Sunday, January 17, 2010

Saving Mangalica Pigs from Extinction by Eating Them

Something new just popped up on the menu at work...  Mangalica Ham.  Being the diligent employee that I am, I went scurrying to my computer to get more information.  My curious mind won't allow me to just sit in complacency without knowing as much detail as I can about something that is new to me.  I had lots of questions.

I discovered that Mangalica Ham is made from pigs that are commonly cross-bred with and sometimes pure-bred Mangalica pigs.  The Mangalica pig originated in the early 1800's in Hungary when the desire for fattier pork was high. They are fussy, preferring a cooler climate with woolly coats making them look like angry giant mutant poodles.  They also have a high percentage of body fat which keeps them warm in cold winters along with their coats.  The added fat of the Mangalica makes for tastier cured meats because of the high degree of marbling.  The fat also melts at a lower temperature, making it easier to digest and delivering more porky flavor to you as it melts in your mouth.  Fats that melt at a lower temperature are also easier to burn off when stored by your body.  Tasty and healthy - sign me up!

There is one major problem with the Mangalica.  They need lots of space to roam and forage for themselves.  Modern pig-farming practices do not usually allow for this.  The breed only produces optimal healthful and delicious results when it is allowed to grow at a slow natural rate.  This makes it expensive to raise and incredibly inconsistent as a viable product that a farmer could turn a quick profit on.  Thank goodness for the Mangalica that there are some ham-crazed Spaniards that are willing to do it right.

What really sent bells and whistles off in my head though is the fact the Mangalicas had all but vanished from the world as of a couple of years ago. Eating an endangered species didn't sound like such a good idea to me! Farmers had essentially stopped raising the pig because the desire for meatier pigs had forced the Magalica out of the spotlight. Refrigeration technology almost caused the final curtain call for these pigs because it made it possible to keep fresh meat from spoilage for longer amounts of time thereby decreasing the need for cured meats such as ham. Because ham had lost popularity in Europe, the Mangalica, which is ideal for making cured meats, was dying.

Fortunately, there has been an increased awareness and appreciation for chacuterie and cured meats in the past few years.  There was even an article about it in the Boston Herald recently.  Chefs seem to be embracing this ancient form of meat preservation only to discover that they can use previously discarded parts of the animal and that patés and cured meats keep longer, creating less waste due to spoilage.  It's not surprising that heritage breeds like the Mangalica are now making a comeback keeping this in mind.

From tasting the ham, I'd say it's pretty delicious.  It has a rich creamy quality that truly does melt in your mouth if you let it.  It's not a ham to be eaten quickly.  Like Italian lardo, it should be allowed to sit on your palete so that it can melt and deliver its rich ferrous saltiness for a sensory overload.  I'm a fan, although I can see people's aversion to it since ham has become such a relatively mild thing these days.

The only deterring factor from my eating this ham everyday is that it is incredibly expensive.  I found a nine-pound ham online for $490!  At that price it would have to last me a couple of years for what I like to spend on my feeding myself.  I think it makes sense for a luxurious menu however and something that a connoisseur of fine food could appreciate given its scarcity and unique flavor profile. I'll be interested to see if it takes off here in Boston.

If you can find Mangalica Ham at your local Gourmet shop, try a couple of very thin slices with some dried fruit and a nice buttery sheep's milk cheese like Abbaye de Belloc.  For wine, I couldn't imagine a better pairing than one of Lopez de Heredia's Riojas, or an Alsace Riesling by a producer like Zind-Humbrecht or Marcel Deiss.  It's sure to be a combination that will make you love life and feel luxurious knowing that you're eating and drinking some of the best things the world has to offer.

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