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This summer a European delicacy will finally appear in classy restaurants and delicatessens on this side of the Atlantic at around $100 a pound. Jamon Iberico is one of the world's priciest meats. The ham comes from acorn fed, free roaming Iberian pigs. As Jerome Socolovsky reports, the tradition surrounding how the animals are raised go back centuries.

(Soundbite of pigs)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: A litter of Iberian piglets huddles on a farm outside La Alberca, a village in western Spain. In a few months they'll be released from their pens.

(Soundbite of pigs)

SOCOLOVSKY: And like these older pigs, the Ibericos will roam these hills dotted with acorns that have fallen from the Mediterranean oaks. This landscape is known as la dehesa. It's unique to the sparsely populated regions of western Spain and the only place where the exclusive bellota ham, which comes from acorn fed Iberian pigs, can be produced. Each pig that's raised on acorns gets more than an acre of land to himself to forage for the nuts. Farmers say the acorns and the idyllic lifestyle are what gives the bellota ham its exquisite taste. Eighty-two-year-old Fermin Martin started raising Ibericos back in the '50s.

Mr. FERMIN MARTIN (Farmer): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: He calls to several pigs playing on a distant hill.

Mr. MARTIN: (Spanish Spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: They're like children. When it's nice out they go out to play and run about in the mud, he says. Fermin Martin is the founder of Embutidos y Jamones Fermin, literally 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 here in the Alberca.

(Soundbite of slaughterhouse)

SOCOLOVSKY: The pigs are herded into the slaughterhouse, where they're electrocuted. The carcasses are cleaned and taken to a brand new quartering chamber, which is sealed with a hydraulic steel door. Inside, about a dozen workers in white lab coats, hairnets, and gloves separate the meat with long sharp knives. Until recently, Iberian ham could not be imported to the U.S. because of a fundamental difference in approach. The Americans demanded the highest standards of hygiene at the slaughterhouse, and it took 10 years to bring this plant up to those standards.

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.

Mr. CARLOS DAVILA (Quality Control Manager): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Lots of neighbors come and everybody touches the meat with their hands, but then it's cured and it's okay. People eat meat like this all the time and nothing happens to them, he says. Jamones Fermin has already started exporting Iberian pork shoulders and sausages to the United States, but the hams have to be cured by leaving them to hang in cool dry attics for about three years. They'll be ready for export this summer, and it seems like everyone in this village is excited about that.

Mr. MARTIN: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: At a recent pig festival here in La Alberca, Fermin Martin was the man of honor. He and other villagers dressed up in traditional costumes with bandanas tied around their heads and rows of medallions hanging from their vests as they feasted on pork in the village square with its medieval stone buildings reinforced by thick wooden beams. It almost looked like time had stood still here in La Alberca. The highlight of the festival was when a pig nicknamed El Marrano was released onto the streets.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SOCOLOVSKY: The festival is a throwback to the time when Jews or Muslims who tried to escape the Spanish Inquisition would try to prove their outward conversion to Christianity by making a show of eating pork. Five centuries later, everyone in La Alberca loves pigs, and the marrano de San Anton is not taunted like the bulls running in Pamplona. Here legend has it that anyone who's cruel to the animal will be cursed.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky, in La Alberca, Spain.

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