Embarking on a life of crime

(This is the latest in my Washington Post series.)

Prepare for an international incident.

You know how fights are always breaking out because someone in California makes a crisp bubbly chardonnay and wants to call it Champagne, or a sheep farmer in Vermont makes a beautiful stinky blue cheese and wants to call it Roquefort?  They’re not allowed, because the winemakers of the Champagne region of France protect their appellations’ grapes, critical to their wine, and the cheesemakers of the town of Roquefort-sur-Souzon protect their caves’ fungus, critical to their cheese.

OK, I get that.  Those grapes and that fungus are special.  But acorns?

There’s a special kind of ham from southern Spain called jamón ibérico de bellota.  Those of you whose Spanish wasn’t picked up from the advertisements in New York City subways (El Pico! Es más café.) know that bellota means acorn. Although the breed of the pig is specified in this particular kind of ham (it has to be a black Iberian), what really matters is its diet.  Hence the name.

In order to be jamón ibérico de bellota, ham has to come from a pig that spends the last weeks of its life eating almost exclusively acorns.  It is the acorn that gives this ham its flavor, and its flavor is such that people pay vast sums of money to buy very small quantities.  It goes for north of $150. a pound.

Just a couple weeks ago, friends of ours came back from Spain, jamón in hand. And I got to taste it.  It is sweet and earthy, with just a hint of that barnyard flavor that tells you it used to be a pig.  It has one of the densest, richest flavors I’ve ever tasted.

Hmmm.  Delicious ham finished on acorns.  Three pigs in my backyard, six weeks from slaughter.  Oak trees all over Cape Cod.

Kevin and I launched Operation Acorn, in which we are attempting to convince friends to mobilize their underemployed, overcomputered children to go out in the fresh air and sunshine to help gather enough acorns to keep three pigs fed for six weeks.

And you know what?  It’s working.  Friends are sending their kids out into the woods to collect pig food, for no reward other than meeting the pigs and getting their picture in the FOSTAD (Friends of Spot, Tiny, and Doc) gallery.  Even adults are participating.  One reader from Ohio actually took the trouble to collect acorns and is mailing them in.

And a good thing, too.  A pig at this age eats about five or six pounds of feed a day.  That’s a lot of acorns.

We won’t manage an all-acorn diet, but it looks like we’ll have enough for significant supplementation.  Enough, we hope, to make a difference in our pigs flavor.  Although our ham certainly won’t be much like the jamón ibérico de bellota (not only do we have the wrong kind of pig, we have no hope of duplicating the curing process), perhaps, in the dark, after a few drinks, we could pass off a few slices …

Do we have an extradition treaty with Spain?

10 people are having a conversation about “Embarking on a life of crime

  1. You didn’t mention us by name, but we do have to clear up that we did not hand carry the jamon back from Spain–that’s illegal in the eyes of US Customs & Border Protection. We did purchase it from La Tienda an online purveyor of Spanish food items. Must give credit where due.
    So looking forward to trying the Jamón Marstons Mills de bellota…

  2. Can I try your ham? That damn Mr. Bourdain ruined me forever. I have a list of pork products to try, and the Jamon Iberica is one of them.

  3. I tried some jamon in a beautiful market in Stuttgart (if you’ve ever been to Markthalle in Stuttgart, you know what I mean), and frankly, I didn’t get it. I like prosciutto, which is finished on chestnuts, better. Maybe it just wasn’t a very good jamon.

    I have a friend who wants to finish her pigs on the ubiquitous nut of Oregon- the hazelnut. I’m hoping that she does, and I’m hoping I get to try it. I’ll let you know about that.

    By the way, that’s a great picture- which one was that?

  4. Funny you should mention this I’m right at the end of my leg of jamón ibérico de bellota (180 euro ouch) with just the last few delicious slices left before the boiling of the bones.
    So it had me thinking – a garden leaf-vac would be the way to harvest acorns in the kind of numbers required. But you’ve solved it with a more traditional approach = child labour. Good call. I over complicate things sometimes.

  5. We do similar things here. By law, you can only call it bourbon if it’s made in the state of Kentucky and aged in a barrel of new oak. Do the same thing just across the border and it’s Tennessee Whiskey instead.

  6. I thought I had read that they also feed whey to the ibérico pigs. On our pastured pig farm we feed whey and they get a lot of beechnuts, hazelnuts and other nuts from our trees as well as apples in addition to the pasture. Unfortunately we don’t have acorns. I’ve planted oaks but we’ll need to wait a few years… 🙂 Call it what you want but enjoy the delicious flavors.

  7. Loved your post! good luck with your “bellota” project. Unfortunately, there’s much more behind Ibérico ham than feeding pigs with acorns… what make Ibérico ham different is the combination of the Ibérico pig breed plus the fact that these pigs can still find their own food in Southern Spain in their own habitat (the ancient Mediterranean forest called dehesa). We’ve been involved in projects like yours, helping farmers from various countries who try to apply the “Ibérico model”, please count on us if we can assist you…
    2 readings you may like:
    – Book Pig Perfect by Peter Kaminsky
    – Article “Pork on the wilde side” http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/4f171866-4359-11e1-8489-00144feab49a.html#axzz2Ap4CFXHv

    • Thanks for the tips, straight from the source! I’m familiar with Peter Kaminsky’s book, but I hadn’t seen that article — thanks for the link, and for the offer of help. Much appreciated.

      • Our pleasute Tamar! Peter is a good friend, we traveled with him through the land of Ibérico ham when he was preaparing his book, we also helped him during his test with the pigs from the Ossaba Island (GA), descendats of the Ibérico pigs brought to the Americas by the Spaniards… The conclussion of this test was, basically, that the equation to make great porkmeat and ham goes well beyond acorns, it’s key to use a local breed letting pigs rear free range basically on the foods they find on their own in the natural habitat they belong to, and according to their instinct.
        Good luck!

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