Thursday, March 5, 2009

Iberico Country

The drive from San Sebastian was long and a little boring. We set out at 9am and 6 hours later, thanks to a cheap portable satellite navigational system, that on more then one occasion was almost fucked out the window.

The last part of the journey saw us climb out of a never-ending low flat terrain and into a cooler mountainous region. We were excited for the change in scenery and the cooler temperatures but really, my excitement stemmed from the fact that we had reached Iberico country…you cannot cure hams in a warm climate.

Late in January I was fortunate to host Raul Martin at Salt. Raul is the grandson of Fermin Martin (founding father of the Fermin brand). There are many producers of cured ham in Spain, but there are not many who make the Iberico Pata Negra. Fermin are one such producer, but they distance themselves from the pack by being one of only a few who rear, slaughter and cure their own animals. They are even more unique because they are the only producer who FDA approved to sell their product in North America, a right that took 10 years of intensive paperwork and several visits from American Inspectors. Their Spanish slaughterhouse is actually inspected by FDA annually (

When we arrived at the plant we shared the parking lot with a truck that was dropping off the last of 200 pigs that were to be dispatched the next morning. We met with Raul and after a little catch up he asked what we would like to do at Fermin. I replied that we’d like to see the process from piglet to 36-month-old Iberico ham and he said that he would be delighted to oblige.

So for the remaining of the natural light that day we were to see the animals from piglets in a farm to gorging themselves on acorns and sleeping under acorn trees in a 1000 acre farm.

A true Iberico black hoof pig. Notice the long thin legs and narrow snout.

The Iberico is a breed indigenous to Spain. It is black in color, has a narrow face and narrow legs and its genes allow for as much as 49% of it’s body to be made up of fat. There are 4 wonders of the gastronomical world: truffles, caviar, foie gras and the Iberico Black Hoof Pig. Nobody else in the world can rear it and whether as fresh meat or cured, it is highly prized.

Piglets and sow...

We first toured a farm where the animals are bred. We saw everything from piglets to sows ready to give birth to sows recently pregnant. We also saw the boars, which are leaner and hairier then their female counter parts.

The brown hairy fellow is the only male in a group of 60 pregnant sows.

They put him in there in case one or two are not pregnant yet.

The next farm that we went to was specifically concerned with the last 3 to 4 months of the animal’s life. During this period they eat acorns, grass, wild rosemary and wild thyme and this combined with the 49% body fat give the animal its distinctive taste.

The animals eat acorns from 3 kinds of oak trees. One species is the same tree that cork is harvested from. During the last 4 months of their lives, they will eat an average of 10kgs of acorns per day, all the while sleeping outdoors under the same acorn trees. Basically, if they aren’t sleeping they’re eating and this gorging adds an extra 50-75 lbs of pure fat to their bodies.

Bark from tree has been harvested for wine corks

As the light faded, and our stomachs growled, we checked into our hotel and ate a modest meal. As Raul dropped us at our hotel he asked us to be at the plant for 7am and when we asked why so early, he said rather solemnly and cryptically, “to view the next stage”.

Talk over dinner inevitably fell to; did Raul mean the actual slaughter? Could we actually witness that? The other two lads were not so sure that they were ready for that and to be fair it was kind of sprung on them. I, on the other hand didn’t feel that I had a choice. For many years, I have wrestled with my conscience over the killing of animals and my part in it. I use pork in all of my operations and can often account for 100’s of lbs a week…..shouldn’t I be present at least once during a slaughter???

If I’m not willing to be involved in the killing of animals then can I really make money off the back of their slaughter? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging others and indeed there are many times when I reject my own argument as ridiculous. The fact that I am apprehensive about being present because it might make me sick or ruin my day, is not a good enough reason. They’re lives are being taken so that I can sell a product and make a profit, the least that I can do is witness it.

Anyway, tirade over, I had given it a lot of thought and knew that I must attend. The other lads had decided that they would go to the plant decide then.

We arrived at the slaughterhouse at 7am, as requested. Donned white overalls, bootees, mask and hair net. After walking through disinfectant baths and having our hands washed in what smelled and felt like pure alcohol, we were led onto the plant floor. The first thing that struck me was the noise and then the smell.200 pigs are processed through here every morning between 6am and 11am, you need a lot of machinery to move things along at that pace and machines make a lot of noise.

Raul led us through the floor to the first stage in the process and asked that we not photograph this part. Actually, he shouted at us over the noice and as we were concentrating on where we were walking and trying to hear what he was saying, we didn’t actually realize where he had led us to until we were at the killing stage. We sort of turned a corner and I was immediately struck by an unbelievable scene involving pigs being shocked, cut, hung, dropped in boiling water then having their hair and skin scraped off. I was fascinated and a little overwhelmed by what I saw, the two lads, who hadn’t even a moment to decide whether they’d view it or not were also fascinated. The noise, the flash of a knife, the geezer of blood was unlike anything I had ever scene before. Some of the animals we screeching, but that was for just 15 seconds before they received an electric shock, nonetheless, the noise of the animals and the machinery combined with the blood and the use of a knife on a live animal (albeit stunned) caused me to trip slightly. Despite the fact that this was highly organized and heavily regulated, I felt like I was witnessing the end of the world. I remember thinking that this felt a lot like that scene in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen and the boat crew stop off at a besieged outpost to refuel.

Me looking a little shell shocked...

After witnessing 4 animals meet their end, we walked around the corner to the space where the pigs were disemboweled, cut in half and had their tongues and hearts removed. At this point we were allowed to take photos.

Pigs have just emerged from the hot water bath.

This rids them of their hair and oddly, an outer layer of skin, making the black pig white.

The animals that you see here were alive less then 20 mins ago.

Disemboweled and cut in half, with some still attached by the skin of their back.

check out the back fat on this animal

As we moved to the next stage my heart began to beat a little easier as I had witnessed whole animals being butchered many times before at J. N. & Z.

A sight that I am more familiar with...

In this room, the animal is broken down into loins for lomo, meat is scraped off the spent bones for chorizo and salchicon, legs are trimmed for hams, several fresh cuts of meat and beautiful 3” thick slabs of back fat for lardo.

slabs of back fat

There is a piece of the animal that the Spanish call “Secreto” and it is sort of like a flank steak but with over 49% fat content. When cooking it you are supposed to grill it, but you can never leave it on the grill for longer then a second. So, cooking it demands constant turning and moving around the hot surface.


In the next room we see items being prepared for salting and then curing, etc.

I’ll let the photos take it from here.

The salting room was almost full at the time of our visit.

Only Spanish sea salt is used

When full there are 80,000 legs in this room.

The chorizo room...

It had been an awesome 16 hours, but we had a 3 ½ hour drive ahead of us. So with an eye on the time we thanked Raul for his hospitality and made our way to Madrid.

Next up, we gorge on Tapas, Madrid style, and return home to Vancouver and the construction of our new restaurant.

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