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.