Deep in the oak groves of southern and western Spain roam the country’s famous pata negra, or black-hoofed, pigs. They gorge themselves all fall on acorns, a diet that imparts a nutty flavor and a marbling of fat that feels almost silky as it melts on the tongue. Since 2007, their legs have been available in the United States as jamón Iberico de bellota, the delicacy that usually spends at least two years curing and, somewhere along the way, picked up the unlikely moniker “the Rolls Royce of hams.”
But the rest of those luxuriously fattened pigs, those loins, bellies, shoulders, and ribs, were long forbidden in our country. Now the USDA has bestowed its approval on a single processing facility in Spain, and in early 2011 raw cuts of those prized black-footed pigs started arriving in the U.S. This prestige pork is known simply as Iberico de bellota, bellota being Spanish for “acorn,” and this summer it showed up on the menus of a dozen Seattle-area restaurants where chefs are betting its rich flavor will win diners over to the fact that this pork is best enjoyed rare.
At Cafe Juanita, an entree of presa, or boneless shoulder cut, is served with polenta. Stumbling Goat Bistro chef Joshua Theilen prepares an appetizer special of the secreto cut, from near the shoulder, always with a caveat to diners that the pork is rare, to preserve the moisture and subtle acorn nuttiness (all pigs are tested to ensure they’re free of trichinosis). The biggest local customer for Iberico de bellota is the Harvest Vine in Madison Valley, which is not surprising considering the restaurant’s former chef, Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez works as a consultant doing culinary demonstrations for Portland-based Nicky USA, one of a handful of companies in the U.S. that distribute the pork. Since fall is prime pig-fattening season, the local availability of certain popular cuts will dwindle with each passing week until a new shipment arrives in January.
Altura chef Nathan Lockwood is also a fan of the presa. He marinates the four-ounce servings, then gives each one a quick blast on the grill for some char, but says, “It’s really not worth eating if you’re not going to eat it rare.” The obvious comparison for this pork is Japan’s Kobe beef, though in Nicky USA founder Geoff Latham’s opinion, chefs can—and should—use a smaller portion of his Iberico de bellota because the meat is so rich. That’s a handy strategy considering restaurants pay $10 to $25 a pound.
The Iberico de bellota isn’t for everyone; for diners who don’t breathlessly follow food trends, a piece of rare pork (not to mention one pushing the $40 entree range) is a hard sell. But Lockwood reports that the food-focused diners who pack Altura have yet to send a dish back.