A California Pig Farm Could Be America's Best Shot at Homegrown Jamón Ibérico
Despite its deep association with Spain, the term "jamón ibérico" has no geographic protections.
In what might've become one of the earliest documented cases of FOMO, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto heard about another conquistador's trip to Florida and was so jealous and intrigued that he sold everything he had to fund his own trip across the Atlantic.
De Soto, who took a significant amount of gold after Spain's defeat of the Incas, cashed much of it in for 10 ships and 700 men to sail to North America. After more than a year at sea, he landed near what is now Tampa Bay in 1539. In addition to eventually becoming the first European to cross the Mississippi River, some also consider de Soto to be the "father of the American pork industry" due to the fact that he brought 13 pigs with him to Florida.
That baker's dozen eventually turned into more than 700 pigs, and some believe that they might've been the only pigs brought from Spain to the United States for 475 years. That changed in 2014, when the co-founders of Acornseekers, a farm in Flatonia, Texas, got the OK to bring 150 Iberian pigs into the country. In January 2015, Iberian Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia imported 30 Iberian pigs of its own. And according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a farm in California recently became the first in that state to start raising Iberian pigs, too.
Earlier this year, 80 of the all-black pigs arrived at Encina Farms in Middletown, where they'll be allowed to roam freely on the land and forage for acorns, just as their relatives do on the oak tree-studded dehesas of Spain.
Hines Boyd, an eighth-generation farmer, told the Chronicle that there are only about 5,000 Iberian pigs in the United States; his family's Florida-based Glendower Farms has 700 purebred Iberians. "California's environment seems to come closer to Spain than anything else I've seen in the United States," he admitted. "I think these California guys have the best shot of anyone of having a continued market for finishing the pigs on acorns."
That's what the owners of Encina Farms are hoping for. Their recent arrivals are being raised for their rich marbled meat, so they won't be cured. But if all goes to plan, the farm's next generation of Iberian pigs will be acorn-finished next fall and, after a lengthy two-plus year curing process, they could become the first ever California born-and-raised jamón ibérico.
Jamón ibérico—the absolute pinnacle of cured meats—wasn't even imported into the United States until 2007. Despite its long history in certain regions of Spain and its equally lengthy association with the country, there is no protected designation of origin for jamón ibérico, which means that U.S. farms can use the term too.
In 2014, the Spanish government did release a set of color-coded standards based on the pigs' lineage, how they're raised, and what they're fed. (Based on their free-range lifestyle and acorn-heavy diet, the Austin Chronicle reports that Acornseekers would qualify for a black label, the designation given to the best of the best jamón. Based on Encina Farms' plans for its own pigs, they may be eligible for that coveted label as well.)
Iberian Pastures, the Georgia farm, expects to have whole legs of cured jamón by the end of the month, and that premium pork comes with an ultra-premium $1,500 price tag. Although the website lists the meat as "100% Iberico Pork," it also specifies that the pigs are "Georgia-Raised."
"It would be disingenuous to say, 'This is Iberian ham,' and lead people to believe I imported it from Spain," Will Harris III, owner of Iberian Pastures partner White Oak Farms, told Eater last year. "But I think it's quite acceptable to say, 'This is raised in Georgia, and we substituted peanuts and pecans for acorns, and we think it's just as good. Or better.'"
Hernando De Soto knew gold, he knew treasure, and he knew pigs. We're guessing that he'd nod approvingly in the direction of these three farms—or maybe he'd just try to take them for himself.