About Iberian Pork
THE PRODUCT AND ITS INTERPRETER
By: Rafael Ansón – Photos: Ángel Becerril
IBERIAN PORK AND ABRAHAM
Although pigs are to be found nearly
everywhere, with a wide variety of local
breeds, there are some whose special
characteristics set them apart from
the rest. Spain has a truly totemic
animal, the Iberian pig or Sus Ibericus,
a fully autochthonous breed that has
been among us since time immemorial.
Its distinguishing features are a small
head, a prominent snout, a short and
muscly neck, long full hams, and a hide
varying from vermilion to black, with
dark brown especially abundant.
(*) President of the Royal Spanish Academy of
Gastronomy and Honorary President of the
When the Romans arrived in Hispania, they found a flourishing industry in exquisite
Iberian pork preserves, and the fame of the hams of the Iberian pig soon spread all
over the empire. Both Martian and Diocletian paid tribute to them in their writings.
The iconography of the Iberian pig expanded further during the Middle Ages, even
though Spain’s emblematic animal had to confront Biblical and Koranic precepts.
Literary works, such as The Book of Good Love by the archpriest of Hita, related how
the Castilians would make copious use of the hams, bacons, entrails and all kind of
organs of the Iberian pig, and images of pig have been associated since then with
various saints and prophets, particularly St. Antony.
Everyone knows that the meat of the ham from the fore and hind legs of this
exceptional animal is red and delicate, and that it has a very soft covering of grayishyellow
fat. This is precisely one of the great secret of the Iberian pig. Owing to a
mysterious and highly fortunate biological mechanism linked to its feeding habits in the
oak woods, the fat infiltrates the lean meet around the animal’s muscles during the
period of fattening. The result is a meat with a unique and incomparably smooth
texture that is made into a great many derivates, forming a range of hams, sausages
and blood puddings that is truly unique.
Among all these pork products, the crowning glory is pure acorn-fed Iberian ham. The
jewel among Spanish delicacies, this gourmet delight is comparable only to the world’s
other gastronomic treasures, such as foie grass, black or white truffle and caviar.
The quality of this cured meat also depends on the ecosystem and in particular on the
breed’s natural feeding habits, known as the “montanera” diet. This is based on acorns
from holm oaks and the herbs of the countryside. Because of its high carbohydrate
content, the acorn gives the animal an energy intake that benefits its meat, while the
herbs give Iberian ham their unusual perfume.
MUCH MORE THAN HAM
Besides the ham from both the fore and hind legs, full advantage is taken of the
excellent fresh meat of the Iberian pig, and no part of the animal is wasted during the
cut. Butchers separate not only the solomillo (tenderloin) and carrillera (jowl) but also
the cabezada (loin ribend), the castañeta (saliva gland), and better known cuts like the
presa (the center of the shoulder), the pluma (the front end of the loin, known
traditionally is Spain as the “butcher’s fillet”), the secretito and secreto (a cut
between the shoulder ham and the ribs, called the “secret” because butcher’s would
keep it aside after the cut). All of them are increasingly valued in modern cuisine.
As if that were not enough, white lard from the Iberian pig can be used to make
anything from delicate puff pastry to patés with an unusual texture. The head too can
be transformed into the basic ingredient of tasty pies, and the loin makes mouthwatering
There is still plenty more to say about the immense culinary possibilities of Iberian
pork. In particular, it is worth setting the imagination to work on the tenderloin, the
jowl and the shoulder, parts of a surprising anatomy whose many alternatives make it
one of the most tempting luxuries to be found on Spanish tables.
Abraham García, one of Spain’s great classic chefs, runs the kitchens at Viridiana, a
restaurant next to the Retiro Park in Madrid. Cultured, inquisitive and highly
articulate, he assures us that his cuisine can be summed up in two words: flavour and
character. “From the very beginning we opted for a cuisine of fusion, a process of
culinary interbreeding that started with the discovery of America and which now, in
the wake of migration, is an irrepressible reality”.
Iberian pork is undoubtedly one of the emblems of his cuisine.
Recalling Professor Francisco Grande Covian´s old aphorism that “the Iberian pig is an
olive tree with legs,” he believes that “along with the Merino lamb, it is the greatest of
our livestock. That is why I have stood up for its virtues ever since I first dedicated
myself to pots and pans”.
Abraham García maintains that the product is so good that “the seasoning and the stew
are always fully at the service of the pork. I think it goes without saying that a piece
like the jowl requires radically different treatment from the loin, which in turn bears
no relationship whatsoever to the pluma or the secreto” .
MEATS THAT DIGNIFY
“From snout to tail”, he says to reaffirm his defence of this magnificent product,
“there is not a single cut without a place in the broadest possible range of delicious
recipes. Iberian pork dignifies my menu all the year round. It may be the comfit of
pork dewlap that accompanies the scarlet prawns with roast jam and pesto, or the
cinnamon meatballs with saffron couscous, or the pork jowls with mole poblano and wild
mushroom risotto or the attractive pluma brochette”.
Although as regards of the “exalted Iberian pig” as above dates and fashions, there is no
doubt that the best time to discover its immense contribution to Spanish cuisine is in
the winter months, close to the traditional time for the slaughter. When asked to
choose a wine to accompany these recipes, Retiro Park’s idiosyncratic chef proposes a
poetic toast: “May the best reds of this country, which is a great vineyard, bring a
blush to our glasses and our gullets”.
About Iberian Pork