Categories: 2009 Date: Nov 5, 2009 Title: A Breed Apart: Stonington Farmer Cross-Breeding Pigs To Create A Ham Similar To Spain's Ibérico"Too expensive," says Floyd about the precious jamón Ibérico de bellotta, a Spanish ham made from a breed of black pigs that feed on acorns.
Craig Floyd hasn't yet tasted the precious jamón Ibérico de bellotta, a Spanish ham made from a breed of black pigs that feed on acorns.
"Too expensive," says Floyd, who owns the certified-humane Footsteps Farm in Stonington. The ham, which costs $100 or more a pound, only became available in the United States last year. Until then, Spain did not have a USDA-approved production facility to allow exports to the United States.
Floyd, who says he has read volumes on the Spanish curing process, has embarked on a four-year project to replicate the ham in Connecticut. His goal is to breed a pig with a particular kind of body and fat content and to cure a ham as good as the bellotta. He figures that even if the flavor of his ham doesn't quite match the Ibérico version, the endeavor still will be a success.
"In this country, we have so gotten away from letting things develop slowly" to get the best flavor or texture or results, he says. "We want it now. Even if my hams are a failure compared to the Spanish ham, they will still be 100 times better than what you get from the supermarket."
The farmer takes a respectful, natural approach to raising animals (he also has chickens on the farm), and his is the only certified-humane farm in Connecticut, a certification awarded by Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit group based in Herndon, Va.
As a farmer, Floyd is an integral part of the farm-to-table process. To him, meat isn't a package in a refrigerator case in the supermarket. How the animal is treated and lives its life is as important as the final product.
"We want to be close to nature," says the 63-year-old farmer, who works land that has been in his family since the early 1700s. "We want to get back to 18th- and 19th-century farming techniques."
Those techniques include exercise, life in the pastures rather than in a barn, a natural diet and no hormones or antibiotics.
Rosie, a 400-pound Tamworth pig, recently gave birth to 15 piglets. In between delivering each piglet in a tunnel-like metal shelter, Rosie walked the pasture and snacked on grass and vegetables. Floyd explained that he doesn't use farrowing crates — V-shaped structures that confine a pig upright while giving birth — because they are unnatural. As he watched Rosie lying quietly on her side in the hut, he said, "That's the way the Lord meant it. The whole philosophy here is respect for the animal."
Rosie is a Tamworth, one of three breeds that Floyd raises and will crossbreed to produce pigs for his Spanish-style ham. A heritage breed with a reddish coat, Tamworth hogs are hearty animals that produce lean meat. "The Tamworth is a bacon pig because it's long and lean," says the farmer. "We have superior bacon. All our bacon is nitrate-free and lightly smoked. It has a very subtle flavor."
He also raises Berkshire pigs and has one Large Black pig, similar to the black Iberian pigs, whose name is Jack. As a breed, the Large Black has good intra-muscular marbling, "better than any other pig," Floyd says. Black with white markings, the Berkshires also have good fat marbling and yield flavorful, juicy pork that is much in demand by restaurant chefs.
Floyd has raised Tamworth pigs for eight years. "They're good pigs, docile; they love attention, and they love to have their ears scratched." One male and four female Berkshires arrived at the farm Sept. 27. "They're very inquisitive," Floyd says as the group runs over to the fence to see him and a visitor.
There already is one male that is a cross between a Large Black pig and a Tamworth. He will sire piglets with one of the Berkshire females.
"We are crossing three different [breeds of] pigs to make something real special," Floyd says. "We're trying to get the proper marbling of meat and the right-size pig. You need that marbling because the [Spanish] ham has a three-year hang," he says, referring to the long curing time for the jamón Ibérico de bellotta. "You need the fat so when you slice it thin and hold it up, it glistens."
Footsteps Farm's pigs lead their lives outside in the grass and dirt, not in a barn with a concrete floor. Houses in each pasture provide shelter where the pigs can enter and leave freely.
Floyd moves the pigs from pasture to pasture, much like the roaming buffaloes of centuries ago. Within the half-acre fenced-in pastures, the hogs root in the dirt, where they get their supply of iron, and eat grass.
"If a pig can't root, it's not happy," he says. Floyd supplements their diet with vegetables, a bit of grain, cider vinegar and whey, which he buys from Beltane goat dairy in Lebanon.
Floyd is clearing brush and fencing in more half-acre spaces to take advantage of the tall oak trees. In these wooded areas, his pigs eat what their counterparts in Spain eat: acorns (bellotta). Green acorns are a small but essential part of their diet because the acorns "impart a sweet, nutty flavor, and their tannic acid tenderizes the meat," he says.
With the breeding program in its infancy, and with a potential three-year curing schedule for the pork, Floyd doesn't expect to be selling the fancy hams for another four years.
In the meantime, he sells animals by the quarter, half and whole to customers anxious to know where their meat comes from and how it is raised. He also uses pork to make sausages and frankfurters.
To be sure that the meat has a flavor quite unlike mass-produced pigs, Floyd sees to it that his animals are never far from sunlight, green pasture land and exercise.
"When you eat my pork, you're eating nature," he says. "You're getting my grass and my sun."