The pigs that produce Spain's Bellota ham roam freely in the Spanish countryside eating acorns that have fallen from Mediterranean oaks.
The pigs that produce Spain's Bellota ham roam freely in the Spanish countryside eating acorns that have fallen from Mediterranean oaks. Jerome Socolovsky
A pig's skin is singed to remove residual hair.
A pig's skin is singed to remove residual hair. Jerome Socolovsky
A slaughterhouse worker in a sealed quartering chamber sorts through the meat that will eventually make Spain's Bellota ham.
A slaughterhouse worker in a sealed quartering chamber sorts through the meat that will eventually make Spain's Bellota ham. Jerome Socolovsky
In the village of La Alberca, Spain, villagers sample their local delicacy at a town festival that celebrates their pigs.
In the village of La Alberca, Spain, villagers sample their local delicacy at a town festival that celebrates their pigs. Jerome Socolovsky
This summer, a new European delicacy is scheduled to appear in fine restaurants and delicatessens in the United States.
At around $100 a pound, Jamon Iberico — or Iberian ham — is one of the world's priciest meats. The ham comes from acorn-fed, free roaming pigs in Spain, and the traditions surrounding how the pigs are raised and how their meat is cured go back centuries.
A Pig's Idyllic Lifestyle
Spain's specialty "bellota" ham — literally, Iberian ham from acorns — comes from a sparsely populated region of western Spain dotted with acorns that have fallen from Mediterranean oaks. The landscape is known as the "dehesa," and each pig that is raised on acorns gets more than acre of land to himself for foraging. Farmers say the nuts — and the idyllic lifestyle — are what give bellota ham its exquisite taste.
"They're like children. When it's nice out, they go out to play and run about in the mud," says Fermin Martin, an 82-year-old farmer who has been raising Ibericos since the 1950s.
Martin is the founder of Embutidos y Jamones Fermin — Fermin Hams and Cold Cuts. It runs the first slaughterhouse in Spain to be certified to export Iberian ham to the United States. Every morning at 6:15, the idyllic life for several hundred Iberian pigs comes to an abrupt end in his village, La Alberca.
Slaughter with Standards
The pigs are herded into the slaughterhouse, electrocuted, cleaned, and taken to the new quartering chamber, which is sealed with a hydraulic steel door. Inside, about a dozen workers in white lab coats, hair nets and gloves separate the meat with long, sharp knives. The hams are cured by hanging them in cool, dry attics for about three years.
Until recently, Iberian ham could not be imported to the United States because slaughterhouses didn't meet U.S. hygiene standards. It took 10 years to bring Fermin Hams up to U.S. standards, and it is now exporting Iberian pork shoulders and sausages.
The traditional Spanish approach was to let the curing process destroy any pathogens in the meat. After all, says Carlos Davila, the quality control manager at Fermin Hams, plenty of people in rural Spain still slaughter pigs at home the old-fashioned way.
"Lots of neighbors come, and everybody touches the meat with their hands. But then it's cured and it's OK. People eat meat like this all the time, and nothing happens to them," Davila says.
Celebrating Savory Swine
In La Alberca, villagers excited about the success of their local swine celebrate Martin as the guest of honor at a local pig festival. Martin and other locals dress up in traditional costumes with bandanas tied around their heads and rows of medallions hanging from their vests.
As they feast on pork in the village square surrounded by medieval stone buildings, it almost looks as if time stands still in La Alberca. The festival is a throwback to the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews or Muslims trying to escape persecution tried to prove their conversion to Christianity by eating pork.
The highlight of festival comes when a pig nicknamed "El Marrano" is released onto the streets. Unlike the famous bulls that run in Pamplona, the Marrano isn't taunted. Here, legend has it that anyone who is cruel to the animal will be cursed.