Tuesday, May 26, 2009

John Scharffenberger, Pig Enthusiast

There's an article in "INC" magazine about John Scharffenberger raising some pigs, attempting to create nice hams.

Rather than deciding to study how the Spanish go about doing what they do and then emulate them, he decided to do some experiments with feral and feral hybrids.

Here are quotes from the article, with my comments:
When the Magruders arrived, Scharffenberger took out of his refrigerator the three hams that we would be comparing. One was a supermarket-bought Spanish serrano, purchased as a stand-in for its more august cousin, because ibérico is just beginning, on a very limited basis, to be available in this country. (Classic ibérico is made from a variety of pig that dates back to Roman times and has grazed in pastures on acorns. Serrano is cured in a similar fashion to ibérico, but with meat from a less distinguished breed of pig that has been fed a conventional diet of grain.)
Actually, most Ibérico is a 75% iberico, 25% Duroc cross. Much of it is raised intensively (aka "industrially"). The ones that eat acorns typically eat them for about 3 months of their long lives, having spent most of their lives growing up indoors. Serrano products can be made from pigs of any breed, including the Mangalitsa, a breed that is tastier than most Ibérico breeds.
Magruder had trapped wild pigs in the area and then bred them, selecting for long snouts, long legs, and high bodies. That is the look of the classic black Iberian pig, and, indeed, Scharffenberger argues that the forebears of these wild pigs were brought to California by the early Spanish settlers. After breeding two wild sows that conformed to the desired Iberian profile, he had fed acorns to their offspring for four months before the slaughter.
The modern Iberian Black looks quite different than a wild boar. They don't have long legs or high bodies. Here's photos of two different modern Iberian Black varieties. First, the best tasting, and second, the most common:

None of those look like the pigs Scharffenberger is fond of. I'm thinking he's after the half feral breeds that proceeded the Mangalitsa and Iberian Black:
Those are really old-school. They'd be hard to raise in any modern setting, explaining why pork producers phased them out in the 1800s.

INC Magazine: We tried some of the small remaining sample of his second batch, from pigs that had eaten a diet of roughly half acorns and the rest grain, fruit, and whey. "It tastes a little cheesy," Scharffenberger said. But we all liked it. Then we turned to his third batch, the most recent. Although it had not had time to age enough and the texture was a little tough, the flavor was rich and earthy, in the manner of a true ibérico. Both trial hams were far tastier than the supermarket serrano.

This doesn't surprise me. I've had Iberico in Europe, wild boar prosciutto (Italy) and imported Iberico. - and I preferred them in that respective order. As I preferred wild boar prosciutto from Italy to imported Iberico, I can easily imagine acorn-fed wild boar prosciutto beating imported serrano.
This was his second year as a part-time pig farmer. He was raising about 100 pigs, trying out crosses between the wild ones he had captured and two heirloom varieties ...
I hope they quarantined and tested their feral pigs for diseases. Feral swine often carry reportable diseases, which are economically ruinous to anyone unlucky enough to have animals with them.

INC: But the critical challenge was the time needed to raise the slower-growing wild pigs. That was the main reason Magruder was hybridizing them with domestic breeds...Because it was impossible to compete on price with factory farms, he and Scharffenberger needed to emphasize the superior flavor, romantic origins, and old-fashioned livestock-raising techniques of their product.
Mangalitsa and Iberico are successfully produced on "factory farms". They are cheaper (per pound of pork) and taste better than pigs like Scharffenberger's - explaining why the Hungarians and Spanish bred them into existence, from the half-wild pigs that Scharffenberger favors.

INC: "My plan, just like the early days of the chocolate business, is to approve a production model," he said. "And then to see what would happen with a very limited commercialization...The acorns, the historic Spanish breed, the traditional curing: He knew that a good story would get customers (and people like me) interested. But if he wanted to keep them coming back, he would have to concoct a product that was reliable, affordable, and -- most important of all -- delicious.

Spanish producers have already constructed a production system that producers 2 million head of super-premium lard-type hogs a year. Scharffenberger seems to want to produce products like them, but he's using very different methods. The European lard-type sector is a mature industry with economies of scale that produces excellent food efficiently. I expect that if Scharffenberger continues working with pigs, he'll move closer and closer to that proven system.

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