A Span­ish del­i­cacy ar­rives in Texas—hoofs and all

▶▶Ibérico pigs will help feed Amer­i­cans’ grow­ing ap­petite for spe­cialty ham

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - Nick Leiber and Guillermo Fesser

▶▶“We’re not tar­get­ing the gen­eral pub­lic. We’re tar­get­ing the elite”

Ser­gio Marsal and Manuel Murga are stand­ing in a Colum­bus, Texas, slaugh­ter­house de­scrib­ing their plan to turn the Span­ish pigs they’ve been rais­ing on a nearby ranch into a cured ham of­ten con­sid­ered the world’s best: jamón Ibérico de bel­lota, as it’s known in Spain. “In­stead of im­port­ing it, we’re mak­ing it here,” Marsal says. “Like the Euro­peans who planted vines in Cal­i­for­nia.”

Acornseek­ers, the duo’s three-yearold com­pany, based in Fla­to­nia, Texas, is the first to bring Ibérico pigs, a breed in­dige­nous to Spain and Por­tu­gal, to the U.S. for com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion. The om­niv­o­rous an­i­mals graze freely in pas­tures dot­ted with oak trees, feast­ing on the hun­dreds of pounds of acorns they find in the win­ter, a cen­turies-old tra­di­tion. The goal is to pro­duce nutty, mar­bled meat that’s as good as or bet­ter than what’s avail­able from Spain’s multi­bil­lion-dol­lar pork in­dus­try, the world’s fourth-largest pro­ducer and ex­porter. About 50 high-end restau­rants across the U.S. have sought Acornseek­ers’ fresh cuts of pork, which it started sell­ing in small amounts in April, Murga says. “We’re say­ing no to clients that want a lot.”

It’s been a bu­reau­cratic ad­ven­ture for Marsal, a for­mer mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive from Barcelona who now lives in Miami, and Murga, an agri­cul­tural en­gi­neer who grew up rear­ing Ibéri­cos out­side Seville and now lives in Colum­bus. The duo had to per­suade the Span­ish gov­ern­ment to let them take the pigs out of Spain and then fol­low the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s pro­to­col reg­u­lat­ing Euro­pean swine im­ports, which the agency put into ef­fect in late 2009. In 2014, af­ter cor­ralling in­vestors, Acornseek­ers flew 150 Ibéri­cos to New York, where the pigs were quar­an­tined for a month, per USDA reg­u­la­tions, then trucked to the com­pany’s 75-acre ranch.

Marsal and Murga set­tled on Texas be­cause of its plen­ti­ful oak trees. Acorns, the pigs’ fa­vorite food, give the meat its fla­vor and con­sis­tency. Marsal, Murga, and five other Spaniards have

in­vested more than $3 mil­lion of their own money in Acornseek­ers. Last year it trade­marked the name Iber­i­cus to show its pigs are pure­breds, un­like most in Spain, which are crossed with other breeds. “We’re not tar­get­ing the gen­eral pub­lic,” says in­vestor Manel Echevar­ría, a Miami-based ex­ec­u­tive for crys­tal maker Swarovski. “We’re tar­get­ing the elite.”

Ibérico meat, both fresh and cured, is in de­mand among in­flu­en­tial U.S. chefs, who praise its rich taste and tex­ture and say it’s notably dif­fer­ent from the lean fac­tory-farmed Amer­i­can breeds. Con­sump­tion of cured ham in the U.S. is at “his­toric highs” today, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port from ICEX, the Span­ish gov­ern­ment’s ex­port agency, which es­ti­mates the whole­sale value of cured ham sold in the U.S. was about $200 mil­lion in 2014.

Katie But­ton, the chef and coowner of Span­ish res­tau­rant Cúrate in Asheville, N.C., de­scribes both fresh and cured Ibérico as “amaz­ing.” She’s worked in the kitchens of Span­ish star chefs Fer­ran Adrià and José An­drés. “Even peo­ple who don’t eat pork tell me they had to try it, and it ab­so­lutely blows their minds,” she says. Josh Mer­row, a co-founder of Hamlovers.com, an on­line re­tailer based in Green­wich, Conn., says the U.S. is the strong­est mar­ket of the more than 20 coun­tries he serves. Mer­row re­cently started Ja­mon­whole­sale.com, a site for U.S. re­tail­ers, chefs, and cater­ers.

Af­ter two years of breed­ing, Acornseek­ers owns more than 2,000 Ibéri­cos, 250 of which were set to be slaugh­tered in late May. (The slaugh­ter hap­pens in the spring, af­ter pigs have fat­tened up over the win­ter; they gain about one-third of their weight dur­ing acorn sea­son.) Marsal and Murga say they’ll have a to­tal of 5,000 pigs next year. The com­pany also sup­plies pigs to fam­ily farm­ers in Texas and else­where who raise the pigs at their own ex­pense in re­turn for a cut of the an­nual profit. It’s a way to lower over­head, says Hines Boyd, a real es­tate bro­ker with a Ph.D. in agri­cul­ture who’s rais­ing sev­eral hun­dred Ibéri­cos for Acornseek­ers on his fam­ily’s 2,000-acre farm in north­ern Florida. Com­pared with U.S. com­mer­cial pigs, rais­ing Ibéri­cos is “ex­pen­sive and time-con­sum­ing,” Boyd says.

Bet­ting on the U.S. is smart, says José Miguel Mon­toya Oliver, a pro­fes­sor at Madrid’s Univer­si­dad Politéc­nica who’s one of Spain’s lead­ing forestry ex­perts. In Spain’s main ham-pro­duc­ing re­gions, thou­sands of oaks are dy­ing an­nu­ally, and they’re not be­ing re­planted be­cause of poor forestry man­age­ment, he says, re­sult­ing in “fewer and fewer” oaks and shrink­ing Ibérico pro­duc­tion. It’s a prob­lem for the in­dus­try, he says. “They know that one day they’re go­ing to be left with­out prod­uct.”

For Acornseek­ers, the most press­ing need is to build a cur­ing fa­cil­ity. Marsal and Murga have se­lected a site in an in­dus­trial area of Colum­bus and will launch a $2 mil­lion crowd­fund­ing cam­paign in June. They hope to com­plete the project by yearend. Acornseek­ers will cure its ham for two years, then sell it for as much as the im­ported ver­sion to sig­nal its qual­ity.

Af­ter that comes the fun part: per­suad­ing Amer­i­cans to eat the en­tire slice, in­clud­ing the creamy white fat. At Miche­lin-starred Span­ish res­tau­rant An­danada 141 in Man­hat­tan, most leave it on the side of their plate, says chef Manuel Ber­ganza. “You have to teach. You have to ex­plain.” Boyd is a fan: “No other breed of pig is ca­pa­ble of mar­bling like the Ibérico. In Spain they call them olive trees on legs be­cause their fat is much higher in oleic fatty acids than al­most any other breed of pig, es­pe­cially when you feed them things like acorns,” he says. “It’s a health­ier fat.”

The bot­tom line With con­sump­tion of cured ham ris­ing in the U.S., Acornseek­ers es­ti­mates it will raise as many as 5,000 pigs in 2017.

Fresh cuts of Ibérico pork

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