Sunday, May 25, 2008

Kylan Hoover's Bay Area Acorn-fattened Mangalitsas

Kylan Hoover's Mangalitsa Pigs in the Diablo Range

Kylan Hoover (of Livermore, California's Red Mountain Farm) - aka Mr. Oak - bought Mangalitsa pigs from us and is finishing them on acorns. He's got some photos of his pigs and ranch on flickr. You can see them here.

His pigs are foraging and eating supplemental barley, as our pigs do. The difference is the quality of the forage - his oaks produce ideal pig fodder. Due to the breed, feed and how he's raising his pigs, Kylan's will be most like the iberico produced in Spain, which are used to make jamon iberico.

I've read a lot of hype and disinformation about Jamon Iberico. With the importation of iberico hams, journalists and others have been repeating falsehoods about the pigs (e.g. all iberico are finished on acorns). I wish more people understood what we (and Kylan Hoover) are doing and why, and that there are a lot of different ways to raise pigs, which produce better or worse results.

Here is some informative material that gets into the details of the fattening process - and it hints at why what Kylan Hoover is doing is so extraordinary and outstanding:
I started at the source, with the pigs, and I visited them during the montanera, the six-month period when they roam the woods, gorging on acorns. By the time they commence this final feast, the pigs are about two years old. At Joselito and the other best brands (notably, Sánchez Romero Carvajal of Jabugo), the breed of pig is pure ibérico; however, less-traditional companies have begun interbreeding the old race with modern varieties that fatten up faster and produce more piglets. Government regulations allow manufacturers to call any pig an ibérico if its parentage is at least three fourths from the ibérico breed...

There are indeed lesser forms of jamón ibérico, made from pigs that haven't consumed so many acorns. The highest category—jamón ibérico de bellota, "bellota" being Spanish for acorn—comes from animals that have put on at least one third of their weight by eating nothing but foraged acorns and grass (and the occasional snake) during the montanera. Ibérico pigs with a diet less heavy in acorns are classified as recebo; if they have eaten solely cereals, pienso. In an average year, there will be 4.5 million ibérico hams, but only one tenth of them are bellota. Even among the bellota hams, Joselito separates the largest and best shaped, distinguishing them as Reserva hams. Because the acorn crop varies each year depending on rainfall, ibérico ham is as vintage-dependent as wine. "The worst acorn crop of my life was in 2000," José Gómez says. "Forty percent of Joselito hams were put out under the second label, C. Jota."

The acorn-rich diet transforms the fat of jamón ibérico de bellota. Studies from the University of Extremadura indicate that more than half the ham's fat content is monounsaturated (the type that is in olive oil) rather than the artery-clogging saturated kind usually found in animals. Significantly, at room temperature the ham's fat virtually melts, like a vegetable oil. "When the pig is slaughtered, an analysis of the fat is done," Real Ibérico's Ullibarri explains. "You can see the correlation between the amount of acorns eaten and the percentage of oleic acid—which melts at room temperature—in the fat of the animal."
Kylan Hoover's Mangalitsa Pigs

If Kylan kills his oldest pigs this Fall, they'll be 15-months when they go to slaughter. I've read that the hogs killed for iberico products are as young as 15 months old, so he's in that zone. The older pigs he'll market this Fall are purebred, so they've got the best possible genetics. We are all hoping that he'll have a great acorn crop, so that the pigs he kills will be fattened entirely on forage.

Based on meat science, those 15-month pigs will be the best available in America in 2008. Although older would be better, there can't be any better stuff available in 2008, because nobody has older Mangalisa (or Iberico) pigs to slaughter.

If Kylan keeps some of his oldest pigs and kills them in Fall 2009, after fattening them on next year's acorns, they'll be like the Joselito pigs described in the article -- more than 2 years-old. Based on meat science, those pigs will be just as good as the best of Spain - because Mangalitsa and Iberico pork taste the same (the former sometimes being passed off as the latter), and for fattening pigs, the Diablo Range might as well be Extremadura.

It doesn't matter that Kylan Hoover doesn't come from an old-world family that's fattened hogs for generations: if he just follows the system, he will get the results.

As much as we are committed to raising the best pigs we can, it boggles my mind that Kylan Hoover is doing this, because he's going to have so much invested in his pigs by the time they finally go to slaughter.

Kylan Hoover has already sold several of his 15-month pigs - two of them to The French Laundry. Come November/December, people in the Bay Area will be eating absolutely fantastic Mangalitsa pork, processed and served by The French Laundry. Starting in November/December (depending on when they kill them), we'll see Bay Area foodies raving about Mangalitsa.

We feel we've done a good job exposing people to Mangalitsa with our marketing of the pork in the Seattle area - but it is folks like Kylan Hoover, The Herbfarm's Keith Luce and Devin Knell and The French Laundry's staff who are going to really help carry things forward.


Anonymous said...

even the folks who have been producing this pork for centuries test the fat content at slaughter to ensure quality.

Heath, I'll look forward to seeing you do similar tests at slaughter to make sure that your assertions are true.

when you're producing a superior product and claiming it's as good as the traditional, I'd expect no less.

Snakeman said...

Thank you for sharing my photo of the mangalitsa earlier. I am honored.

Although it was an extremely limited sampling; I recall a friend of mine who raised his own pigs in Carnation that were fed a lot of scraps from a fine restaurant. Typically about two 5 gallon buckets each day between two pigs.

Since these pigs were for personal consumption and not for resale, he and his wife were able to control all elements of the husbandry, slaughter and processing. Even though these pigs were of an ordinary lineage, I can still remember how tasty the meat was. I'd like to think that the supplemental diet of restaurant scraps have a lot to do with how flavorful they were. I strongly suspect however that they were not “health food”.

Today I got to try Iberico de Bellota again (from Paletas the front shoulder and not Jamon the rear leg) side-by-side with Serrano. The Iberico de Bellota came from Embutidos y Jamones Fermin S.L currently the only licensed exporter of Iberico to the United States.
The Serrano was sliced from a Jamon from Redondo Iglesias

These packages came via a La Tienda I found it interesting how La Tienda has packaged my shipments. The plastic sealed packs of meat are placed with an ice pack in a silver colored, thermal, bubble wrap envelope that has set several windings of large bubble wrap surrounding it, filling the cardboard box. I would presume that it would stay cold for several days. I find it rather ironic that a meat that is always served at room temperature in Spain and has been cured for years is considered “perishable”.

Both of these hams are extraordinary. The three main differences that I have noticed are the melt point of the fat, the color and the flavor.

The slices were consumed at room temperature. Quite a bit of the Iberico fat liquefied at this temperature, it began to glisten beautifully. The Serrano had no beads of melted fat on its surface at all.

The Iberico has a very dark reddish brown color and a strong attractive aroma while the Serrano has more of a lighter rosy hue, a more neutral smell and a ripened flavor like a milder cheese.

The flavor of the Iberico is more intense with a very nutty flavor compared to the subtleties of the Serrano. Neither ham was overly salty.

In all fairness I should have ordered the trio, which includes the Jamon Iberico that was not finished on acorns, just to see how much difference that finishing feed actually makes to my own taste.

In my mind the Iberico de Bellota won the contest hands down. But my particular palette would always prefer a full-bodied Cabernet to a crisp Chardonnay.

Heath, I will save a slice of the Iberico de Bellota and will bring it to you to at next Saturday's farmers market. I need to stock up on more jowl bacon and I think feeding you this sample just might soften you up before bartering.

A couple of closing thoughts to throw out there:

From what I have read about the slaughter “sacrifice” of pigs in Spain it is not done in as hurried a fashion as it is in the USA. The pigs are transported by truck to centralized locations, but then they are given space, feed and time to decompress and acclimatize before they are killed. The Iberico de Bellota pigs may have an additional advantage here. The last time they were put on a truck they ended up in a dehesa forest during acorn season. Oh boy, we get to go on another truck ride!

The Spanish mountain curing process hasn't really changed in centuries. It is not a process that lends itself to automation and is likely difficult if not impossible to replicate. It is time-consuming and expensive. Even with all the care that is given less than one in 10 hams ever makes the top grade.

Lastly for now this blog has contained a lot of accurate information about how environmentally destructive wild pigs can be. But here we have a pig that has become an instrumental component in preserving a large uninterrupted and diverse ecosystem.

Mark S
AKA Snakeman

Heath Putnam said...

Bruceki - It is important to keep in mind that the various Mangalitsa producers in the new world - Wooly Pigs, The Willows Inn, The Herbfarm and Kylan Hoover are all separate entities.

The thing that unites us is our love of fine pork, to that point that we'll get into the pig business to produce it.

As best I know, none of us were in the hog business two years ago. Two of the producers are restaurants, and The Herbfarm is one of the best in the USA.

The two restaurant producers are making quite a stretch to fatten their own hogs - unless they saw the opportunity to achieve great things with Mangalitsa, they'd probably just stick to running their core businesses.

Your statement, "when you're producing a superior product and claiming it's as good as the traditional, I'd expect no less," implies that I'm somehow producing Kylan Hoover's pigs - which isn't the case.

Although Wooly Pigs doesn't compete in the Mangalitsa Speckschwein segment right now, we know how and have produced Speckschweine. So when I claim that Kylan Hoover is going to produce world-beating pork in 2008 and (particularly) 2009, that's just me being honest.

I wish Wooly Pigs could produce that stuff that he can - instead we are just facilitating it by providing him pigs and expertise.

If you find any evidence that someone else is on track to produce better pork in the New World than Kylan Hoover, please let me know. That would really be something!

Heath Putnam said...

Snakeman -- If you say those slop-fefd pigs were tasty, I believe you.

The general rule I've heard is that slop feeding doesn't produce good Speckschweine. Young pigs that you eat fresh can probably eat slop and produce good pork.

I've heard that to be conservative you'd want to limit noxious stuff like fishmeal, anything rotten, and stinking stuff like garlic and onions. When I see you, I'll ask you more details about those pigs.

I'm not surprised you strongly preferred the iberico de bellota to the serrano! There's simply no comparison. Whenever I eat bellota, I'm astounded at how good it is. Even if the Fermin isn't purebred iberico, 3/4 iberico genetics are outstanding.

It would be amazed to find someone who genuinely preferred the serrano to the bellota. That'd be like finding someone who prefers Hershey's to Valrhona.

About the temperature of the ham: I think they try to keep the package of ham cool because if it travels through a really hot area, the fat might render out. Maybe there are customer perception issues too; when you sell someone something at that price, you need to manage every detail. You probably want that product to always look and smell the same, each time they receive it.

About pigs settling down before slaughter: Do you know how long they give the pigs to settle down? There have been some very interesting scientific studies on the value of allowing hogs to rest a bit after trucking versus killing them immediately.

The conclusions aren't necessarily what you'd assume - sometimes you are better off to kill them immediately.

I can see how it could go either way: if the pigs get off the truck and have to fight other pigs for territory until they die, you are probably better to kill them all immediately. On the other hand, if they are having a good time and can build up their glycogen reserves, and reduce their stress hormones, great.

Maybe one day it will be possible to track pig happiness in real time. That would allow people to optimise pig happiness, especially in the confinement units and big slaughterhouses.

In any case, breed is still important when it comes to stress. E.g. Mangalitsa hogs were famous for being put on crowded trains for many hours and still producing first-class meat. You can't pull that with the lean breeds.

About pig destructiveness and the Dehesa: it sounds like they need to carefully manage the pig areas in Spain so that they can keep the gravy train rolling. That's great, and I hope it stays that way.

Wild pigs are a totally different story - humans can't manage them, and they breed so fast they take over. Having wild pigs in a fragile ecosystem is a bad idea. Similarly, if the Spaniards just vanished one day, leaving the Dehesa to the iberian swine (who'd go feral), I bet they'd destroy the environment.

Snakeman said...

To be honest, years ago when I tried the meat from the pigs raised by my friend in Carnation, I had never had anything prior to the experience other than factory farmed pork. He also had an extraordinary vegetable and herb garden that also supplemented the pigs chow.

It is claimed that the Spanish swine are given at least a day to rest after being trucked to the slaughterhouses. I'm still searching to try to find the article were I read that. My statement that the pigs are fed before slaughter is likely erroneous. According to this Canadian piece the pigs are not fed for 24 hours before sacrifice:

“Traditional producers approach the slaughter of these pampered animals with great reverence, referring to it as “the sacrifice.” In a ritual that mimics an ancient religious rite, the pigs are not fed for 24 hours to remove impurities from their systems before being killed by the puncturing of the jugular vein. They are usually rendered unconscious with CO{-2} or stunned electrically before slaughter in order to reduce their stress and thereby preserve the quality of the meat.”

The link to the Geographical article that I posted was incomplete. The correct link is

“But when they aren’t in the grip of acorn addiction, the pigs are omnivorous, and they perform a valuable service by eating weeds, insects, pests and detritus. For centuries, the pigs and the dehesa have survived in a state of symbiosis, and ecologists have recently demonstrated that oak forests with a healthy population of pigs are far less susceptible to disease.”

Heath Putnam said...

Snakeman -- The greens are very good for the pigs' fat quality, due to the antioxidants. That's one reason why our November/December pigs tasted better than our Spring pigs.

I think The Globe and Mail is spreading "artisanal" hype. We've seen a lot of that with the arrival of the iberico.

E.g. take the proffered new-agey sounding reason for feed withdrawal: "to remove impurities from their systems".

The reasons for feed withdrawl prior to slaughter are prosaic, and pretty much universal (Smithfield does it too):

1) Less feces to deal with, less chances of gut spill.

2) The feed of the last day doesn't get converted to pork anyway, so it is a waste of money.

Although Smithfield does the same thing, people would probably say they "starve their pigs on the last day," because they care only about their pocketbook, and not the happiness of the pigs they mistreat their entire short life.

Also, if the Spanish producers are killing the pigs with CO2, you can bet it is being done in a modern sanitary slaughter house. That won't look very "artisinal". It will look a lot like this.

A modern plant doesn't allow you to do much in the way of pig-killing cermonies; they, like any modern plant, will want to maximize throughput. They won't (as the Romanians traditionally do) take a 20 minute break to toast the pig's soul by drinking schnapps.

The more I learn about things, the more skeptical I am about a Spanish "sacrificio" being any more reverent than any other traditional way of killing pigs. Whether you call it a pig-sacrifice, pig-feast or a pig-killing, pretty much the same thing happens either way.

Another thing to keep in mind: the folks who work in the pig-killing business can't possibly be reverent about all the pigs they kill. At some point (probably pig 20 or so) it has to get downright boring.

Heath Putnam said...

Snakeman -- My wife pointed out that that last response sounds a bit nasty. Please don't take it that way.

I've become incredibly cynical about the large-scale production of super-premium lard-type pork.

E.g. if you look at this presentation, you'll see that it just doesn't look that "artisanal". It looks a lot like something that Smithfield would do. Nevertheless, their products are incredible.

Once I found out that most of the iberico are penned hybrids, I got really cynical about the marketing. I still want to eat the stuff, of course.

I would like to make a visit to Spain and check out how they produce their pork, just like I did in Austria. Some farms I saw looked ridiculously nice (and inefficient). Others looked a lot more efficient but less romantic.

Snakeman said...

No worries!

The fact that Embutidos y Jamones Fermin S.L exports to so many different countries, including the very exacting Swiss, indicates to me that their methodologies are probably more in line with modern techniques rather than the historical practices that were prevalent in centuries past.

If one is to spend upwards of $1400 plus shipping to buy a single ham, I can only imagine that the sales pitch must be well-crafted even beyond the product itself.

At the risk of sounding nasty myself, if someone tells me that a single bottle of wine that costs over $1000 per bottle is from grapes crushed only by the feet of virgin girls, then I will want to believe and will not insist on irrefutable proof of their intact hymens.

Heath Putnam said...

Snakeman -- I'm glad we see eye to eye. I wish there was more transparency, so that people would know what they were buying.

One interesting thing about the production of iberico is that because some small fraction of them get finished a certain way, the whole segment gets a big boost.

As you know, even if the pigs get finished in a very traditional way, they might have been farrowed in a very modern system (like the Hungarian mangalitsa-hybrids at the link) designed to maximize the production of 3/4 lard-type piglets. E.g. that sow they show in the farrowing house (at the link) looks like a Mangalitsa-Duroc cross. She's going to produce a lot of 3/4 piggies. The fact that they keep her inside that way means that she'll not be crushing any, and none of them will die for avoidable reasons like weather, lack of nutrition, getting stuck in the fence and asphyxiated, etc.

Anonymous said...

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