For centuries, the Iberian Peninsula has been an important meeting point for ancient civilisations and eminent explorers including the Moors, Spanish colonisation as well as the man who discovered America — Christopher Columbus. In 1492, Columbus reached the Americas with a healthy, energetic and long-lasting food made of a special animal from the Peninsula itself. The following year, these creatures proved themselves seaworthy when they sail with Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas.
It may sound like the Iberian Peninsula has been cultivating a certain type of ‘superfood’, and until today, this delicious produce remains as one of the most sought-after food ingredients in the world.
Let’s cut the chase. It is the Iberian black pig.
The Iberian Peninsula is located in the southwest of Europe, divided primarily between Spain and Portugal as well as small parts of France and Gibraltar on its south coast. Native to the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, the black pigs have a lineage that reaches back to the time of the cavemen. It is a special species that are significantly different from pigs found elsewhere.
The Iberian black pigs, also known as the ‘Iberico’ is a prized pride of the Spanish hog husbandry. Even in a fast pace technology-driven era today, farmers in Spain are still keeping the tradition of keeping these pigs free-range; as the dark-coloured pigs can be sighted foraging freely in the open fields.
Pure breed Iberian black pigs are large, stand tall and are usually with medium to dark grey hide. They generally have small ears and large shoulders, a wrinkled forehead, very little fur and large hooves – allowing them to walk with agility in the mountainous steppes.
During the fattening-up phase (between October to February), these pigs, which have never been crossbred, roam freely over the fields and eat acorns of holm oaks and seeds of cork oaks that are native to the peninsula. These acorns are the secret that makes these black pigs special.
One may say that the Iberian pigs grow on a very ‘clean diet’ – very much vegan, so much so, that it contributes to a different taste and texture to the meat. The acorns give the meat a somewhat nutty and rich flavour profile and a fat that is slightly healthier than other pork.
It is important to know that pigs don’t convert the fat they eat. One of the distinctive genetic traits of this breed is its ability to store fat in muscle tissues. The fats produced from the pigs’ metabolism comprise large amounts of oleic acid that is proven to be healthy to the human body. Fat from the acorns, on the other hand, is similar to olive oil – monounsaturated – and this contributes to the streaky and glossy marbling texture. So, the fats they gain during the ‘bulking’ phase is key to succulence and taste unlike no other.
Another fun fact; Iberian black pigs are able to directly metabolise the food they eat into fats and fatty acids. This allows the infusion of the taste of their feeds within their flesh. Thus, when given apples, they taste slightly of apples. This applies to corn and berries; whichever fancies its breeder.
The streaky fat of the meat makes Iberian pigs the best option for hams and cured meats. That’s where the Iberico ham or jamón Iberico got its name.
Iberico hams are characteristically long and slender, and the colour ranges from rosy to a deep purplish crimson. The texture is remarkably soft thanks to the high percentage of healthy fat within the meat. The melting point of the fat is about 21 degrees Celsius, making the streaky slices tantalisingly glossy when served at room temperature.
Apart from its cured version, the Iberico pork is simply delicious. Its unparalleled quality and flavours, however, truly depend on the way the meat is being prepared and cook – grilled, roasted, barbequed, bake or stewed, you name it.
What you typically would get in restaurants serving Iberico pork are the spare ribs, shoulder meat and cheeks. The ‘secreto’ (moderately fatty, very tender cut from somewhere behind the shoulder) and the ‘presa’ (extremely marbled cut that sits above the shoulder at the front loin) are two less common but extremely delicious cuts.
Obviously, all of these cuts come from the same animal, but the tastes and uses are quite diverse and astounding. In the words of English traveller, Richard Ford who is known for his excursions throughout Spain in the 1800s, “…the pork of Spain has always been, and is, unequalled in flavour; the bacon is fat and flavoured, the sausages delicious, and the hams transcendentally superlative…”