On the Trail of Fine Ham: First, Plant an Acorn

The New York Times


October 6, 2004

Peter Kaminsky

This is a tale of obsession that began nearly two years ago in a smoked-filled bar in the mountains of Andalusia. On a cold January night I had what I have since come to recognize as a major ham epiphany: my first taste of a long-cured, translucently pink, Ibérico ham glistening with droplets of amber fat. The flavor - salty, sweet, nutty, slightly funky - was as complex as a mature pinot noir. That first nibble caused me to wonder whether such marvelous pork could be raised in the United States.

It may be that the answer lies in the 23 rare hogs that I helped haul a thousand miles from a medical research facility in Columbia, Mo., to two family farms in the Carolinas. The pigs were Ossabaws, descendants of Iberian swine that were left by 16th-century Spaniards on Ossabaw Island off the Georgia coast.

My partner for the cross-country pig portage was Chuck Talbott, an adjunct professor at North Carolina A&T. He shared my hopes for these pigs: that they would produce supernal meat bursting with flavor and, just as wondrously, the salubrious fat, high in omega-3 fatty acids, for which Spain's Ibérico hogs are famed.

Dr. Talbott and I of course are not alone in our pursuit of perfect pork. In recent years several conscientious producers have built their reputations on flavorful pork, including the Niman Ranch Pork Company in Thornton, Iowa; Eden Farms in State Center, Iowa; and Flying Pig Farm of Shushan, N.Y. Ossabaws have also been on view at places like Colonial Williamsburg.

But we had an idea, or a newly rediscovered idea: that this ancient breed could be nourished in the United States as it is in Spain, on the free and biologically sustainable products of our forests.

To understand our hopes for the Ossabaws, you must know something about hog rearing in their ancestral home. Nearly a millennium ago, the Spanish developed a system of sustainable animal husbandry that has shaped a landscape that looks for all the world like a well-manicured golf course. It stretches for 300 miles from Andalusia, up through Extremadura, and into Salamanca and Segovia. The dehesa, as these lands are called, is the realm of Ibérico pigs as well as the ancient Mediterranean oak forest that produces their favorite food, la bellota, the acorn.

Jamón Ibérico is made from a rustic breed of swine, little changed in 10,000 years. These long-legged, wiry-haired creatures developed an ability to assimilate flavor-enhancing fat into their muscles. But today, with the exception of the dehesas of Spain's western marches, Ibéricos have been supplanted by confinement pigs, breeds better suited to industrial methods of hog rearing. These animals have, most serious cooks agree, dry, insipid-tasting meat and less of the fat that allows jamón Ibérico to age from two to five years. Fat in ham is like tannin in great wine: without it a ham cannot develop complex taste.

Miguel Ullibarri, the general manager of Real Ibérico, a consortium of traditional Spanish ham makers, said that the fat of Spain's acorn-eating pigs was higher in monounsaturated fatty acids than any other meat, up to 55 percent. For this reason Spaniards have taken to calling their beloved Ibérico the four-footed olive tree.

There is only one problem with this delicious, healthful, environmentally friendly product: you can't get it here. Fear of disease has made it illegal to bring Ibérico hogs, or their meat, into the United States. This may change soon, said Don Harris, the owner of La Tienda, tienda.com, an importer of artisanal Spanish products. Last week he returned from a trip to Spain, where he visited a new slaughterhouse in Córdoba that the U.S.D.A. has indicated it will consider approving. "They expect production could begin around March 2005 for the U.S. market," Mr. Harris reported.

Ibérico hogs arrived in America with the second voyage of Columbus. The conquistadores who followed him often left breeding stock at promising landfalls, confident that should they ever return, there would be hogs aplenty. The 700 pigs that Hernando De Soto took with him from Cuba to the Southeast in 1539 were the foundation stock of hundreds of thousands of pigs that once roamed the forests of the Southeast.

As Americans moved west, they turned much of the wilderness into cornfields. Faster-growing, less mobile breeds of pig were perfected for the barnyard and sty, so that farmers could market their surplus on the hoof. Meanwhile the Ibéricos and their descendants - suited to life in the wild - all but disappeared. But I suspected that their DNA survived in isolated pockets in much the same way that old English ballads survived in the isolated hamlets of Appalachia.

I received exciting affirmation of this when I came across the writings of I. Lehr Brisbin Jr. of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, an author of "Wild Pigs in the United States." In that work he refers to the hogs of Ossabaw Island as descendants of Ibéricos.

Ibéricos! In America? I had to get my hands on some. In his reply to my enthusiastic e-mail message, Dr. Brisbin cautioned that one could not simply go and get a pig off the island without risking importing disease. More distressingly, the state of Georgia had begun a program to exterminate the Ossabaws, citing the threat they pose to endangered loggerhead turtles.

Dr. Brisbin encouraged me to contact Dr. Michael Sturek at the University of Missouri, who was conducting diabetes research with Ossabaws that he had taken off the island a year ago. With the assistance of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, I enlisted Dr. Talbott, whose oft-repeated mantra is "Upscale, designer pork for high-end consumers and chefs."

His interest in artisanal pork landed him a grant from the multimillion dollar fund established in the tobacco settlement of 1999. With that money, Dr. Talbott had set up a pilot program that provided hogs, expertise and a guaranteed market to small farmers in North Carolina who wanted to stay in farming but had few alternatives outside of tobacco.

When I told him about Dr. Sturek's Ossabaws, Dr. Talbott eagerly agreed to purchase 23 of them, which is how and why we acquired the truckload of pigs that we drove across America's heartland. We delivered half of the animals to Emile DeFelice's Caw Caw Creek Farm in St. Matthews, S.C., where they would subsist on acorns and grasses supplemented with peanuts, another traditional pig feed high in omega 3.

The shy animals entered their new environment tentatively. Frightened by the barking of of Mr. DeFelice's dog, they drew themselves into a tight circle, manes bristling. But when it was apparent that the even-tempered hound meant them no harm, they started to explore their new home, crunching on newly fallen acorns.

Two days later, we dropped off the remaining Ossabaws in Mebane, N.C., at the farm of Eliza Maclean. Ms. Maclean did not yet have access to a forest, so she planned to raise her group in a large paddock, feeding them peanuts, alfalfa and acorns from an enormous oak in her pasture.

The pigs took on weight quickly, and by December Mr. DeFelice was able to ship me half of an acorn-fed pig. I braised the shoulder slowly and savored my first bite. The taste was right, but the meat could have been juicier.

A month later Ms. Maclean's pigs had fattened up nicely and were ready for the pan. She sent one to Donna Lennard, the owner of Il Buco in New York, where the chef, Ed Witt, prepared a loin eye dusted with fennel pollen that delivered waves of exquisite porkitude.

For purposes of comparison Mr. DeFelice sent me a Farmer's Hybrid (the genetic line that Niman Ranch prefers) that had been allowed free range of his forest. Interestingly, it exhibited equally powerful taste and succulence, leading me to suspect that any pig hardy enough to live outdoors and munch acorns or peanuts will produce superior pork.

According to Dr. Talbott, scientific analysis of the Ossabaw meat indicated that the pigs that were fed acorns averaged 14.7 percent more monounsaturated fats than conventionally fed hogs. The breed was thrown a lifeline in September when Slow Food U.S.A. placed the Ossabaw on its metaphorical ark of endangered breeds that have been singled out for preservation efforts. As Erika Lesser, who is Slow Food's executive director, described Ossabaw pork, "It just tastes better than other pigs."

The environmental side of the story is similarly promising: if we raise pigs in the forest environment in which they evolved, or at least allow them the exercise and the primeval diet of their wild past, we will have better pork. Exploiting acorns as animal feed would mark a return to a renewable and free resource that could help to reclaim our woodlands. And if this practice knocked a few points off our national cholesterol average, that would be nice as well.

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