To Know Our Food Is To Know Ourselves

This is Rodrigo Duarte. Rodrigo Duarte slaughtered his first pig at age 8 in his hometown in Portugal. He was raised a student of butchery, and when he moved to New Jersey, he practiced his craft carefully, focused on refining and redifining his cultural identity.

The Ironbound section in the city of Newark, where Rodrigo now has a home, store, butchery school and roasting kitchen/smokehouse, is the center of Portuguese Culture in the New York Metropolitan area. Many North Jersey-ans, myself included, make a visit to this area once or twice in their life to enjoy the great seafood restaurants steeped in this relatively unknown culture. Millions more pass through the Ironbound everday via Newark Penn Station, on their way to work in NYC, oblivious to the slice of Iberia that exists only steps from the drudgery of their daily commute. Rodrigo also has a commute.

Everyday, Rodrigo wakes up (much earlier than could seem reasonably humane) walks out the door of his home, and walks half a block down to Pacific Ave to begin his day at his market “Caseiro e Bom”. At first entry, “Caseiro e Bom” appears similar to most latin markets. It has fresh papaya, onions, garlic, canned goods, big bags of rice, and a register counter- pretty typical stuff. As you walk halfway through the store, you become transported. First, a stack of dried cod, next you notice hams hanging from the ceiling as the smell of curing pork, smoke and paprika wafts into your nose. Then something special appears. Behind a pane of glass, prominently, yet practically displayed on two custom stands (designed by Rodrigo himself) are two of the most perfectly beautiful legs of pork you have ever laid eyes on. Also prominently, yet practically displayed on the glass is the price, “3 Year Aged Presunto $399.00 per pound”. This may seem steep, but to be fair, of the two presunto displayed, one is a younger and smoked version which Rodrigo sells for $7 per pound. Rodrigo will tell you that supply is what drives his pricing.
Rodrigo recently won the best ham in America at the Charcuterie Masters Competition for his 3 year Alentejano breed presunto, and he has only 3 left in his inventory. I can tell you that he is more than happy to sample you a taste of his smoked presunto and at $7/lb its a steal. It also shows off his unmatched skill in butchery. The legs dry perfectly evenly, the line between skin and flesh disapears, and the whole ham, super smooth from toe to hip joint, devoid of any cut marks, and a perfectly even amber color is consistent up, down and around the leg. Then he slices a piece for you. It reminds you of speck, but smoother in texture, lighter in color, and nutty-sweet, not salty. This may be the best bargain in artisanal cured meats you will ever come across. Looking into his refrigerated display, first there is morcela (morcilla in Spain, or blood sausage to most Americans), then some dried salame, then you see something that looks like kielbasa, but is labelled Alhiera. What the heck is Alhiera? Well, Rodrigo is more than happy to tell you the story of this 600 year portuguese tradition, started by Portuguese Jews during the inquisition, who could fool thier would be persecutors by proudly opening their doors proclaiming, ” We are butchers making sausage. Jews can’t eat pork. How could we be Jews?” Little did the inquisidores realize that inside those lamb, goat or cattle casings was cooked chicken and bread! This was a sausage that saved a culture. A culture Rodrigon is proud to call his own. You see Rodrigo is very proud of every aspect of his culture, noting his own jewish ancestry, and the fact that if not for this sausage, he may never have been born. Looking above, you see rows of shoulder “Salpicao”, then dried salsicha, slabs of pork jowl and more… long thin dried sausages along with presunto galore, just dangling thick above your head. Ahead you see one of his protégé trimming a secreto, in front of a window displaying pork carcasses, slaughtered to his exacting specifications, on a farm less than 20 miles away where these pigs were raised on forage and free range, again to Rodrigo’s personal standard. He is content to show you that this pig cannot be used for ham because the knufe slipped when the bung was removed and grazed what amounts to a paper cut into the muscle. In the kitchen, this is called finesse, paying attention to the smallest details, always to serve the product better. He brings you into the basement, and you see two chambers filled with presunto hanging in the traditional fashion: Toes up, each hock tied to a loop, each loop draped oved the knots evenly spaced on at least 50 ropes in the ceiling. The light is ultra violet. Each chamber has a double door system to minimize foreign flora. You walk back upstairs, but it doesnt feel like you are in Newark anymore.
The Alentejano is a black iberian hog breed. We may have heard of the famous spanish “pate negra” or “jamon iberico”. Many will tell you this is the pinnacle of pork for curing. The enthusiasts will say that the pinnacle is acheived with “Jamon Ibeeico de Bellota”, which indicates hogs that were finished on a diet of acorns (“bellota”). Then, in your travels you find one or two ham connoisuers who have been to southern portugal. They will tell you that this is where the highest arts and craft of pork transformation is practiced. The key that many of them dont even realize, but of which Rodrigo will enthusiastically inform you, is that the Alentejano breed makes all the difference. Like many important cultural products,the Alentajano is protected by the Portuguese government. Unlike many cultural products, the rules for the protection of this breed are very strict. I mean zero tolerance strict, leaving no room for compromise. As an example, take Jamon de Iberico. The spanish government says that as long as that pig’s mother has 25% sud mediteraneo blood, you can call this Jamon de Iberico.

What is “sus-mediterraneus”?

Sus-mediteraneus is the umbrella term for the black pigs of southern europe surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. These are the cousins of the Sus Scrofa (wild boar) or the descendants of ancient domesticated european wild boars. The muscle structure and intelligence of these pigs, making them choosy in diet and lends their meat best for long curing. The most critical piece to the puzzle being IMF. or inter-muscular fat. IMF is the river system through which flavor travels into the meat. The deeper into the muscle, the more flavorful the cured product is. IMF has the added benefit of coating the muscle fibers to keep the lean portions supple throughout the drying process. If the pig was fed a delicious diet, in the last few months at least, the more IMF, the better. If it was not fed a tasty diet, especially in the last few months, the IMF still plays river, but more like a river polluted with garbage. But, I digress.

Here is how Rodrigo describes the history of the Alentejano breed’s native land, which we believe produces the best meat for curing, in particular “Presunto”:

“…In 27 A.D., the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula was divided into two different areas, Baetica and Lusitania. Little by little, the Mediterranean groves gave rise to Cork oak and Holm oak forests – <<Montado>>….”

These were the lands where over the last 2000 years the Alentejano breed has developed. These Cork oak and Holm oak forests continually drop acorns from the months of March through December.

“…Rich in oleic acid, which is responsible for the fat that melts in the mouth and the unmistakable aromas and tastes, acorns are the key to the excellence and organoleptic quality…”

The animals are allowed full pasture for up to 2 years, running wild eating up acorns till they achieve a weight of nearly 160 kg (over 350 pounds). Each pig can eat up to 25 pounds worth of acorns per day!

Rodrigo told me that one of the tricks used by those who raise the tastiest pigs is to have the water available far away from where the pigs pasture. The pasture is usually located at higher ground, and this causes the pigs to gorge themselves on acorns before they waddle down to have a drink. This repetition of eating and exercise works the nutrition deep into the muscles creating the best IMF.

As the Sus Mediterraneus breeds diversified throughout history, four main breeds were recognized: Negro Lampiño, Negro Entrepelado, Retinto and Raza Andaluza (rubia).

Those races further branched off to become the 7 breeds currently recognized as Iberian Black Pigs: Retinto, Negro entrepelado,Negro lampiño, Mamellado, Rubio, Manchada de Jabugo, and Torbiscal

For the production of Jamon de Iberico DOP, it is only required that the mother of the pig, whose back leg is being cured, be genetically 25% pure Iberico provenance. Each year 14 million Jamon are sold. To achieve this number of legs, it is no surprise that the government has compromised on the quality, resorting to hybrids crossed with Large Blacks or Durocs, mostly. These pig breeds are more closely related to the Celtic breeds of the north, and are great eaten just after slaughter. But they have a watered down potential for long term curing and drying.

This is why the Portuguese people have committed to keeping the name “Alentejano” pure. It cannot be crossed with any other breed and still legally carry that name.

Rodrigo has been procuring 100% Alentejano breed pig meat for years. But in true Portuguese fashion, he needed more control over his ingredients. His life is in Newark now, and he has developed a very close relationship with a farmer who raises and harvests the pigs Rodrigo then butchers and cures. When I visited Caseiro e Bom for the first time, I marvelled at the best ham butchery I have ever seen. This was not good enough, however, for Rodrigo. He noted small nicks in the meat of some of his hams. He then took me to the back cooler wher he had about 5 whole hogs hanging on hooks. Rodrido showed me the butt-hole and said, “See, where they cut out the bung? When they use a knife they cut into the ham. They should use a punch [I assume this is some kind of flesh hole punch] instead of a knife. This would make the ham free from errant cuts.” This was amazing. He speaks with utmost respect of the farm where he gets his product. The farm in Warren, NJ raises only pastured animals, less than 23 miles away from Rodrigo’s shop. Slaughtering is done on site. Apparently Rodrigo had one more point of order for the perfection of his hams, with regard to how they were disemboweled. So, I guess the only other step Rodrigo could do would be to have access to the breeding, and control over the trimming and cleaning techniques used during the slaughteting of 100% pure Alentejano They have 30 acres and lot of acorns on the farm in Warren…

Incidentally, the most expensive hams in the world, according to the “Guiness Book of World Records” the best quality retails at Selfridges for over $2,600, now thats for a 15 pound Albarragena Jamon Iberico de Bellota. Consider that Rodrigo’s hams are the same size, at the current $399/pound price tag, and that indicludes a “hand slicing by the producer” premium. Including bone and trim loss, his hams tally upwards of $5k. I accept that these types of abstract comparisons seem silly and totally unjustified, but I am also very curiois what the market will offer for great hams. I am very excited for the future.

On Sept. 20, 2016 a plane arrived at Newark Airport. On board, was a project that Rodrigo had spent over 5 years on, so far. He conducted tri lateral negotiations between the Portuguese Government, the US government, and his own interests. By signed affidavit to the portuguesee government, Rodrigo procured ten living 100% Porco Alentajano. This means, that due to the strict protection of the breed, and that it had never before left Portugal for breeding urposes, Rodrigo made a legal commitment to the source of his ingredient. If he fails in his duty to steward the breed according to Portuguese standards, or the genes are polluted, Rodrigo goes to prison. He told me, “What if my daughter, or niece gets married in Portugal? If I do the wrong thing with these animals, I will get thrown in prison when I attend the wedding!” The 5 males and 5 femae hogs were immediately sent to quarantine for 30 days, only after having been held for 60 days quarantine prior to leaving Portugal. I cannot confirm the total dollar amount, but I heard the freight costs alone topped $200,000! The twist came while in the evening, just outside the smokehouse, after spending two days attempting to learn the exquisite, mostly seam butchering techniques Rodrigo had honed over the last 35 years. We, the students, most certainly friends, old and new, infulged in two traditionally roasted suckling pig gorge sessions. Rodrigo got an emergency call from the quarantine center. He prepared for bad news, but he quickly smiled. Apparently, two of the pigs got the deed done while in Portuguese quarantine, and one of the sows gave birth to eight piglets! Rodrigo was elated! Suddenly, his face turned and quisically he said, “I wonder if this costs extra?!” Soon, they will be on their way to Dealaman Enterprises Farm to eat nuts and acorns and grubs, and roots of oak trees and someday we will walk into Caseiro e Bom and ask Rodrigo what he has produced with the local ingredients.

A great site for additional information on this breed is http://www.porcopretoalentejano.com/

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