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The Iberian pig in Sierra de Aracena

18. März 2013 By Maestro Gourmet In Artikel
The Iberian pig in Sierra de Aracena

A name like "The Iberian pig in Sierra de Aracena" offers plenty of descriptive possibilities, not only because of the uniqueness of the pig but also because of the beauty of the expanses that make up its habitat, the traditional richness in the preparation of the products, and the wealth of recipes available, which is undoubtedly the region's best legacy. The Iberian pig is possibly the only and perhaps the last domesticated animal that is still perfectly adapted to the environment in which it lives and eats. Its special genetics and diet, feeding on grasses and acorns during grazing season, make it a gastronomic delight, unmatched in the entire world.

The ecosystem formed by the tree-covered oak forests in southwest Spain are best exemplified by the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche Natural Park, in which the Iberian pig has a vital importance, both cultural and economic. The greatest number of existing Iberian pig varieties live together in this region, and it also has the honour of having been the sole contributor of one of those varieties, the "Manchado de Jabugo" (spotted pig from Jabugo).

The tradition of making products from the Iberian pig dates back to the time of the Romans, when the most famous hams from Iberian pigs were the "Pernae cerretanae of the lands of the Ceretani or Manoplano," according to an allusion by the poet Marcial. However, it was in the 18th century that production reached more structured, organised and productive levels. Thus, the Brotherhood of San Antón Abad was formed in the town of Cumbres Mayores in 1772 as the "Guild of Butchers and Mule Drivers."

In the 1930s and 1940s, the pig meat industry in the Sierra began to flourish, incorporating technological advances to the lifelong traditional principles. Since the 1990s, it has undergone an important transformation by virtue of having to adapt its facilities to the current regional health code, which has meant, in addition to expenditures by manufacturers, a much-needed refinement to be able to compete on the large scale of the regional and international markets.

Mythical mountain towns like Jabugo, Cortegana, Cumbres Mayores, etc. have historically been the cradle of the best ham in the world, where producers know how to care for it and spoil it so that it takes on its incomparable smell and taste. While the prestigious ham began to be produced centuries ago by small traditional producers, it was in the towns mentioned above and other neighboring localities like El Repilado, Corteconcepción, Los Romeros, etc. that the tradition and reputation of the Iberian hams and charcuterie from the area began to be consolidated at the end of the 19th century. Paraphrasing Juan de Dios Hernández, it can be said that the quality of the products in this Sierra is due to the climate, which combines the light of Andalusia and the coolness of the lands where the oaks and cork oaks live with the chestnut and the walnut trees, giving uniqueness to pig raising and charcuterie curing.

The cuisine of Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche, based on fresh or cured products made from the Iberian pig, is very tasty and varied, and the common denominator is the great sensibility and respect for flavour, which today is the basis of modern cooking. As the perfect unknown cooking ingredients outside of the producing regions and with the exception of Iberian ham, the fresh products made from the Iberian pig are living a wonderful culinary moment. Their tenderness, taste and aroma pleasantly surprise the most demanding gastronomes and palates. Let's not forget, of course, about the high-quality artisanal charcuterie (pork loin, saucisson, chorizo, blood sausage, loin, etc.) that complete the cuisine that revolves around the Iberian pig.

Iberian pigs' muscles, because of their age and diet, are firm and sinewy, which offers excellent opportunities to try the meat either fresh or as charcuterie. The natural penetration of fat into the muscle mass makes it juicy and tender, in addition to giving it a pleasant taste and aroma. All of this is unlike the other white and precocious breeds, which have soft muscles and watery flesh. Comparing them to the Iberian pig is not appropriate, since they are two completely different products.

The special physiological characteristics of the Iberian pig, which has a high percentage of fat and a low level of growth compared to the amount of food ingested, makes this animal not be competitive according to modern concepts of meat production. The opposite is true for Celtic, white, and lean pigs, which have become early meat production "machines." If we add to this the lower numbers of Iberian pigs, their longer production cycle, their difficult handling with their extensive diet, the reduction of wooded areas in the oak forests, and the economic and social circumstances that the livestock raisers in the area have experienced, it is not difficult to understand why the number of Iberian pigs has fallen by more than 90% since 1955. In an attempt to obtain the best from both breeds of pig, Iberian and Celtic, livestock farmers have done their own "genetic engineering" which consists of cross-breeding Iberian pigs with other early pigs, especially the Duroc-Jersey breed, to 25%, 50% or even more. This has achieved improved meat production ability in crossbred pigs, to the detriment of the most demanded cuts: hams, front-leg hams, and loins.

The apparent advantages of the crossbred pig can only be overcome when the consumer, and thus the market, objectively and knowingly value the products obtained from the different pigs. The quality of the ham from the purebred Iberian pig compared to ham from half-bred Iberian pigs is undeniable. But opposed to that in an almost conclusive way is the guile of many and the confusing information provided by a large part of the industry in recent years. The lack of product categorisation, the absence of technical and quality specifications that define the products, the difficulty in verifying the true diet of the pigs, and the blocking of the creation of third-party entities that control and guarantee quality have made the consumer, perplexed and confused, part of a whirlwind of names, terms and synonyms of quality that have only seriously damaged the industry's reputation. The creation of the "jamón de Huelva" (Huelva ham) Designation of Origin, where the production area is practically the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche Natural Park, is one of the clearest initiatives in the region to control the quality of the products bearing the designation, such as hams and front-leg hams, to promote them and in the end to guarantee the consumer that the quality of the product (Iberian ham, pork loin, saucisson, chorizo, etc.) that what he or she purchases matches what is indicated on the label and by the designation of origin. Currently, with the proper human and technical resources, confidence must be instilled in the market, travelling down the path that will inevitably make transparency and accuracy reign in the sector whose primary motto can and must be quality.

The implementation of quality assurance systems will also necessarily contribute to improving health and hygiene conditions of the products and the image of the sector in the market.

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