The Tale of the Black Pig

A black pig, a government edict, an old oak tree and an open window…throw in a pile of salt and untold riches and what have you got? A good story, at the very least.

While walking up La Rambla in Barcelona, I almost stumbled as my feet stepped into a field of raw meat. Stretching across the sidewalk, a path of marbled pink led me up an escalator (also made of meat) and into a wine bar. The elegant host handed me a menu. My Spanish is poor, but as far as I could tell I was being offered a wine and boar tasting. I enjoy a good prosciutto, I thought to myself, and I’m always up for a glass of wine. Luckily I did not express this blasphemy aloud, as I would not only have been expelled from the restaurant, but perhaps from Spain as well.

I was actually being offered the opportunity to taste Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, or acorn-fed black pig, one of the world’s gastronomic treasures. Paper-thin slices of pork were being served on plates warmed to exactly 27° C (80° F), just the right temperature for the rivers of marbled fat to begin to melt, a fat so sweet it is sometimes used to wrap cherries for dessert. Paired with a crisp manzanilla or a dry fino sherry and it wasn’t just the fat melting; I was too. The sweet, nutty delicacy was a heavenly shock after the somewhat tawdry, albeit effective, meat escalator. What was this stuff?

The uninitiated will call it ham, but for the Spanish this meat stands in a class of its own. An epicure could write pages on the complexity of jamón, a food so exquisite it is sometimes wrapped in gold leaf, but I am not an epicure. I am a storyteller and the Tale of the Black Pig is an interesting one.

Long ago, when men first began to domesticate animals, the Phoenicians brought pigs to Spain from Lebanon. They interbred with wild boars and produced a new breed: large, long-legged, fine boned, with black tails and hooves. Left to roam in the ancient oak forests of the Iberian Peninsula, they feasted on magic acorns during the dark days of winter, becoming bigger and fatter than any pigs that came before. And the acorns really were magic. Inside the pig’s body they triggered a sophisticated chemical reaction that transformed half the pig’s fat from artery-clogging saturated fat to monounsaturated oleic acid full of antioxidants. It’s good fat. I’m debating about adding acorns to my diet.

After the matanza, or traditional slaughter, the hams were kept in hills of salt for nine days, then washed and hung to dry in the mountain air for up to three years, losing half their size. The abundance of this wonderful fat allowed for the long curing time, which in turn produced the complex, intense flavour of the meat. It’s said that the only mechanical intrusion into this traditional process was a button that opened and closed the windows of the curing sheds to allow the mountain air to do its work. The result: the aforementioned untold riches and a happily-ever-after for the story.

And although that’s the end of the pig, it’s not the end of the tale. There’s a prequel. 

Traditional practices such as the one that produces Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are honed by history and steeped in lore. Before the Middle Ages, bellota ham was just for peasants. The oak forests were there, the black pigs were there; bellota ham was the available food source. (Editorial note: lucky, lucky peasants!) That was before the Spanish Inquisition, when luck ran out for many.

Land ownership in the Iberian Peninsula changed dramatically as farms were consolidated under Church and military control. But the land was poor, the climate unpredictable and dry. Leaders worried that collective farming would ruin the land, so decreed that farmers had to adopt a multi-use approach. The rangeland management system that was developed required retention of the oak forest (with some thinning allowed), along with some agriculture, some grassland and some grazing. This system created a sustainable agroforestry ecosystem that remains in place today, called a dehesa. The oak trees provide renewable cork, as well as wild mushrooms, charcoal, tannin and firewood. The acorns feed the black pigs. The grasslands provide barley, oats and rye for goats, sheep, cattle and horses. These grazers keep down the shrub growth and provide milk. The dehesa also supports wild game, which is hunted for meat.

So today, despite poor land, the dehesas are not only economically successful but contain some of the highest biodiversity in the world. Home to endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, Iberian Eagle, Black Vulture and Black Stork, they also sequester 3-5 times more CO2 than other forests during periods of bark regeneration after cork harvesting. The popularity of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is helping local farmers maintain the ecosystem and retain rural jobs rather than submit to pressure to develop the real estate. From a tragic period in history comes a positive outcome.

And it was melting on my plate. With every succulent bite I taste the past and the future. It’s definitely a happily-ever-story, just not for the poor Black Pig.