Inside the summer-camp-like restaurant at White Oak Pastures, the picnic benches have been pushed together to form one long banquet table. Employees have covered the rough wood tabletops with white linens, flower boxes and candelabras, small touches of elegance for the guests who will sample the first pork produced at this Georgia farm from the offspring of 30 Spanish pigs flown first-class from Europe.
On its face, the dinner is a celebration of a Spanish-American partnership that has invested more than two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a project to raise the famous black-footed Iberico pig on Georgian grasses and nuts. But it’s also a recognition that two vastly different cultures — the relaxed, drink-till-dawn conviviality of Spaniards and the punctual, bull-spit-and-barbed-wire toughness of rural Georgians — share a love of pork. The pig is their unbreakable link, a gift to the New World from Spanish explorers, and perhaps the only animal that could create such a bond between Southerner and Spaniard.
“Once we got to know each other, they became like our Georgian family,” says Kurt Oriol, the New York-based managing partner of Iberian Pastures, a 50-50 collaboration between White Oak and Cobacha, the Oriol family farm in Alburquerque, Spain.
Counters Will Harris III, a fourth-generation cattleman and the celebrated cowboy-shaman behind White Oak: “I wasn’t looking for family. I got plenty of family,” he drawls. “But we’ve just become incredibly close.”
If the partners speak differently, they also have different tastes in pork, though both have a distaste for the high-volume industrial system that dominates pork production in America. Before the Iberian pigs arrived, in early 2015, White Oak raised mostly hogs that were a cross of Berkshire, Tamworth and Old Spot heritage breeds. The pigs grazed on pasture, were finished on non-GMO corn and soybeans, and were processed for the chops, shoulders and other cuts that Americans love. By contrast, Cobacha owner Jaime Oriol, Kurt’s father, raises Iberian and Iberian-Duroc crosses that graze on meadowlands and are finished on acorns or another feed high in oleic fatty acids, the monounsaturated fats that may benefit human health and have earned the pig the nickname “the olive tree with legs.”
Then there are the fresh Iberico cuts, so foreign to Americans that Brian Sapp, the director of operations for White Oak, must explain the meats that are artfully arranged on a serving board at the dinner. There’s the lagarto, a snaky strip of meat pulled from the pig’s spine; the presa, a prized piece sliced from the section where the loin meets the shoulder; the secreto, a luxuriant cut found under the belly fat; and so on.
The displayed meats create an odd tension inside this wood-frame restaurant behind the slaughterhouses at White Oak. It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and on this warm winter night, the crowd must decide where to focus its attention: on the Iberico dinner or on the TV streaming the game. This may be the only place in Georgia where many eyes are trained on pig meat, not pigskin.
The pig’s presence in the United States has also created a stir back in Spain, where farmers are concerned about the impact American Iberico will have on their products. Their concerns are not exclusive to Iberian Pastures, either. There is, after all, a second producer of the Spanish pigs in America.
Manuel Murga and Sergio Marsal, the co-founders of Acornseekers, were the first to import Iberian pigs to America. They did it in the summer of 2014, months ahead of the swines’ arrival at White Oak. Their initial herd of 150 sows and boars may have been the first such pigs to root around in the United States since the 16th century. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto brought 13 hogs to Florida in 1539; they are thought to have been eaten or disappeared into the wild, where their genetic identity was lost after countless crossbreedings, though some think the Ossabaw Island hog in Georgia still carries traces of Iberico DNA.
As the Iberian pioneers, Murga and Marsal were the first to deal with the onerous U.S. Department of Agriculture import protocols, which require testing, vaccines, two quarantine periods and specially made crates for the pigs’ transatlantic flight. Murga says Acornseekers paid $300,000 for 150 crates, which the company had to burn once the animals were quarantined in Rock Tavern, N.Y.
“The most expensive fire in the U.S., I think,” deadpans Murga, who ran his own farm in the south of Spain for 30 years.
Unlike the Oriol family, which sought an American partner, Murga and Marsal decided to do it themselves. They found an abandoned hog farm in Flatonia, Tex., with lots of live oak trees, which drop acorns in the fall and winter, similar to the pig- fattening season in Spain called la montanera. The landscape, Murga suggests, compares favorably to the Spanish dehesa, an area where farmers raise their pigs on a mixture of meadows and forest. But unlike in Spain, where producers have been dealing with a devastating oak tree disease, the Texas acreage offers an ecosystem with healthy live oaks that produce higher acorn yields than their cousins in the dehesa.
Acornseekers’ ability to finish its purebred Iberian pigs on acorns will be a prime selling point. For years, one of the best-kept secrets in Spain was the fact that contrary to their reputation, precious few Iberico products — whether fresh meats or cured hams — came from purebred Iberian pigs finished only on acorns. Experts estimate that, annually, between 1 and 10 percent of the Iberico products in Spain come from such pigs, which is one reason the Spanish government introduced a color-coded system in 2014 to identify the different breeds and methods used in Iberico production.
Murga says his products will compare with those awarded a black label, reserved for purebred black Iberian pigs finished only on acorns. The problem, as he sees it, will be educating American consumers on the value of an Iberico product that may be foreign or far more expensive than its U.S. counterpart. As such, Acornseekers doesn’t sell just the Spanish cuts of meat. On its website, the company also offers familiar shoulder cuts, pork belly and even spare ribs, which cost $95 for a five-pound rack. (You can find a rack of conventionally raised American spare ribs for $20 or less at butcher shops.)
When Acornseekers debuts its cured hams in the spring of 2018, the price may startle Spanish producers, who have yet to fully recover from a price drop a few years back (despite China’s large appetite for pig legs). Murga plans to charge as much as $2,000 a leg for his American-made Iberico hams, or several hundreds more than the going rate from similar products from Spain. The owner makes no apologies. He’s aiming for a high-end boutique market, not unlike that of Napa Valley wines.
“People here are willing to pay a little bit more,” he says.
If you ask José Andrés his opinion of American-produced Iberico, the chef and face of ThinkFoodGroup will talk almost in circles, a reflection of his own complicated position in the world of Spanish gastronomy. He’s an ambassador for his native country’s products. He’s a businessman who profits from them, too. But most important, he’s a partner with Fermin USA to import Iberico products into the United States.
Yet even with a disclaimer about his conflicts of interest, Andrés says “it was a bad decision” to allow purebred Iberian pigs into the United States. If he were in charge, he adds, he would never have allowed Spanish farmers to export pigs to America, where it’s already difficult for Spanish producers to enter the retail market. Only nine operations in Spain are certified to export Iberico products to the United States (including Fermin, by the way).
“I would not let [the pigs] go away from Spain,” Andrés says, “because they are going to be competing with themselves, without any benefits to Spain.”
Spanish farmers, Andrés says, have become alarmed by the sudden competition in America; their fears can be easily traced to similar U.S. imports, such as Japanese Wagyu beef, which has become almost impossible to identify among all the crossbred livestock and misleading menu claims.
But farmers’ fears may also connect to the fact that, unlike French Bordeaux or Spanish cava, Iberico pork has no designation-of-origin protections in the European Union, so anyone can freely use the name. The Spanish government may be listening to its producers. Since the Oriol family exported its pigs in late 2014, no other Iberian sows and boars apparently have left Spain.
Some in the Iberico industry suspect an unofficial ban by the Spanish government. But Isabel Artime, counselor of agriculture, fisheries, food and environment for the Spanish Embassy in Washington, says the government has no decision-making role in the export of Iberian pigs. It only helps private companies deal with USDA protocols for moving the animals.
But Murga says the Spanish government may be playing a semantics game: It might not explicitly say no to Iberian pig exports, but if officials don’t sign the appropriate paperwork, the private parties involved are stymied nonetheless. If the government is indeed blocking the export of pigs, Murga says, it’s shortsighted. Spain, he says, has limited capacity to produce Iberico products.
In his more generous moments, Andrés agrees that expanding Iberico production outside Spain would be good for everyone: good for producers pushing the boundaries and good for the brand back in the mother country. “In the end, it’s a win-win,” Andrés says.
One look at the operation at White Oak Pastures, and you have to think this Iberico venture is a win-win-win for pigs, agriculture and American diners (at least those with deep pockets). Out on an impossibly green winter field, which Will Harris bought specifically for its pecan trees, Iberian pigs are turning up soil in a merry hunt for morsels. The animals also serve a secondary role as tillers.
“We’re going to use their nose as a shovel to go in and [till the soil], so we’re not getting a guy on a bulldozer burning diesel by the hour,” says John Benoit, White Oak’s livestock director.
Come fall, those pecan trees will produce nuts for the pigs at White Oak, a herd that should reach 300 by then. In the meantime, Iberian Pastures has engaged a Spanish nutritionist to create a proprietary feed that mimics the qualities of acorns, a diet that’s increasingly popular in Spain, where acorn production can vary widely by year. The Iberian Pastures blend includes non-GMO corn, soybeans and Georgia-grown peanuts, a mix that will change when pecans are added to the diet during the colder months.
The goal of the feed, says Kurt Oriol, is to create the “same marbling effect with those high oleic fatty acids that you find in the top, top upper echelon of the Iberico pork production in Spain.”
Iberian Pastures may not rely on acorns, but the company is going to follow traditional Spanish butchering practices. In White Oak’s processing room, butchers will remove the four legs and the whole loin, which Iowa-based La Quercia will then cure and age over a period of months or years, depending on the cut. (Note: Unlike in Spain, the USDA requires the removal of the distinguishing black foot on cured hams.) That will leave precious little fresh meat for the retail market, no more than about eight to 12 pounds per 340-pound pig, an animal that has as much as 120 pounds of fat. Iberian Pastures will sell the Spanish cuts online.
A question remains: Will anyone care about American- produced Iberico? Will consumers pay $67.50 for a 1.8-pound package of Iberico presa? They might if they had sampled Manuel Berganza’s preparation at White Oak Pastures in early February: The Michelin-starred chef behind Andanada in Manhattan spices the meat like pastrami, creating a Spanish-New York hybrid plate that has a devoted following in Gotham.
John T. Edge, a writer and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, was a surprise visitor to the Iberian Pastures dinner, much to the delight of farmer Will Harris. Edge drove more than six hours for the meal, and he walked away impressed. The pork tasted much like the stuff he’d sampled last year during a trip to the Oriol family farm.
“The taste almost reminds me of what would happen if a cow jumped the fence and started rooting around with the pigs,” Edge says. “There’s kind of a beefy texture to the pork that is singular.”
Edge might be happy to learn that Harris has switched his domestic heritage pigs to the same peanut-based feed the Iberico pigs are getting. Think of it as one more bond between Southerners and Spaniards in their ongoing love affair with pork.