,” Fonseca said. Amazingly, Sudo the golden retriever had not touched the ham that was resting on the floor. “He’s super well behaved, so shout out to him I guess,” said Fonseca. “I’ve noticed him shooting an eye towards the jamón, but he would never eat it unless we told him.”
By the end of Tuesday, Fonseca hadn’t heard back from the police. He got up on Wednesday morning, went to the gym, and did some work meetings from home. All the while, the ham was sitting on his dining table, trotter up, now next to a hole in the wall. Mid-morning he had a gap between meetings, so called the police back on 105. He mentioned the case number, and was transferred through to an officer.
“I said ‘hey, I’m still waiting to know what to do with this ham?’” There was a flurry of activity on the other line – the officer needed to speak to his supervisor. “He goes away, he comes back and says ‘well, essentially, do what you want with it. There’s no clues, there’s no leads, this is one of the most unusual things we have ever had to deal with’,” Fonseca recalled. They offered to dispose of it safely for him, and sternly warned against eating it.
Fonseca hung up. The police had closed the case. The ham was his to do what he wanted with. “I thought, ‘OK, now I guess I have this giant leg of ham that I have to get rid of’.” But first, he had to know what it tasted like. Coincidentally, he had long coveted the fancy hams hanging up at the European deli near his home, and promised himself he would buy one for a special occasion at some point in the future.
“I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t bad, so I took a slice of it.” He thought he’d give it a few hours and see if the ham had any adverse affects – thankfully working from home meant the bathroom was a mere few metres away at all times. He messaged a friend to say he was about to have a bite of the cursed ham, and to raise the alarm if he didn’t hear from him in a few hours.
Gingerly, he took the ham out of the sleeve, washed it in very hot water, and then began unwrapping the layers encasing the ham. There was an external layer of baking paper, and then a plastic film beneath that. With the jamón revealed in its full glory, Fonseca quickly spotted another intriguing clue – there were no bite marks, but a small sliver had been cut off the top.
Someone else had begun to enjoy the ham in a restrained, skilful manner.
“What I thought originally was that someone stole it, which is why I called the police to find out more,” he explained. “But it looked like it had been cut properly, which is not something I would expect someone on the run to do.” He began to think it had been in someone’s home or at a private event, but there was still a big question mark. “How did it go from someone’s dining table or kitchen bench to being fully wrapped again, in the sleeve and lying on the ground?”
Perhaps tasting the ham would reveal its secrets. Fonseca knew how to cut it properly from his childhood. “You have to go with a very sharp and long knife and cut almost paper-thin slices of it,” he explained. He took a slice from the side of the ham – “like a little bite size” – crossed his fingers and ate it. “I will say it is very salty, and it has a very subtle, mild flavour,” he recalled.
“You eat it and immediately feel a little bit fancy, like it would go great with a single malt scotch.”
It was Wednesday evening when a friend inquired: is this the same ham that people were talking about on Facebook? After some back and forth, Fonseca realised the friend was not referring to his ham, the one that had been posted on the Hobsonville Point community page, but a different porcine discovery, also made on Tuesday, and also posted to Facebook, but this time in Whangārei. “It was very, very strange,” he said.
“I found this ham in Hobsonville Point, and someone else found a ham in Whangārei on the same day.”
Chrissy Maley was starting her shift at Turkuaz Cafe when someone handed in a large quantity of shaved ham over the counter. They had found it on the street, right outside the Whangārei cafe on Tuesday night. “It was like, a lot of ham,” Maley emphasised over the phone. “It was very expensive, I don’t know why somebody would leave their ham here.”
She can’t recall what the Pak N Save price sticker said, but estimates it was a “good 500g” of ham. “It was enough that, if it was my ham and I had left it somewhere, I would be upset.” Maley posted the ham on the Whangārei lost and found page on Facebook but, as with Tabumpama’s post in Hobsonville Point, it garnered a raft of ham puns but no ham claimant.
I explained to her that a large ham was also found in Auckland on the same day. She immediately had a theory: people have been planting hams. “Maybe ham sales are down and someone is planting ham around to get more people to talk about ham,” she posited. “If I owned a ham factory and I wanted to sell my ham, I would do that.”
The Whangārei ham has since been disposed of, but I asked if she had any advice to ham owners around the upper North Island. “Just keep an eye on your ham out there,” she warned. “Stay vigilant.”
Back in Hobsonville Point, Fonseca had not developed any adverse reactions to the ham. Now, he had another problem – it was getting greasy sitting on the dining table, and needed to be elevated. “It’s air-cured so I figured I would try and at least prop it up to make sure that air goes through it right.” On Thursday morning he was headed to his nutritionist, and stopped at the European Deli on the way to purchase a jamón holder, RRP $80.
At his appointment, his nutritionist told him to eat less fat and less salt.
The jamón now sits mounted on Fonseca’s dining table in its expensive stand. “We don’t have a big house or a fancy place to put it, the dining table was basically the only spot where we could put it and it would be off the floor,” he said. If someone claims the ham, he is of course willing to surrender it, and will accept payment for the stand in jamón. “This was something that someone clearly chose to buy, it wasn’t an accidental purchase. It’s a very low-stock, high-value item.”
Fonseca, like everyone else who has come into contact with the ham, also had a theory – the ham is a victim of a messy divorce. “I’d like to believe that someone had the absurd idea of buying a $3,000 piece of ham and not consulting their partner on it, the partner wasn’t impressed, they got into a fight and it was one of those situations where you throw everything out from the second storey onto the street.”
It’s a good theory, but there are no two-storey houses around where the ham was found.
As the investigation stalled, I sent some photos of the ham to Sir Peter Leitch, aka The Mad Butcher. “I can’t get my head around why you would leave it on the street,” he barked. “That’s got me baffled, that genuinely has me baffled.” On speakerphone while driving to Auckland’s airport to pick up some guests, he confirmed that it was, indeed, a very fancy leg of ham.
“It would be like throwing a $50 note in the gutter – more than $50, like a $100 note in the gutter.” Leitch had seen a ham like it before, but only ever in European countries. It’s not the kind of meat you’d find at a Mad Butcher store, and it’s not the sort of thing that Leitch would eat himself for breakfast. “Well that’s out of my price range – I’m a pensioner.”
I asked if he could offer any insight into this local meat-based mystery. “For a start it would be very expensive so it had to come from someone with money. I would say that’s a specialty store that would sell that,” he said. “Maybe what you should do is find out who sells that kind of thing, and see if they can give you a lead.”
Joan Farras, owner of Iberian Foods, knew exactly what footpath ham I was referring to when I called. Farras has been importing these sorts of luxury cured products since 2004, but has never seen anything like this. “It’s so silly, it’s like a Monty Python thing,” he laughed. “You’d expect a leg of lamb in New Zealand to be thrown away, maybe, but not this sort of food.”
He told me he doesn’t stock this particular brand of jamón, but does frequently ship legs of jamón across the city. “We sell it to restaurants, SkyCity, bars, private functions, quite a few places have it,” he said. “It’s not a rarity at parties and gatherings, but this is certainly very odd.” Based on his assessment, he said the ham appeared “in perfect condition” and “absolutely edible” despite having been left outside.
Would he have taken the ham, had he come across it on the street? One hundred percent. “It is perfectly OK out there in the street, no problem at all,” Farras explained. “Even if it rained it wouldn’t matter, these things are cured for five to seven years. It’s about the most resilient thing you can imagine.”
That resilience comes at a price – Farras guessed that this particular piece would cost around $3,000, not far off the advertised price. “It’s one of the most expensive meats that exists,” he said. “It’s worth a lot of money but you would also get an enormous amount out of it because you eat it in extremely small amounts.” He estimates that a leg of this size would happily feed “hundreds” of people.
Who would be having a party for hundreds of people in Hobsonville Point in this climate, very much in breach of the red traffic light setting under the current Covid-19 Protection Framework?
I contacted the fanciest Hobsonville Point resident I could think of, and a staple on the Auckland social scene – television host and death metal enthusiast Erin Simpson. She too had seen the ham on Facebook already. “It’s not my ham,” she laughed. “The world has changed quite a lot since Covid and I can’t say there’s been many expensive events or parties in the last 18 months.”
I asked if she had any initial reactions when she saw the ham on Facebook. “I thought it was interesting that it was in a bag,” she said, “because not many hunters put their kills into a bag like that.” I made a mental note to Google Hobsonville Point wild pigs later (no results).
Beyond that, Simpson said she hadn’t been thinking too much about the ham since she scrolled past it on Monday night. “Honestly, every time you go for a walk in Hobsonville Point there’s always something, whether it’s free items outside someone’s house or a pile of avocados. It’s always an adventure when you go on a walk around Hobby.”
In a last-gasp attempt for answers, I contacted Cinco Jotas themselves. King Gao, an agent representing the global brand, replied to my email overnight. “From the packaging bag and tags on the ham, I can basically tell that the ham is highly likely to be the Cinco Jotas ham,” he confirmed. “I personally felt very shocked and upset when I saw the picture.”
He said Cinco Jotas hams had been “widely accepted by the upper classes as a luxury” and it was “unusual and hard to understand” why one would be on the footpath. “Many customers give me feedback that they would serve important guests with the hams or enjoy it with loved ones in family gatherings,” he continued. “So there is no evidence to believe that my clients would throw the beautiful and gorgeous ham away like garbage.”
For now, the mystery endures. Fonseca is continuing to chip away at the enormous luxury ham on his dining table, and has even treated Sudo, the well-behaved golden retriever, to a cheeky slice or two. On their daily lunchtime walks, Sudo returns to the scene of the crime, in the hopes that a new beautiful and gorgeous ham has manifested in the bushes. Weirder things have happened in Hobsonville Point.
I called The Mad Butcher one more time to see if he had any further thoughts on the ham. “It is strange,” he reflected. “But don’t forget: we are living in strange times.”
Update: As 2022 came to a close, I contacted Fonseca to see what became of the ham. “We kept the ham for maybe a month or so before throwing a homemade pizza dinner at our place where we made an honest attempt at getting rid of most of it,” he said. “We never found out who bought it, nor why it was disposed of. It will forever remain a mystery.”
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