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.