Monday, February 11, 2008

NPR on Iberian Ham

Free-ranging Iberian Swine
The "poster pig" for iberico - fat pig on range looking for acorns.

NPR recently had a story on Jamón ibérico, or as we say in English, Iberian ham.

Unfortunately, there are fundamental omissions in the article. For example, one might conclude that to produce the best ham in the world, one just needs to let pigs run around and eat acorns before turning their legs into hams. That is simply not true - which pigs get to run around and eat acorns, and how old those pigs are when they die are both crucial.

One of the most important differences between Iberian hams and other hams is that Iberian ham is produced from pigs with special genetics. A few breeds are considered "Iberian", and the pigs used to produce Iberian ham must have 3/4 or more of their ancestry from those special Iberian breeds[1].

Mangalitsa Pork from a 5-month Pig
marbled and fatty due to the genetics

The Iberian breeds are fundamentally different from the common pigs of the world - they are lard-type. Their marbling, fatty acid composition and percentage lean are all different from normal pigs - they are fat-prone pigs, and their fat tastes much better than normal fat.

As this study shows, you can feed the Iberians less monounsaturated fats (e.g. less acorns) and they'll still have more monounsaturated fatty acids in their tissue. If you really want to produce the best pork, you need the right genetics. Due to the importance of genetics, the best pigs, fed worse food, can still outperform lesser pigs fed a better diet.

Another key difference is that the Iberian pigs used to make the hams are much older than most other pigs - e.g. 15-24 months. Older pigs make better cured products. That's roughly 3 times as old as normal pigs.

My company, Wooly Pigs, prides itself on the quality of its bacon and other cured products, raises its pigs extra heavy. For example, our Berkshires are killed at one year - twice the typical age - because that's how old they need to be to make much better cured products. In keeping with this, I won't produce any cured Mangalitsa products until I get pigs at least 9-months old - and I'd be happier if none of the people who buy pigs from me cured young pigs. I afraid that Americans will get the wrong idea of what cured Mangalitsa tastes like; if they eat a bunch of inferior stuff, they won't know that cured Mangalitsa is some of the best there is.

Of course, an older pig costs a lot more to raise than a younger pig. The cheap growth happens when they are young. As they get older and fatter, pigs eat a lot more without gaining weight, and with their massive bulk, they are more of a "management problem." Big pigs break stuff, and they can do a lot more harm to humans.

Heavy Berkshire Hogs In the Trailer Heading to Slaughter
Thank goodness they can't get out!

It really feels good to send big fat pigs to the slaughterhouse. When I look at their fat jowls and think about all the feed they've consumed, how they've knocked people down, stampeded, broken fences and generally been a nuisance, it is fun to see them in that trailer on the way to slaughter. And when I look at their fat jowls, I can't help but imagine how the bacon will taste.

In America, a country where most people just want cheap meat, most pigs are killed at 5.5-6 months - ensuring that our bacon, ham and other cured products will taste lousy. In contrast, Spanish producers manage the genetics, feed, age and other factors to produce the best pork - and they do it on a huge scale, industrial in some cases. E.g. the Spanish are willing to feed penned pigs special diets designed to replicate the free-range diet. Not everything is traditional, free-range and feel-good in Spain as one might assume from the NPR story; they run confinement operations just like us - they just use better genetics, feed and so on to make much better pork.

Penned Iberian Swine (likely 3/4 crosses)
Delicious, cheaper, not free range, probably not fed acorns.
still iberico, still very superior.

Finally, NPR fails to mention that there are 3 categories of Iberico. The category is determined by the finishing diet of the pig. That's crucial - finishing diet substantially determines quality. The most free-range meat costs the most, because it tastes the best and requires the most resources to produce. Some of the pigs, like the one pictured above, are just kept penned. Not as heartwarming as the free-ranging Iberian pigs under the trees - but you can produce a lot more of that pork than the really great stuff, and it still tastes fantastic.[2]

When one understands the determinants of meat quality, it is easy to understand why the Iberian hams taste better than the Mangalitsa products coming out of Hungary and why Iberian tastes better than most Italian cured products - and why American products taste the worst of all.

3/4 Mangalitsa Pigs in Hungary
not purebred, not free-range and not acorn-fattened
still affordable, tasty and superior
said to be fraudulently sold as iberico.

The Hungarians use the right breed - but they can't feed acorns like the Spanish, nor let them roam and get so old. The Italians just use normal pigs - but unlike most American producers, they kill them at 9 or more months of age and strictly control the fatty acids in the feed. American producers routinely use pigs that Italians would reject for having too much PUFA. Essentially, in America, there are no standards - you can get away with anything, call your lousy product something misleading - hopefully with a foreign-sounding, ethnic name - and if people buy it, great!

Hence, Americans will probably get duped. E.g. someone will finish some normal pigs on acorns, probably much younger than 15 months, and then marketers will tell people that it is as good as "Iberico". If someone is smart, he'll call it "American Iberico" or perhaps "Americo" or "Iowaberco" - just like Snake River calls their watered-down Wagyu crosses "American Kobe." Consumers who've never eaten Iberico will then go around parroting that "Americo" is as good as Iberico, and as long as it tastes better than what they otherwise get, they'll be happy.

Mangalitsa pigs in Eastern Washington
free range, not acorn-fattened
still very superior

Of course, I have a personal interest in all of this. As the only person in the Americas who owns a herd of European lard-type pigs (if only they were Iberico, I'd probably be getting some PR right now) I stand to benefit if Americans learn that lard-type pigs taste better. But mostly I'm bothered at people getting duped.

Also, I'm hoping that someone out there, with acorns, will decide to buy some pigs from me, raise them the way the Spanish do - and thereby produce fantastic pork -- in the Americas. That will be a historic event.

[1] The 3/4 requirement allows the Spanish to produce a lot more product, because the 3/4 crosses are more efficient to produce - more piglets per litter, faster growing pigs, etc. The meat and particularly the fat is not as good - but the average consumer probably can't afford the purebred stuff anyway.

It is the same with Wagyu: Wagyu crosses are more economic. Big producers normally have enough clout that they can legally market crosses to the public as the "real deal." Here is a nice blog post with some photos that show how the purebred Wagyu differs from the crosses.

[2] Tip for foodies: if you want the best grade, make sure it is bellota. The other grades are recebo (less good) and pienso (the lowest). Given that Austria and Hungary are so short on acorns and space, their best Mangalitsa is typically like pienso. If they had acorns, they could produce pork very similar to bellota, due to the Mangalitsa and Iberians being so similar.


Cassidy Jayne said...

'It really feels good to send big fat pigs to the slaughterhouse.' As a strict vegetarian I find what you do cruel and unjust. It is just plain messed up to take pleasure in the killing and eating of animals. Just my opinion, but I do wish some more people would jump on the wagon with me and leave these poor pigs alone.

Heath Putnam said...

cassidy jayne,

I understand that you think that sounds downright cruel and unjust. When I wrote that, I figured I'd get the anti-meat folks riled up. I wrote it because it is the truth. When talking with people about pigs, pork and so on, I attempt to be as honest as possible.

If done right, the pig lives a natural, happy life and never sees his death coming.

Try to look at it from the pigs view: my pigs get to be outside, do natural things. One day the pig is doing his normal thing, when he gets hit on the head really hard, and 18 seconds later he's gone for good. Or maybe he has to go on a trip to a strange place, and after waiting in a pen for a while with his "homepigs," he meets a similar end.

Most humans die miserable deaths compared to my pigs. Anyone who spends a few months in a hospital has a worse death than one of my pigs who dies the way he should.

Having dealt with things from the pig's view (where it can hardly be better), let's look at it from our point of view: heavy pigs are a tremendous bother. They are aggressive, dangerous and expensive.

By the time I've put all that money and time into a pig, with the clear intention of killing him, I am happy to see it on the final approach to baconhood - because if I've done it right, and if we kill that pig properly, let the meat ripen and so on, we know that that pig will make fantastic cured products, chops, etc. By fantastic, I mean 5 to 10 times better than the garbage you get at the store. As in, you've got to give me 10 pieces of your normal bacon to get one piece of mine.

You can just look at a healthy, big, fat pig (fattened on the right feed!) and know that he's going to taste fantastic - all 300 pounds of his carcass.

I don't take pleasure in the act of killing of the pig. What's great is the sense of accomplishment and finality that comes with completing a job properly. Completing the job means killing a pig humanely and in a way that allows you to use his entire carcass.

The worst thing would be to blow it at the end - I've written about this here - if you do things badly, you utterly waste the pig. In that case, you'd be better off if you never even had the pig.

bob mcgee said...

It's amazing how much of this is about words on a label, and that if you pick the right catch phrase, you can really fool alot of folks. thanks for both showing both sides. bob

Heath Putnam said...

bob - it gets even worse. In Spain, supposedly Mangalitsa gets sold as Iberico. That's not so awful - Mangalitsa produced in Hungary taste enough like Iberico that people can't tell the difference - but it does show that once a brand has value, it will get adulterated.

Imagine if I called my pigs "Iberilitsas". I'd get blasted by the Hungarians and the Spanish. The Hungarians would be especially angry at me for spelling it "ts" instead of "c".

bob mcgee said...

Iberilica, Mangerico, wait if you really want it to sell...Iberian jimmy deanico, or hormelitsa.
There is something awesome about the idea of hanging a ham for three years, Del Grosso talks about this goose confit that he kept for something like 16 years.
I have pushed the time envelope with the kim chee that we make at home, 12-14 weeks tops.
How was market this week end?

Heath Putnam said...

Bob - market was very slow, due to folks caucusing. It should be better this week.

I really like "hormelitsa." But to make it more ethnic and authentic, I guess we should do hormelica.

Also, did you look at the post and see the new photos? I added photos of some fairly sorry looking Iberico swine, and some crowded Mangalitsa crosses in Hungary. I've never seen pictures like those used to advertise the Iberico products. Always they show the fat pig browsing for acorns - never the penned pig looking a lot like a common pig.

In contrast, our Mangalitsa pigs really are out there with tons of space. When the Austrians saw it, it impressed them. Because tiny lots like this one are more typical.

bob mcgee said...

Pretty sad looking Iberico in the pens. I guess the sad thing for me is to see the potential, not acheived. A bit pretentious, I know, and theres so much I don't understand. Would love to spend some time with your friend Christopher there in Austria.
Something that is very interesting to hear you say, is that there are ways to raise even better hogs in America.
I have to say that the Iberian at the top of your post, is a damn good looking hog.
I've seen lots of footage of your hogs outside, and It just seems like they have tons of room to roam.
I'd think I could raise 10 hogs in my back yard watching that short video you sent.

Heath Putnam said...

Bob - I don't think those Iberico look so bad. It looks worse because it is so dry. Come out to our farm in the hot months and it will look as bad.

The Spanish pen the pigs because they don't have enough acorns to finish all the pigs. There's too much demand for iberico.

In Austria, rather than having them in a dusty lot, they'd be in a muddy lot. Just check out the videos of the Austrian farms at the bottom of this page. That looks marginally better.

Anyone who keeps pigs has the problem that they'll eat everything until there's just dirt. That's why the Hungarian lots look the way they do - the pigs root and eat everything.

It really is possible to produce better cured meat than the commercially available Iberian ham - as that stuff is normally produced from 3/4 crosses. If one uses pureblooded Mangalitsa and finishes the same way, they'll taste better than the crosses. Of course, that stuff is going to cost more, as the pureblooded animals are less efficient.

When I think about the whole thing, I'm surprised that they were able to get the law in Spain and Hungary to say that 3/4 crosses could be called the "real deal."

Heath Putnam said...

bob - if you look at the videos at the bottom of this page:

You'll see that pretty much all the Austrian farms are muddy.

If you keep pigs outside in Austria, you'll have a "sacrifice zone" with mud and dirt. Pigs just run around and eventually root and eat everything until there's only dirt.

That's why whenever folks talk about feral pigs, it is about how destructive they are. Given enough time, they multipy to the point of ruining everything.

Christoph has a problem with nitrate buildup on his farm. From keeping so many pigs on his relatively small farm, he's damaged his soil. There's nothing you can do about it.

Anonymous said...

Iberian ham is not only meat, is an authentic gourmet product. Without doubt the best product in comparison with other european hams produced in Italy, France, or Portugal. In spain Jabugo Iberian ham is different to Guijuelo or Dehesa de Extremadura hams. Now is possible to buy excelent iberian hams at internet in all european countries. Different on-line stores like serve this products from Huelva to the European Union.

Heath Putnam said...

Anonymous - how and why is the Spanish product better than the Portuguese product?

I'd think that they'd be very similar products - similar genetics, similar climate, similar processing, etc.

Anonymous said...

Your blog on Iberico pigs was right on! I am from Spain and I have - only a few times - tasted true Iberico ham and it is truly a treat. One must be cautios though, there is a lot of product out there maskerading as "pata negra de bellota"

I am looking forward to tasting some of the you pork that you offer and I am planing on visiting the Rocket Market soon. I hope to find some there.

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