For the Ibérico pigs spending their last days on the idyllic dehesa during the montanesa, their time would ultimately come to an end and they would move onto the next phase of their being – the transition of their special corpulent and muscular bodies into food. This final process necessarily begins with their deaths. The Spanish call it La Matanza. We did not actually get to witness a matanza during our journey – we got to the Lazo production facility in the northern Andalucia denomination of Jabugo not long after that days slaughter was finished, but with enough time to witness most of the processing of the fresh meat. Please be warned, that the process will be described and the subsequent animal butchery shown in a graphic fashion. For those who do not care for meat, or who only wish to believe that it just comes from stores in packages covered by clear plastic wrappers, please do not proceed beyond this point. For those who are truly curious about where their food comes from and how it gets to the plate, please continue, for the meat of the Puro Iberico pig is amongst the most prized in the world and rightfully so. I know of no other meat that I consider more delicious than the meat from this pig, whether fresh or cured.
In pre-industrial times and even today with very small producers, la matanza can be a much more personal affair. Jeffrey Weiss’s new book, Charcutería: The Soul of Spain, provides a detailed look at the traditional methods of la matanza as done on a working farm in Extremadura. Today, however, most of Spain’s large production of Ibérico products takes place in more industrial settings. Lazo, a small artisanal producer in what is perhaps Spain’s most famous and arguably best denomination, remains artisanal at its core, though with the incorporation of an industrial approach to la matanza. The company does not export to the United States. Not normally open to the public, once again thanks to Gerry Dawes, I was given a full private tour of the facility along with my son, L.J., Gerry and his enamorada, Kay Balun. The process described below is how they do it at Lazo.
The pigs are brought to an area adjacent to, but upwind of the matanza from their country farms a night or several nights before they are killed. There they are allowed to spread out and relax and are given plenty of food and drink to keep their stress levels as low as possible. On the morning of their demise they are brought to the abattoir and are herded quickly into a narrow chute, which channels them into the building. At the top of the chute they are quickly stunned with a burst of an electric shock applied to the head.
The stunned animals are hoisted rapidly by their hind legs into a head down position. Their throats then get cut twice, once to kill and then to exsanguinate. Within fifteen seconds, the animal is dead. Stress and pain are minimized by the speed of the process as well as the electric stunning. This is important for quality reasons as well as humaneness. The meat from a stressed animal is not nearly as high in quality as that from one with little stress. Every so often, good and practical actually work in concert.
At this point they are conveyed into a hot water bath of 62-63ºC to clean the skins. The time in this bath , called la caldera, is brief, so that the animals don’t lose their prized black hoofs (las patas negras).
The carcasses undergo a three-step process to remove the hair from the skins. The first is with coarse brushes right after la caldera, then plastic brushes and finally a machine that torches the skin to burn away any remaining fine hairs that may have survived the earlier techniques. Once torched, the carcass is cleaned and scraped to remove any remnants and char.
The body is then moved to another area, where it is gutted and the organs removed. A section of the diaphragm is removed to check for trichinella. This is done with every animal, at least at the particular plant in the area of Jabugo, that we visited. In addition to the micro analysis of the diaphragm, all of the internal organs are inspected visually for any signs of disease or parasites. With all of the viscera removed from the chest and the abdominal cavities, the carcasses move on to another room to be broken down.
In the next room, the pig carcasses get broken down into larger sections. The head is removed, the limbs are divided and the chest and abdominal sections get de-boned. Before proceeding further, the bodies go into a cold room of 3-4ºC for approximately 6 hours to cool down for further handling. It becomes easier and better to manipulate the meat once it reaches a temperature of about 12-13ºC.
It is in the final room that the detailed butchery occurs to separate the parts to be used for curing and those to be sold for fresh meat. Of course, the jamones or hams that come from the Ibéricos is the most famous product and for good reason, but they are far from the only incredible product that comes from the animal.
A major cut is the lomo or loin that runs along the spine and the ribs. Each animal has two. These are typically used to make their own special embuchado product, but more on this in the next post.
The top of the lomo, though, gets trimmed of a few select muscle groups, that make for some of the most succulent pieces of fresh meat one will ever eat, la pluma, a separate “feathery” muscle separated from the loin by a thin membrane, and la presa, from the intersection of the loin and the neck. Other prized cuts include el secreto and el solomillo. These are the limited cuts that in the past had usually been hoarded by the butchers themselves.
Nothing goes to waste. The head is trimmed with the meat products such as the cheeks and the jowls used for their own specific purposes, while the brains, fat and bits of other meat are used as well.
Most of the other bits of meat and fat go into a variety of embutidos, such as the pimentón and garlic rich chorizo and the savory salchichon.
Both the hind legs and both fore legs are separated from the corpus at the hips and shoulders respectively. The hind legs make the prized jamones, while the fore legs become the slightly less prized paletas. These are trimmed just so and readied to undergo the curing process. That will be covered in detail in my next post. Stay tuned! In the meantime, for more photos from Lazo, click here.