Jamón Serrano is one of the best known and best loved cuts of cured ham on the UK charcuterie board, superceded only perhaps by Jamón Ibérico de belotta; the acorn fed Iberian ham hailing from south-western Spain.
But what many people don’t know is that Portugal also produces some absolutely stunning cured pork. And there are two breeds in particular that really do give their Spanish cousins a run for their money… the black Iberian pig from central and southern Portugal and the Bísaro pig from the north.
Let’s start with the black pig – Porco Preto Ibérico – which my mother and I (over)indulged in on a recent road trip through Alentejo. Known as the “bread basket of Portugal” the Alentejo is dominated by a rolling landscape of wheat fields, cork and olive groves and vineyards. Every so often a white-washed medieval town glimmers on a hilltop and beckons you with the promise of local charm, culture and gastronomy. You can be sure to find stunning regional produce, of which there is plenty, cooked to perfection here with a beautiful simplicity.
We navigated our way methodically through the region, sampling every possible variation of porco preto along the way. And it was a joy. The highlight though, had to be the pork cheeks - or bochechas - which we were treated to at Dom Joaquim in Évora.
I’d read about the restaurant in the Condé Nast Gourmet Travel Guide 2015 and was enchanted by the comments of the head-chef, Joaquim Martins de Almeida.
“When asked what innovations he has brought to his dishes, he looks unimpressed. ‘I innovate little’ he says, guardedly. ‘A little,’ he repeats, for emphasis, as if innovation were an ingredient to be used extremely sparingly. His cooking, he says, is defined by ‘softness’, which not only means long cooking times to tenderise the area’s legendary black pork, but is also a way of ‘recovering memory’. Digging into that memory bank is part of what drew him to cook here… in Alentejo food is like a religion and the past and its traditions have always fascinated its chefs.”
So, what makes this ‘legendary’ black pork so special?
The key to its quality is the genetic make up of the animal itself. A descendant of an Iberian wild-boar, this pig has a genetic capacity to lay down incredibly fine layers of intramuscular fat. It has been compared to the Japanese Wagyu cow in this respect, but the difference is that the Wagyu meat has to be manually massaged so that the fat is dispersed, whereas with the black pig, it disperses naturally. This gives the meat an unbelievably soft and creamy texture and the animals’ diet of acorns and wild herbs gives it a deep, nutty flavour. The pigs roam the cork-oak groves, hoovering up acorns that contain oleic acid, a complex fatty acid (the same that is found in olive oil) that has a plethora health benefits, thought to improve metabolism, heart and brain function... one of the “good fats" for sure.
As we move up to the north of the country – in Trás-os-Montes - we find a very different kind of animal, the Bísaro pig. A much smaller breed with a pink and black mottled skin and huge spaniel-like ears. Due to the cooler climate in the north, these are a much leaner animal and their meat has a dense and rich quality. Their diet of chestnuts, as well as herbs and vegetables, gives it a sweetness and depth of flavour that I think makes the porco preto seem almost delicate in comparison. It is also more traditional to smoke the meat in the curing process in the north, and when you cook the cured Bísaro that salty, smokey flavour is big and intense – umami on a plate!
The quality of Spanish Jamón Ibérico is hard to beat, it’s true. But the combination of the Portuguese breeds, the climate, vegetation, curing process and flavours provides us with a seriously fabulous alternative and is something that needs to be explored. Here’s hoping that Portuguese presunto ibérico becomes a regular feature on charcuterie boards up and down the country before too long…in the meantime, you can try it for yourselves by visiting our Exceptional Cured Meats page!