Spain's stress-free, acorn-eating Ibérico pigs produce healthier, tastier ham—and modern food science explains why
I had never seen pigs run. Which was why, I realized, it looked so ridiculous when more than a dozen of them crested a hill, heading straight toward me at an ear-flapping porcine gallop. Before this, my experience with swine was mostly limited to watching them grunt in dusty pens on New England farms. Until I got chased down the driveway of a Spanish farm by a pack of them, I had no idea that they were natural runners—and that I should care. It turns out what makes a pig happy will make it taste that much better.
I understood that meat should come from a creature that lived well, but I couldn't imagine there was a scientifically proven gastronomic motivation too. The revelation came at Finca Montefrio, a sprawling pig farm in the southwestern Spanish province of Andalucia that raises the black Iberian breed to make jamon Ibérico, the air-dried ham that is a Spanish national treasure. After living in Italy and indulging in plenty of Parma's sweet, slightly salty, nutty prosciutto, I wanted to taste for myself whether jamon Ibérico was more hype than bite.
The owners of the operation, Loli and Armando, greeted me at the gate of their stone farmhouse. They were wiry and quiet—people who work too hard to waste their breath. We stood for a moment and watched the pigs, who had lost interest in me and were snuffling under trees a few hundred yards away.
The trees the pigs were rooting around were holm oaks, planted all over the property. Their acorns are the critical ingredient. During the autumn months of the montanera before the pigs are killed, they gorge on an acorn-only diet, giving the meat its rich flavor and the high quantities of oleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids that make nutritionists drool. To prep the pigs for acorn season, Loli and Armando distribute smashed pumpkins that cleanse the animals' digestive tracts and expand their stomachs—a trick they picked up from the old pig farmer who had the property before them.
It was easy to forget that these animals were destined for the slaughterhouse as we walked through what could only be described as pig heaven: sunlit fields of knee-high grass, deep puddles, and shady stands of trees. Pigs skittered between trees and sunk into mud, squealing with shameless pleasure.
Armando, who had responded to most of my questions with his eyebrows, suddenly produced a noise that started like a yodel and ended like a fire alarm. "Waaaaa-kin! Waaaaa-kin!" It echoed across the orchard and sent me stumbling backward. He explained that this call was the dinner bell, and on cue pigs began converging on us at a speed usually reserved for large cats. The herd led the way to the barn and from that angle I couldn't help but admire their ample backsides. I wondered if Armando saw jamon where I saw hind legs.
It wasn't until later, as we watched the pigs inhale their meal, that Armando talked about the rationale behind his methods. He explained that research being conducted in Australia and New Zealand is showing that when stress is minimized in animals, the meat has a lower pH and is consistently more delicate than in animals that experience stress during transport, handling, and slaughter. In other words, when it comes to making a high-quality, rarefied product like jamon Ibérico, a little tenderness goes a long way.
After the tour was done, Loli brought plates of fresh goat cheese and toast rounds spread with homemade pate to a picnic table beside the house, along with a warm salad of cilantro, red potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs, all from the garden and henhouse. I wondered out loud whether these studies might provide an economic incentive for animal welfare on factory farms. I later realized that industrial meat producers are already well aware that stress has adverse affects on meat. There are even names for the consequences of abuse, like Pale Soft Exudative (PSE). It's so common in fact that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization talks extensively about PSE in its "Guidelines for Humane Handling, Transport and Slaughter of Livestock." When the animals are subjected to manhandling, fighting in the pens, and bad stunning techniques, the fright and stress causes a rapid breakdown of muscle glycogen. This lightens the color of the meat and turns it acidic and tasteless, making it difficult to sell, so it is usually discarded.
According to research by Kansas State University, PSE causes the U.S. pork industry losses of $275 million annually. If not motivated by morals, industrial pig farmers could avoid profit loss by allowing animals to rest before they are slaughtered, giving them enough space and some water. Unfortunately, most meat today is ground beyond recognition and consumers can't taste the difference, so the cost of creating stress-free environments for animals doesn't pay off.
But there's a side to this that's more alarming than the threat of tasteless meat. The Journal of Animal Science and researchers at the University of Milan's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine recently confirmed that fear experienced during slaughter significantly elevates meat's levels of stress hormones—adrenaline, cortisol, and other steroids. Studies on human consumption of artificial growth hormones, which are believed by many to affect our reproductive systems and other bodily processes, have already resulted in policy changes in many countries, including those that make up the E.U. Attention is now turning to these naturally occurring fear-induced hormones as scientists worry that their consumption causes similar problems.
Before learning all this, I might have thought Loli and Armando were slightly obsessive to transport their pigs to the slaughterhouse in trucks lined with mattresses, each in its own compartment to make the trip as trauma-free as possible. Now I found myself suggesting the addition of classical music. It made sense, finally, that when animals are healthy and relaxed at the moment of their death the meat produced is healthier for us to eat, while glycogen that remains in the muscle is converted into lactic acid, which maintains the texture, flavor, and appetizing color.
The moment of truth came when Armando emerged from the house with a leg of jamon balanced on a wooden stand. The limb extended into the air, displaying the single black hoof that gives the Ibérico pigs their nickname, pata negra. Armando shaved off a slice and held it up, letting light pass through the burgundy meat streaked with bright white fat. A toothless person could have eaten this ham. As it disappeared I was left with distinct flavors of nuts, mushrooms, and a bit of spice, like a peppery, green olive oil. It was spectacular.
"If I weren't eating the best meat of my life I'd be considering vegetarianism," I finally said.
"I don't believe in vegetarians," Armando said. "Why boycott the industry? Just buy something better. It should cost money. It's a life."
Images: Daisy Freund