It’s dark, very dark indeed, with thick cloud blanking the sliver of moon. The farmhouse sits squat and black on the peak of the hill, and only the headlights reveal it as we rattle up the track. There are four of us in the Jeep and we’ve come to see something die.
In rural Spain, pigs are still killed the traditional way as part of a family event called a matanza – literally “a slaughter”. The family members would gather so that when the animal was killed, there would be enough willing hands to process everything that could be preserved, as quickly as possible. Then, the store cupboard stocked until the next killing, that which couldn’t be laid away was consumed on the spot – a brief celebration of plenty before returning to the hard life of the farm.
I’d come to Extremadura – along with Simon Mullins, co-founder of the Salt Yard Group of Spanish and Italian restaurants in London, and Ben Tish, the group’s executive chef – to watch a little piece of cultural history played out and to participate. But we’d also come to see a slaughter more real than most will ever experience. There is a natural inquisitiveness about death. There’s a moral aspect for a meat eater in connecting with the living animal that has to die for you, and there’s the challenge: how will you handle yourself? Witnessing the process has become a rite of passage for a certain kind of serious food lover, so we’d come to join a family matanza, we’d come to learn about Ibérico pigs, but, at the core of it all, we had come to see something die.
“Quique” Asparrago owns Señorío de Montanera, one of the principal producers of Ibérico hams. His family also owns Finca Alcornocal in the Province of Badajoz, deep in Extremadura. It’s a fortified farmhouse encompassing a courtyard and surrounded by acres of squat scrub oak trees, around which the handsome black pigs root. The finca is way off any utility grid, and at night the arrhythmic wheezing of the geriatric diesel generator is the only thing keeping us anchored in this century. Tonight we’ll sit around a fire built of vast oak stumps and drink lethally strong “gintonics”, but at six in the morning we’ll kill the pig and by the end of the day it will be salchichón, chorizo, morcilla and hams.
A few pigs due for slaughter have been isolated in a pen as we walk out at dawn to choose one. The animal is weighed, a rope is tied round its hind leg and we all walk back to the farmhouse together, the pig gambolling unnervingly like a large dog on a leash as the slaughterman wrestles with the rope.
Outside the gate of the finca somebody has set up a low table, something like a picnic bench but only a foot or so off the ground. Two local women have arrived from the village, one holding a plastic washing-up bowl. They are not introduced to us and stand off from the main group. Antonio Blas is the matarife, or slaughterman, who has come from the Montanera factory for the day, along with a couple of hands to help out. As the pig is led to the table our little team stands, awkward, and there is an embarrassed pause.
Then things move quickly. Four farmhands grab the pig, taking a leg each, lift it on to its back on the table and then roll it over on to its side. Blas whips a short length of rope around its snout, neutralising its ferocious little tusks and giving him purchase to control the position of the head. The pig is, of course, squealing, but although we’ve been told that it sounds “like a child” or “a human cry”, it doesn’t seem that way. It is bewildered, furious, it grunts and puffs and, to make the obvious error of anthropomorphising, it sounds indignant.
Blas has pulled a knife from his holster. It’s a regular butcher’s blade with a bright plastic handle. He cuts a 5cm slash in the tough, loose skin across the throat – which, weirdly, doesn’t seem to bother the pig at all – then switches his grip on the blade with an adroit flick and slides it through the cut, vertically down into the pig’s chest. He twirls the blade from side to side, wrecking main vessels on either side of the windpipe, withdraws with the first gout of blood and then drives it in again.
One of the women has moved in close, elbowing the men aside to get her bowl under the animal’s neck. Enormous amounts of blood are gushing out now, hitting the bowl hard and splashing up to soak her arms and chest. Blas has withdrawn the knife and is holding the head to direct the blood flow. There is still immense muscular strength in the pig as it fights and wrestles, but it has nowhere to move. The men lean their weight into it like a scrum; dynamic, full of power, but locked still.
Everyone wants to know that it’s fast and painless. Of course I check my watch. The creature gives up fighting about two minutes after the knife goes in. I have no way of knowing how painful it is to have the vessels around one’s heart severed, but the main drive for the animal in its final minutes seems to have been a kind of odd, almost determined rage, rather than panic.
The men push two scaffold poles under the table and carry it like a stretcher into the barn. The body rolls a little as they gently lower the litter to the floor. It is still steaming in the cold air and a bunch of grass has been used to plug the gash in its neck, but it has lost all its intense muscular tone. It’s difficult to express the absoluteness of the change; from a condensed ball of raw, angry power to a soft mound of flesh that seems it will almost pour off the bench if the litter bearers don’t carry it with extreme care.
A bottle of brandy appears and everyone takes a steadying slug.
An Ibérico pig has a full coat of bristly black hair which has to be removed before butchering. Ben Tish and I are handed a propane flamethrower and a scraping knife. As the farmhands turn the body to expose it to the flame we sear and scrape. The smell of burning hair is strong, but somehow not unpleasant. After about a quarter of an hour of work the pig is pink (apart from its characteristic black hooves), and has ceased to look like something that should be running around a yard, instead resembling something that might occupy a butcher’s hook.
Blas steels a shorter, more effective-looking blade and begins to cut. He removes the head, cutting carefully between the vertebrae. He splits the pig along the belly, from the anus to below the throat. Using just the knife he cuts through the cartilaginous link at the front of the pelvis and, with the help of two of the farmhands, opens the pig like a book. The viscera are dragged down, out and into a plastic bowl. Blas puts the heart and kidneys aside and the women separate the intestines – still blue-green in colour from half-digested acorns – which they will spend the next few hours washing and scraping clean at the tap. These will be the skins for our sausages.
With the pig empty and open, Blas begins removing pieces. The legs are removed, tied with string and hung on a couple of ancient-looking hooks. Using the short knife he works from the inside out, teasing out each muscle or group – a process we refer to as “seam butchery”. English butchery traditionally uses saws and cleavers to cut the carcass into joints, which are a logical division of the meat in a geometric sense but make little accommodation for the physiology of the beast. A British “shoulder” is a square joint containing muscle, connective tissue and bone in a kind of arbitrary sandwich. Blas instead separates more physiologically distinct pieces of meat, handing each to an assistant to place in the scrubbed wooden troughs, called artesas, ranged along the walls.
Ben is looking for particular cuts today. The secreto is a flat sheet of muscle from under the shoulder blade, light pink and marbled with fat like toro tuna belly; the pluma is the tip of the loin. Both are uniquely Spanish cuts. Both are routinely diverted to the lucrative Japanese market.
The speed and efficiency of Blas’s knifework is almost too fast to follow, but in short order the artesas are full of sorted meat and he’s lifting the last remaining piece, the cleaned spine, from the spread hide. He snaps it in half with his hands like a stick of celery and throws it into a trim bucket. As he turns away, one of the men rolls the skin and places it in a separate plastic bag.
Somebody has set up a cheap garage barbecue in the corner of the barn, and lunch is picked from the piles of meat and grilled over the coals.
There’s something reassuring about the way each stage of the process seems to happen without any appreciable leadership. You’re aware in every move that you’re watching something that’s gone on in much the same way for centuries. Two of the hands carry in an ancient mincer bolted to a table and we begin to crank the trimmings through, creating, over an hour or two, several buckets of sausage meat. The bowl of blood is brought back in and we mix it with meat and spices before packing it into the cleaned intestines to make morcilla. Ben and I have been so drawn into the processes that we hardly notice that we’re now entirely soaked up to our elbows in blood.
And suddenly it’s over. The farmhands are warming themselves by the dying barbecue with shots of brandy, the artesas, now filled with sausages, have been carried away, the floor has been scrubbed, the mincer dismantled and oiled and we carry the salchichones and morcillas across the darkening courtyard to the hogar, an outdoor kitchen built around an open hearth where they will hang to dry.
On two large hooks hang the hind legs of the pig, neatly trimmed, a rope around each black hoof ready for our trip to the curing factory tomorrow.
Ibérico ham is some of the most highly prized and expensive charcuterie in the world. It’s made only from the hind legs of the black pigs of the region – which is why they are sometimes referred to as pata negra or black foot hams – which have been fattened on bellota, the acorns of the Extremadura’s scrub oaks.
In the morning, as the sun rises, we are barrelling over the Extremadura in another Jeep. This time, as we pass the vast orchards and catch sight of the small herds of pigs rooting freely for acorns, we can’t help but see them a different way.
The factory at Sierra de Barbellido is a brutal concrete cube set on top of the tallest hill in the area. It looks exposed – a feature that’s vital to ham production, as we’ll see inside. We’re met by Rafael Navarro, the plant manager, who will walk us through the production process.
The skin is removed from the haunch, leaving only enough at the slender bottom of the leg to show off the all-important hoof and to take the stamps which mark our ham’s place and date of production. During trimming the joint is massaged to remove any remaining blood from the main femoral vessels. The legs are layered in sea salt in large numbered plastic baskets designed to be moved by fork lift. The baskets are filed in a huge climate-controlled room, where a computer keeps track of every batch. Salting takes roughly a day per kilo of ham, although other atmospheric factors and the quality of the fat layer can cause this to vary.
By the time salting has finished it has penetrated 2cm into the surface of the meat, but the core near the bone is still essentially raw. Each ham will have lost 30 per cent of its moisture by weight, making it an inhospitable environment for the bacteria which cause decomposition and allow lactobacilli to thrive. For the next 90 days the hams will proceed through three fridges with high levels of humidity. During this time the salt distributes throughout the meat and lactic fermentation begins. As the hams leave the last fridge they are coated with a pelt of white and green moulds. (The white mould is a variety of penicillium and will eventually colonise the entire surface of the ham.)
Now the hams move to the top of the building, where they will hang for approximately three years. Today, in midwinter, the temperature is about 5C, but during the summer it will rise to 30C. The factory is higher than the surrounding country and windows can be opened or closed in any direction to take advantage of moist Atlantic winds or to block the drying Northerlies. This, however, is the only control exerted as the meat passes through the annual cycles. By the end of the third year the fat has oxidised to a rich yellow colour and the moulds are brown and white. Finally the hams are moved to the bodega, or cellar, where they hang for several more years. The temperature here shifts only between 10C and 14C and the hams settle, mature and become entirely brown.
Throughout our stay Ben has been putting aside pieces of meat for dinner. First comes the ham. This one came from a pig just like ours, but has aged for four years from the 2008 matanza. Ben shows me how to drape each slice over the back of my hand so it warms to blood heat and the fats begin to soften and liquefy.
Next comes a spectacular mixed grill of “double cooked” ribs (slow-roasted then finished on a grill), heart, liver, kidneys, loin and cured belly. Then, finally, the dish that’s perhaps the test of our commitment. We Brits can be squeamish about pork, terrified by a history of unclean rearing practices, disease and poorly understood cooking methods. We particularly have a problem, almost at a cultural level, with undercooked pork.
Ben brings to the table a beautifully seasoned, immaculately constructed Ibérico pork tartare, topped, in the traditional manner, with a raw egg. It has been a long couple of days – physically hard, emotionally punishing and bewildering on every level. Yet we’ve followed a process which we, as lovers of food, can appreciate has been “clean”, in both a physical and moral sense, throughout. The healthy, free-ranging animal has been reduced with inspiring skill and by traditional means to some of the most desirable meat in the world, and we’ve seen the whole process through.
There is not a moment’s pause as we dig in.
Ibérico pork recipes
Ben Tish shares three recipes that show the versatility of the meat, which is revered for its incredibly tasty flesh.
Mini Ibérico pork burger
When we opened Opera Tavern in 2011 this burger was an instant hit. Regular customers have even been known to compete to see who can eat the most! It’s an Iberian version of the classic burger, made luxurious by the addition of foie gras and melted Manchego cheese. Pork shoulder is the best cut as the fat-to-meat ratio is just right for a succulent burger. You could use a good-quality, rare breed pork mince instead of Ibérico pork, but will need to make sure you cook the burger until it’s well done.
Makes 8 small burgers
600g Ibérico pork shoulder mince
2 tbsp milk
2 shallots, finely chopped, sweated in olive oil
2 tbsp breadcrumbs
40g foie gras, either buy frozen or freeze for ease of grating
1 red onion, cut into fine rings
Sweet smoked paprika
Flour for dusting
50g aged Manchego cheese, grated
8 x 8cm burger buns, cut in half
2 tbsp alioli
8 small lettuce leaves
3tbs red onion
8 guindilla peppers to garnish
Olive oil for cooking
Sea salt and black pepper
● Mix the Iberico pork with the milk, breadcrumbs, shallots and season with salt and pepper. Quickly grate in the frozen foie gras and mix again. Shape into eight patties and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.
● Soak the onion rings in milk and drain well. Dredge the onions in a mixture made of equal quantities of smoked paprika and flour. Heat some olive oil in a pan and shallow fry the onion rings until crisp and golden brown.
● Drain well and season.
● Drizzle some olive oil on to both sides of the burger and season. Grill or fry for 3 minutes on either side until nicely browned and still pink in the centre. Rest the burger for a minute or so in a warm spot and sprinkle on some grated Manchego. It will melt slowly over the burger. Grill the burger bun on both sides until lightly charred. To assemble the burger, spoon some alioli onto the base of the burger bun. Top with a lettuce leaf, a dollop of the onion marmalade, the burger, 2 crispy onion rings and finally the top of the burger bun. Slide a small wooden skewer or toothpick through the middle of the burger to secure everything in place. Serve with the guindilla peppers on the side.
A Spanish or Italian lager: Cruz Campo or Birra Moretti.
Ibérico pork tartare with quail’s egg
This dish shows the true versatility of Ibérico pork. It’s a classic tartare with the rich Ibérico pork treated in the same way as beef. The addition of lemon zest, chilli and marjoram adds Mediterranean zing and the little egg yolk is perfect for tapas-sized portions. At the restaurants, we cut and season the meat to order, which is the only way to prepare tartare. How you like your tartare is highly subjective: it’s all about the seasoning. The quantities given here are meant as a guide only.
Serves 6-8 as a starter or tapa
300g Ibérico pork loin, trimmed of fat
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1 small red chilli, deseeded, finely diced
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp capers, chopped
1 tsp Dijon mustard (or to taste)
A splash of Cabernet Sauvignon
Vinegar (to taste)
4 quail’s eggs, separated, yolks retained
1 tsp marjoram leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
● Using a very sharp knife, finely dice the pork and place in a mixing bowl. Add the shallot, chilli, lemon zest, capers and mustard. Season well and mix thoroughly.
● Add a few splashes of olive oil and vinegar. Mix again and taste. You’re aiming for a punchy acidity but not so punchy that it overpowers the flavour of the pork. When you’re happy with the flavours, spoon the tartare onto plates and shape into attractively presented mounds.
● Top each of the mounds with a quail’s egg yolk and finish with a sprinkling of sea salt, pepper and fresh marjoram leaves. Serve the tartare with ciabatta croutons.
Oak-aged white from Northern Italy or white Rioja.
Braised pigs’ cheeks
With dry cider, fresh peas, pancetta and pan-fried apple
Pig’s cheeks are a delicacy in Spain and Italy, revered for their incredibly tasty flesh and unctuous, sticky texture. You have to cook them for a couple of hours to get the meat really soft but they’re completely worth the wait. Your butcher will be happy to supply you with these as they’re relatively underused in the UK and often go to waste. We like to serve pigs’ cheeks year-round, not just in the colder months. Although the cheeks are richly braised here, this dish is made lighter by the bright, summery flavours of the apples, pancetta and peas.
Serves 4 as a main or 6-8 as a tapa
8 pigs’ cheeks, trimmed of fat, ask your butcher for the “spots” not the whole jowl
1 large carrot
1 small onion
1 stick celery
2 bay leaves
½ head garlic
250ml dry cider
1-1.25 litres dark chicken stock, enough to cover the cheeks
120g pancetta or smoked bacon, cut into lardons
1 Braeburn apple, peeled, cored, cut into 12 slices
400g peas, fresh or frozen
40g unsalted butter, diced
2 sprigs oregano, leaves picked
Olive oil for cooking
Sea salt and black pepper
● Preheat the oven to 160C. Peel and roughly chop the carrot, onion and celery. Heat a large ovenproof casserole pan over a medium heat and add a lug of olive oil. Add the cheeks and colour for 3 minutes on each side to caramelise and create a nice crust.
● This process is very important and will add layers of flavour to the finished dish. When the meat is well-coloured, add the carrots, onion, celery, bay and garlic and stir well to coat with the oil. Cook the vegetables for approximately 5 minutes to achieve a good colour. Next, pour in the cider and bring to the boil. Reduce the cider until it’s nearly evaporated and the alcohol has burnt away. Now add the chicken stock and again, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat so you have a slow simmer. Skim off the scum that forms on the surface of the stock with a ladle. Cover the top of the casserole with a lid and place in the oven for approximately 2 hours, or until the cheeks are meltingly tender and the stock has reduced to a rich, thick gravy. Have a peek under the lid every so often to see how things are doing. 30 minutes before the cheeks are ready, take the lid off to let the stock evaporate and reduce more quickly.
● Twenty minutes before the cheeks are ready, heat a large sauté pan to a high heat and add a lug of olive oil. Throw in the lardons and cook briskly to colour lightly and release their fat. Next add the apple slices and colour on both sides. Add the peas and butter and turn the heat down to low. Season with salt and pepper and simmer slowly until the peas are cooked. At this point, add a splash of water and the oregano leaves. Lightly crush some of the peas with the back of a fork to create some texture. Check if you’re happy with the seasoning.
● When done, remove the cheeks from the oven and check if the sauce has reduced to a thick gravy. If still a little thin, transfer the casserole onto the stove top and heat briskly over a high heat to reduce the sauce. Divide the apples, peas and pancetta between plates and then spoon the cheeks, vegetables and sauce from the casserole on top. Serve. This dish is lovely with some creamy Parmesan-rich polenta to soak up the juices.
Tip: Never season a braise before or during cooking, as you can never tell how its taste will develop over the long cooking process. Generally, it will be very full-flavoured and not need any additional seasoning.
A rich, rustic red from Umbria, Italy. Try a Sagrantino de Montefalco.
Salt Yard: Food & Wine from Spain & Italy (Piquillo, £30). FT readers can buy a copy of the book for the discounted price of £27.00 plus P&P. To order a copy of the book please email: email@example.com and quote “Financial Times”