Pursuing Porcine Perfection – Ibérico de Bellota- Part 1 – La Dehesa

BU4A0175While deliciousness can be found throughout the animal kingdom, no animal provokes more passion than the pig. There are many wonderful breeds of pigs, but sitting proudly at the pinnacle of porcine perfection is the Spanish black-footed Cerdo Ibérico, especially the 100% Puro Ibérico. These pigs reach their zenith in the southwest of Spain when allowed to feast on acorns. They do so for at least two months per year during a process known as the montanera, when they are released to graze freely through idyllic oaken pastures known as dehesas that are loaded with the fattening nuts. These acorns impart a distinctive nutty taste to the meat and most importantly to the fat, elevating an already wonderful breed of pig to the stuff of legend.

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Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes visiting Iberico pigs on la dehesa

Gerry “Mr. Spain” Dawes visiting Iberico pigs on la dehesa

I, along with my son, L.J. Sconzo, recently had the pleasure of accompanying our good friend, Mr. Spain, aka Gerry Dawes, on a tour through the heart of Spanish Iberico country. Through Gerry and his connections, we got to see, experience and most importantly, taste our way through the Ibérico producing regions of Extremadura and Andalucia, visiting dehesas and producers, including some of the very best, along the way. In addition, we got to meet and get to know a variety of people involved in the Ibérico industry from farmers to butchers, to management to artisans to cortadors to chefs. The only things we didn’t see were the pigs on the farms and at the actual slaughter. The latter was simply a matter of timing. Throughout, it was a fascinating and most delicious experience. Here, I begin a four part series on the Cerdo Ibérico starting with their experience on la dehesa during the montanera. This will be followed by a graphic tour of the process of the slaughter, and the breaking down of the pig; the production of Iberico de Bellota¹ products including jamones, embutidos such as chorizos, lomos, salchichones and more, and the butchery of fresh meat products and finally an exploration of the final products.

Puro Iberico rooting for acorns

Puro Iberico rooting for acorns

I imagine that like in other parts of the world there is a wide variety of living conditions for these pigs, though given the ultimately very high value of healthy specimens, I would also imagine that the quality of life throughout their spans, is significantly better than for most other members of the species and the incidence of American style factory farming techniques remains relatively low. Unfortunately, not having directly seen that aspect of their lives, I can only surmise this. For those pigs fortunate enough to become Ibérico de Bellota products, though, there is a period in their lives, two months per year, which must be as close to a porcine version of the Garden of Eden as there can be. This would be the time they get to spend freely ranging through the oaken woods of southwestern Spain in the hilly regions of Extremadura and Andalucia, eating tons of nutritious bellotas or acorns. While there, they feast on these nuts to their hearts content.

The forest floor was loaded with acorns fallen from the oaks.

The forest floor was loaded with acorns fallen from the oaks.

The settings are idyllic: hilly, grassy and dotted with beautiful Iberian oak trees. The actual variety of oaks depends on the specific geography of the area. In Extremadura, adjacent to Portugal, for example, the oaks are the same trees from which cork is produced. In northern Andalucia, near the area of Los Pedroches, the oaks are different. These are not cork producing. Of course, each area swears that their particular variety of bellota is the best and imparts the most delicious flavor to their pigs.

La dehesa de Montanchez

La dehesa de Montanchez

We got to visit two dehesas. The first, up in Extremadura was in the hilly region of Montanchez. Here, we were taken to a lush area that was shared between Ibéricos on montanera and cattle, grazing freely on the grasses, while also fertilizing the cork trees that produced the valued bellotas. This was a relatively small dehesa with relatively few pigs, but the pigs that were present, were particularly curious and friendly. It was a magnificent spot, where we were able to get up close to the young Ibéricos and practically whisper in their ears.

La dehesa de Cordoba

La dehesa de Cordoba

Our second dehesa was larger and part of the Consorcio in the Andalucian province of Córdoba. Here the scenery was every bit as idyllic, but with a larger number of pigs roaming through their feastland. These pigs, a bit older, were less inquisitive and more skittish. They also appeared to have the dehesa largely to themselves, though we did see sheep and cattle in surrounding areas.

Like pigs in mud

Like pigs in mud

The larger herds in Córdoba did what pigs generally seem to enjoy doing. They rolled around in mud, walked and ate and ate and ate, there was no shortage of acorns on the ground in what was described to us as a boom year for the nuts.

An acorn from Montanchez

An acorn from Montanchez

Bellotas de Montanchez sitting in a crook of a peeled cork tree

Bellotas de Montanchez sitting in a crook of a peeled cork tree

For more pictures of piggies in the country, click here. Coming Thursday, the next post on La Matanza and Butchery.

¹The definition of Ibérico de Bellota as taken from the excellent new book, Charcutería: The Soul of Spain by Jeffrey Weiss,

This, the highest quality of Ibérico, is bestowed upon a pig that has gained at least 50 percent of its weight during the montanera, reaching a final market weight of of around 330 pounds (150 kg) without the aid of any cereals to supplement the animal’s diet. These pigs must be slaughtered between December 15th and April 15th, the traditional time in Spain for the matanza to occur.


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