The jamón went down to Georgia

Can Iberian pigs — source of jamón ibérico de bellota — thrive in the American South?

Even from a distance, the pigs looked odd. It was hard to see them clearly at first; heavy rains had carved ruts into the dirt road that led into the pasture, and every time the Jeep hit bottom, my glasses slid down my nose. But as we jolted forward, the mass of dark bodies crowding the fence and pressing against the wires came into focus. They weren’t like any pigs I’d seen before — not pearly and stout like the commodity Yorkshires whose backs and bellies provide most American bacon, not sturdy and colorful like the Tamworths and Gloucestershire Old Spots that heritage-focused farmers raise. Instead, these pigs were lean and compact, long-snouted and quick. A fringe of black bristles sprouted between their floppy ears, formed a collar around their shoulders, and ran down their legs to narrow, pointed hoofs.

“They’re Spanish pigs,” said Will Harris III, the owner of the animals and the pasture. He tipped back the brim of his white Stetson and rested one boot on a fence rail. A piglet gently bit his toe. He hesitated a minute, as though he wasn’t sure whether to share a secret, and then nodded as though he’d made a decision. He told me: “We’re going to make Iberian ham.”

Harris is a fourth-generation farmer, and he has a farmer’s flair for making outrageous predictions — for high prices, for good rainfall, for an aging tractor holding out just one more year — and then practically willing them into reality. Even so, what he’d just said in his sibilant drawl was extraordinary. We were staring at pata negra, or “black footed,” pigs, the raw material for one of the most precious cured meats in the world — jamón ibérico de bellota, the free-range, acorn-fed, dry-aged Spanish ham — but we were knee-deep in damp grass at 330 feet above sea level in southwestern Georgia, 4,200 miles from the pigs’ origin in the mountains of southwest Spain.

It’s taken for granted by now that the foods most worth celebrating are those that tell a story, and that story is all about location: a breed that is tied to a place, a patch of ground with a heritage, cooking and serving and eating as close as possible to where the narrative begins. The identity of White Oak Pastures, the farm where we were standing, is rooted in a story like that, one property worked by one family for 152 years. But the pigs that Harris was fondly regarding were unfurling a different story, of immigration and adaptation. Harris was wagering hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a good portion of White Oak Pastures’ reputation, on a long-odds bet that his foreign pigs could do at least as well in exile as they ever had at home, and make a product at least as delicious. And maybe more.

Will Harris III with his Iberian pigs at White Oak Pastures.

What came from the White Oak pigs would have to be delicious, because the ham it aimed to reproduce is transcendent. Jamón ibérico de bellota, the highest grade of Spanish ham — from pigs who spend the last months of their lives eating bellotas, or acorns — is garnet-dark and sweet, streaked with glossy fat that becomes translucent and begins to melt as soon as it makes contact with the air.

The fat is the secret to the ham’s quality, and the acorns are the genesis of the fat. The nuts — technically, fruits — from the oak species that grow in southwest Europe are low in carbohydrates and high in oleic acid, the same monounsaturated fat that makes olive oil healthy. (Iberian ham marketing materials call the pigs “olive trees on legs.”)

But it takes a lot of acorns to fatten a pig for slaughter, and the dehesa — the park-like, tree-studded savannah where the hogs spend the last months of their lives — is a finite resource. Cattle, sheep, goat, and hog farmers all share it; the part reserved for pigs covers about 1,700 square miles, an area slightly smaller than Delaware, inevitably pitting the hunger of a growing horde of ham enthusiasts against the limits of the land.

That demand and a predictable desire to drive down costs — an intact leg of jamón ibérico de bellota can easily price out to $1,000 or more — led to dilution. The slow-growing, dark-footed hogs, which date back in historical accounts to the time of the Romans, were crossed in the 20th century with industrial breeds from elsewhere in Europe. Then they were brought indoors and fed commercial feed. By 2014, the Spanish government felt it was necessary to impose quality controls, through a series of labels that indicated how the pigs were produced: white for the lowest-value crossbreeds, followed by green, red, and finally black labels for the highest quality, denoting pigs fed only on grass and finished exclusively on acorns. Out of the 3 million pigs raised for specialty Iberian ham in Spain in an average year, only about 12 percent yielded bellota, the most precious grade.

And then, in 2008, the bottom fell out of the world economy, and Spain was hit harder than most. The appetite for premium ham dwindled, and when sales crashed, the bank loans that kept farms going did too, forcing farmers to slaughter or sell off their herds. But a few ham makers, who had capital behind them and who wanted to stay in the business of their parents and grandparents, started exploring new markets and began pressuring the Spanish government for permission to ship Iberian pigs outside the country for the first time.

This was risky. Spain had never sought the kind of “protected designation of origin” restriction by which the European Union safeguards product identity and quality. France’s blue-footed Bresse chicken and champagne have a PDO, for instance, as does Italy’s Parmigiano-Reggiano, but jamón ibérico does not. Once the pigs left the country, the name and reputation of Iberian ham would be in play, protected only by the quality of the landscape the pigs landed in, and the integrity of the farmers electing to raise them.

In the town of Alburquerque in southwestern Spain, the father-son team of Jaime and Kurt Oriol sensed the opportunity in front of them. They felt the American market would respond to Iberian ham, given a chance. (They weren’t alone in that; several months ahead of the Oriols, a group of Spanish investors established their own Iberian pig project called Acornseekers in Texas.) There had never been much of a U.S. market, because USDA objections to Spanish slaughterhouse regulation and concerns about pig diseases kept Iberian ham out of the country until 2008. The cured meat was little known in the U.S. except to chefs and travelers, without the fan base that prosciutto and guanciale possess.

“We thought there should be a bigger market for Iberian ham here,” Kurt, the younger Oriol, who lives in New York City, told me. “So we came on a tour, talking to people and visiting farms, to see if we could find someone compatible.” They toured the Midwest, visited California, and then, on the recommendation of a rancher who raised grass-fed beef, detoured to Georgia. “We came to White Oak,” Kurt said, “and then even though we had a few more places to go, we cancelled the rest of the tour.”

“Will perfectly understood, from the beginning, what was the idea,” Jaime, the white-haired, ebullient patriarch, said. The vision the Oriols unrolled for Harris was simple, if not easy: They would bring pure ibérico breeding stock from Spain, and Harris would raise them, with the two families splitting the ownership, the expenses, and the proceeds. The goal would be to produce jamón ibérico — or at least as close to the original as they could get.

Harris accepted, and the group dubbed the venture Iberian Pastures. In January 2015, after months of quarantine on both sides of the Atlantic, 24 young, unbred females and six toothy, wild-looking boars arrived in the south Georgia woods.

White Oak Pastures lies just south of Bluffton, Georgia, a hundred-person dot that was once a thriving market town, now populated mostly by farm employees. The farm was founded in 1866 by James Edward Harris, a former Confederate cavalry officer. His son, Will Carter Harris, expanded the subsistence property into a small but profitable business, raising cattle and hogs and chickens that he butchered by hand and hauled to general stores on a mule-drawn wagon. The next generation, Will Bell Harris, turned the mixed-use property into a modern cow-calf operation, deploying the post-World War II achievements of agricultural antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and trusting in agricultural technology as the path to success.

Young Iberian pigs eat a feed supplement in addition to grazing at White Oak Pastures.

Will Harris III expected to continue that legacy. He earned an agricultural degree from the University of Georgia and came home planning to expand his family’s monoculture of cows and the herbicide-maintained monoculture of grass that kept the cows growing. And then, in his 40s, he changed his mind. He ceased using antibiotics and hormones, stopped spraying his fields with weed killer, and turned his cows loose to graze the native grasses. He added sheep to eat the plants the cattle spurned, and chickens to scratch up the dung the ruminants left behind, and goats and pigs to clear underbrush so the cows could move into new fields.

Some 25 years into its reformation — during which Harris and his employees learned to grind cattle bones for fertilizer, repurpose slaughterhouse rinse water for irrigation, make pet chews out of hides, and grow insect larvae for chicken feed in vats of discarded viscera — White Oak Pastures is now the largest certified-organic property in the Southeast, spanning some 3,000 acres. The farm raises 10 kinds of animals — cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, and guinea hens — slaughters them in USDA-approved abattoirs, then sells the meats online and through Whole Foods and other supermarket chains.

Harris had been raising American heritage-breed hogs and selling the meat for just a few years when the Oriols emailed, asking to visit. “We brought hogs and chickens and all these other species in for two reasons,” Harris said. “They improve the pasture, and they give us another product to sell. We sell more beef if we offer beef, and lamb, and chicken, and when we’re out of something, we sell less of everything.” We were bumping across a field in his Wrangler; it was December, but the feathery perennials bending under the tires gave off a fresh green smell.

“So these pigs were an attractive proposition,” he continued. “I didn’t have as many hogs as I needed. And raising them is a kind of sexy and challenging thing to do.”

It was going to be challenging, for sure. Georgia is nothing like the pigs’ ancestral home. The dehesa is shallow-soiled and suffers hard droughts. White Oak is almost always humid; it lies on a coastal plain so rich that, 1,000 years before Europeans arrived, indigenous Americans built one of the oldest and largest mound-city settlements in the southeastern U.S. there. Even the oaks are different, water oaks and live oaks instead of the holm oaks and cork oaks in Spain.

Iberian pigs wait to be moved to fresh grass. They are rotated frequently while grazed areas are reseeded.

That posed a problem. Acorn fats and acorn flavor are essential to the character of Iberian ham. If the nuts the pigs ate in Georgia were somehow distinct — less abundant, less sweet, varying in the fatty acids and bitter toxins they contained — the differences would be reflected in the meat. It would be risky and wasteful to feed the pigs White Oak’s acorns and hope they turned out perfect, so the partners needed to find something acorn-like — something local, abundant, equivalently nutritious, and tasty to the pigs.

They found the solution 12 miles down the road in Blakely, Georgia, an old market town whose courthouse square holds a granite monument to the peanut. (“So largely responsible for our growth and prosperity,” the inscription says, “important to the better health of the people of the world.”) Blakely processes more peanuts than anywhere else in the United States. Harris and the Oriols had peanuts from Blakeley and pecans from White Oak’s own trees tested by Spanish nutritionists. The balance of fats and carbohydrates were a perfect match for the Spanish acorns.

But it takes more than nutrients to make an animal into the best version of itself. If that were true, a farmed salmon or a battery chicken would be as tasty as a wild fish or a barnyard bird. The Georgia pigs were growing up in a richer, wetter, wilder environment than their forebears had experienced in Spain, drinking from new streams, rooting grubs from under different trees. It was impossible to guess what was taking place inside those tough, dark skins, or what they would eventually taste like.

The American product closest to jamón ibérico is country ham. The processes are similar at the outset: The back legs of pigs are carved off the carcass in one piece, salted to draw out moisture, and then hung in a cool place so air currents and enzymes can transform the soft, raw muscles into sweet ruby solidity. But between curing and aging, country ham is often smoked over smoldering wood. The buildings that produce the most precious American hams — Allan Benton’s in Tennessee, Col. Bill Newsom’s in Kentucky — are imbued with the ghosts of generations of fires, a faint fog of ash and musk that persists even when nothing is burning, and clings to anything that passes through.

Spanish hams are never smoked — which meant the great American curing houses, and the ham masters who run them, would not be able to produce White Oak’s jamón. Nor would White Oak be able to build a curing house of its own: Iberian hams age, instead of rot, in the cool and dry climate of southwestern Spain, and southern Georgia is seldom dry or cool.

The partners needed to find one more collaborator, someone who had a curing house in the right climate, and who knew how to make ham without smoke. They hoped as well to find someone like themselves: entrepreneurial, curious, and willing to test traditional practices to see if they could be bent in new ways. Out of all possible places, they found that final partner in Iowa, the heartland of industrial pork.

Herb Eckhouse, owner of La Quercia in Norwalk, Iowa, moves a rack of Iberian pig legs that he is curing for White Oak Pastures.

Herb Eckhouse and his wife Kathy operate La Quercia, just outside Des Moines, one of the few curing houses in the U.S. to make prosciutto to Italian standards using meat from American pigs. Beginning in 2001, they began buying pastured pigs from small farmers (they now also raise their own), butchering them by hand and curing them with salt and cold air — first making prosciutto and later expanding into pancetta, guanciale, and spallacia. The Eckhouses had worked out how to make a product derived from foreign traditions feel local, legitimate, and fresh, and they perceived that Harris and the Oriols were reaching for the same goal. Eckhouse agreed to take legs and shoulders from the Iberian Pastures pigs, put them through the classic salting and hanging process, and age them for the traditional period of two years or more. He would turn them into the best version of whatever their raising allowed.

“Grapes from all over the world are being grown in the United States,” he told me. “Are they the same as the wines that are made in Bordeaux, or Tuscany? No, they’re not. Are they delicious? Yes, they are.”

The Georgian-Iberian hams, he thought, had potential, like an ancient crop grown in a novel place. “We don’t expect it to be the same, or even want it to be the same, but we expect it to be delicious,” he said. “We want to develop an American tradition.”

At the end of January 2017, Iberian Pastures slaughtered the first batch of pigs. The parents had arrived almost exactly two years earlier, rested a few months, and then been mated. A few days before the slaughter, Aaron Lorenz, the manager of all of White Oak’s hogs, took me to see the herd, which had grown to 150 animals. (There are about 400 now.)

A batch of sows and their newest piglets had been stashed in a stand of century-old pecan trees the farm had bought and wanted to reclaim; the orchard had been neglected for decades and the ground between the trees was obscured by privet, tall, stemmy shrubs that grow too thick to walk through. The pigs had torn the privet down, chomped on it and stomped it flat. Wherever they had rooted, bright green grass was growing again.

The piglets squealed when they saw us, and the mothers lumbered to their dainty black-nailed feet. They crowded around, snorting and rubbing their long heads against my jeans. I felt a nip, and craned behind me; a piglet had set her teeth in the ankle tab of my boot, and was yanking on it like a toy. “They’re mostly happy animals,” Lorenz said. “They’ve got a personality, and they’re smart. Every time they see a human, it’s because we’re bringing them something. So they don’t have any reason not to like us.”

A few days later, 26 males were herded out of their pasture at sunset and guided into a holding pen. The next morning, the crew loaded them into a small truck and drove them a few hundred yards to the slaughterhouse, where they were shot through the head with a bolt gun, hung upside down and bled, and scalded and scraped of bristles until their skin looked white. It was a calm process, and quick. Inside 9 hours, all 26 pigs had been killed.

Iberian pigs wait in small groups at the processing facility the evening before slaughter.

White Oak had sent two of its employees to apprentice with the Oriols in Spain: John Benoit, who manages all of the farm’s livestock, to learn how to raise the pigs; and Brian Sapp, its director of operations, to learn Iberian meat-cutting methods. Sapp is a tall, taciturn man with an advanced degree in meat science; incongruously for someone who deals in death every day, he grew up on a flower-bulb farm. Once the pigs were dead and cleaned, he took over, breaking them down according to Spanish standards — slicing along both sides of the backbones instead of sawing the spine down the middle as an American butcher would, and leaving a chunk of hip bone in the joint at the top of the ham, like a handle.

Mid-morning, Will Harris texted me an image, a long steel table stacked with more than 100 deep-red haunches and shoulders, ending in black-nailed feet. “Two-plus years of negative cash flow behind us,” he wrote. “Two-plus years of negative cash flow yet to bear.”

On a mild February evening last year, Harris was making his routine tour to tuck the farm up before night fell, visiting every pasture in turn with a Solo cup of merlot tucked down near the parking brake and a shotgun lying on the dash. We went to the cattle and the goats and the sheep and the laying hens, skirting the massive Great Pyrenees guard dogs that live and sleep in the fields. He was feeling positive about the pigs, he said, but the Oriols were due the next day. They had not been to the farm in a few months, not since before the pigs were slaughtered, and he was anxious whether the animals had come out as everyone planned.

Every Iberian pig I had seen at White Oak had looked content and healthy: the sows just after they arrived from Spain, the batches of piglets they had given birth to, even the giant, dangerous-looking boars that were confined on the other side of the highway in sturdy wood-fenced pens. Harris wanted me to understand that their ability to thrive in Georgia had not been guaranteed. He had wondered whether they would flourish at all, living in an ecosystem they had not evolved in, exposed to insects and infections their breed had never experienced.

“We replaced the acorns they are used to eating, but that was not radically different,” Harris said. “What was radically different, a great risk, was taking these animals from a high elevation to a low elevation, and a low humidity to a high humidity. Completely different temperatures, and completely different pathogens that they have no resistance to.”

He steered around the edge of an emerald pasture and past a wide, still pond. “We have not had one sick pig,” he said. “We haven’t lost a single one.”

The next afternoon, Harris retraced the route, leading a caravan of cars and trucks. The vehicles wound past the rusty-red broiler chickens, hybridized out of heritage varieties sturdy enough to live outdoors, and the Katahdin sheep, chosen because they shed their coats without shearing, and thus can endure the Southern summer. They bypassed the cattle herd, bred from an unbroken line of heifers born on the property since the first Harris arrived 152 years ago, and the American heritage pigs, Tamworths and Berkshires and Gloucestershire Old Spots, that had been fenced into a stand of pines and left to mix themselves into a unique White Oak blend.

And then we came to the Iberians. The trucks pulled up to the pecan grove. Harris lagged behind, a little. Kurt Oriol unchained the big gate, and his father surged ahead, silver curls spiraling with the humidity from under a White Oak cap. Jaime had not seen the pigs for a year, and he was as eager as a relative running toward a long-denied reunion. The sows and piglets swarmed him, tugging on his shoelaces and pressing against his knees.

“Will!” Jaime yelled. “They are beautiful, they are perfect! They are armonizada—” He turned to Kurt. “Homogenized? Harmonized?”

“Consistent?” Kurt offered. “With the way they should be.”

“Consistent,” Jaime agreed. He smiled. “They are exactly right.”

By the time the first load of pig parts was trucked to Iowa, and then a second and a third, gossip about the Iberian Pastures project began percolating through the food industry. Every round of slaughter left a small amount of meat typically eaten uncured: loins, flanks, and shoulder muscles, a mere 10 pounds per pig. The partners put the meat up for sale on White Oak’s website, where the farm’s regular customers snapped it up. Then Harris’s daughter Jenni began driving around the South to persuade chefs to sample it. They hoped to build a groundswell of interest, in the fresh meat and in the ultimate product, the Iberian Pastures hams — priced, potentially, at $1,500 each — that will begin to emerge from La Quercia in summer 2019.

After slaughter, Iberian pigs are processed at an abatoir near White Oak Pastures.

One of the chefs was Katie Button, the James Beard-nominated executive chef and owner of Cúrate, a tapas restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, that serves Iberian hams and other cuts of Spanish cured meats. Button worked for Ferran Adrià and José Andrés and married a Spaniard; their company, Heirloom Hospitality Group, runs food trips to Spain. She was excited about the project; very little fresh Iberian pork is sold in the U.S., and much of it arrives frozen from Spain. And she liked the idea of an American iteration of ibérico. It would enrich an American farmer, if things went well, but ought also to raise awareness of the Spanish traditions it was modeled on. “I will be really excited if somebody here in the U.S. starts aging hams in that two-to-three-year range,” she told me. “It’ll hopefully make the product more accessible to Americans, and more available in restaurants across the U.S., because it won’t be a Spanish specialty item any more. It will be an American item. I would love for more Americans to taste the quality of great cured ham, and understand what that is.”

A few weeks after the first pigs were slaughtered, the Harrises held a small dinner at White Oak for their workers and partners, everyone who had put two years of trust and hope into ferrying the pigs and breeding and raising them. They decorated the screened-porch pavilion with flowers and candles and strings of Christmas lights. The Oriols brought case after case of wine, and two Spanish chefs: Alejandro “Sacha” Hormaechea, a media personality from Madrid, and Manuel Berganza, the opening chef at Andanada, a Spanish restaurant in New York with a Michelin star. (Andanada closed in 2017.)

The two chefs sidled past each other in the pavilion’s small kitchen, trading places as they pickled and chopped and heaved slabs of meat on a roaring wood-fired grill. When Berganza squeezed past, I asked him whether the pigs being raised in Georgia would make him not want to bring it to his customers. He rolled his eyes. “If I wanted to serve ibérico at my restaurant,” he said, “why would I buy something that sat frozen on a boat for three months, to have it be Spanish? When I could have this, which is the same bloodline, which is fresh?”

The ibérico meat was delicious. It was charred outside, dark red and juicy within, and marbled so finely that almost no fat was visible. It tasted more like a grass-fed steak than like the lean white meat of commodity pork — like an animal that had enjoyed its life outdoors, chewy and tender and tasting of fresh herbs and blood. It offered a palatable confirmation of how well these foreign pigs had done in their new home, and a promise of what they might become.

From time to time, as the pigs had been growing, I had asked Harris how he construed them. Were they a foreign foodstuff merely raised in America? An American animal forced into a foreign frame? Authenticity is a fraught concept in food now, and so is appropriation. But Harris had not appropriated the pigs. They had been brought to him by people who had a claim on their patrimony; he had given the pigs new pastures when their historic home was threatened, with conditions that matched the highest standards in Spain. His pigs, I realized, were like the farm he was raising them on. He had inherited something traditional, looked at it closely, improved it by instinct, and transformed it into the best version it could be.

We had talked about this, in one of my visits to the pigs, thumping down one of the farm’s back roads. Harris was thinking out loud about the product to be. “It would be disingenuous to say, ‘This is Iberian ham,’ and lead people to believe I imported it from Spain,” he said. “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.’”

Lead image: In Spain, Iberian pigs roam and eat acorns, but these Iberian pigs explore and forage the pecan orchards at White Oak Pastures. Photograph by Melissa Golden.

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