This Little Piggy Sailed to America

Jonathan Harris | April 2017

Spain has a passion for pigs. Or more specifically, the delicious cured jamón that is arguably the signature flavor of Spain. Spaniards eat over 5 kilos of cured ham per person per year – that is double the amount the Italians consume. So, it should be no surprise that when the Spanish explorers set out for the New World, they brought plenty of hams and Ibérico pigs along with them.

The first Ibérico pigs arrived on the second voyage of Columbus, when eight hogs were transported from the Canary Islands to what is now the Dominican Republic. These first pigs, along with subsequent arrivals, quickly established themselves on the islands. Subsequent explorers, such as Cortes and Pizarro also brought pigs with them as they traveled. 

Why were the pigs so valuable that they earned precious space on the cramped sailing ships? The answer is that they were tough, adaptable, had lots of piglets and tasted delicious. Remember that these were not the plump pink pigs of modern farming stock. These were hearty Ibérico pigs adapted to living outdoors day and night, with long legs to help them travel across the forests and hillsides foraging for food. To this day, the very same breed braves the harsh climate of southwestern Spain, living on grasses, herbs and acorns and sleeping under the stars.

When the traveling Spanish ships landed on hospitable shores, they often released a small group of pigs, knowing that when they returned there would be more for them to harvest. The pigs were so adaptable that they sometimes preceded the Spanish into new lands.

Interestingly, meat was only one benefit of having a dependable pork supply. Pork fat could be used to make soap or candles as well as cooking oil. 

The Ibérico pigs’ first recorded foray into North America came in 1539 when Hernando de Soto landed in what is now Tampa with 13 animals. From this beach head, they spread up through Florida and across present-day Georgia and the southern part of the continent. Many of the feral hogs that still live in the region trace part of their heritage back to this small heard of hearty pigs. If you live in Texas you may be cursing de Soto for the millions of feral pigs that cause so much damage to crops in the region!

Not long after de Soto’s pigs landed in Florida, a Spanish galleon landed on the beautiful Ossabaw Island off eastern Georgia. They deposited a few adventurous swine that settled into the harsh sandy environment and found a way to survive. Over the following centuries these hearty animals adapted to a diet of sea grasses and briny water. They developed a type of insular dwarfism, rarely growing over 200 pounds. They also had the ability to store lots of fat during times of plenty, allowing them to survive during the lean periods.

In 1978, the state of Georgia took over ownership of the island. Because of their voracious appetites, these descendants of the noble Ibérico pig survived by eating not only vegetation, but the eggs of sea turtles and birds, as well as small mammals and reptiles. The state decided to control, and possibly eradicate, what they saw as an invasive species and began culling the population.

At the same time supporters of heritage breeds transported some of the pigs to the mainland to be raised on farms. The pork of Ossabaw Island hogs is dark and flavorful, much like the Ibérico pork from Spain. Fans of traditional foods began to seek out this pork to make hams and sausages, a way to create cured meats that taste similar to how they were in colonial times.

Amazingly, this story ended up right at our doorstep. La Tienda is based in Williamsburg, Virginia. I was at a local bar a few years back and bumped into a reenactor who worked at Colonial Williamsburg. He was one of the intrepid souls who dresses in 18th century woolen clothing and inhabits the wonderful living museum that makes up the heart of our city. As happens all too often, I started rambling on about Ibérico pigs and the amazing hams of Spain. His eyes lit up. He told me he was curing Ibérico hams right there in the colonial capital!

Well, not exactly Jamón Ibérico, but the salted Virginia hams of our region, made from Ossabaw island pork! It turns out that some of these hearty hogs ended up at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. Years later, some of the pigs were transferred to Colonial Williamsburg where they lived at a farm in the colonial area. In the fall they were butchered, salted, smoked and hung to cure in the smokehouse right next to the Governors Palace in the heart of town!

I had to see this for my own eyes. Soon after this chance meeting I headed to the colonial area and walked the historic streets to the Governor’s Palace. There in the smokehouse hung three or four hams along with slabs of bacon.  As if this was not enough of a treat, I walked right next door and in the kitchen I could see a table covered in colonial era puddings and biscuits along with a tasty smoked ham made from Ossabaw Island pork. Two women in colonial garb were preparing an 18th century feast!

I’ve always found it ironic that our family founded our Spanish food company in the most English town in America. It turns out that the Spanish have influenced our local history, culture and cuisine more than we knew. In fact, the Spanish first arrived in the Chesapeake Bay area decades before the English arrived at Jamestown Island, which happens to be located just a few miles from our retail store and tapas bar. But that is a story for another time!

The history of the Ibérico pig and the Spanish people have been intertwined for thousands of years. This hearty breed with its lanky legs and easy-going demeanor has shaped the cuisine, culture and very landscape of Spain. It is no surprise that when the Spanish set out to explore the world they brought along their porcine companions to share the journey.