Posted June 25, 2009
Is it a sheep? Is it a poodle? No, it is the curly haired Mangalica pig, outfitted to survive the frigid winters of the Hungarian steppe. Due to the efforts of an entrepreneurial Spanish ham producer, this pig has been snatched from the brink of extinction. Now, for the first time, Americans can enjoy excellent Mangalica cured ham from online gourmet food retailer La Tienda.
At the end of the twentieth century, the Mangalica (mahn-gah-lee-kah) pig from the steppes of Hungary faced extinction due to the ravages of two world wars and the industrialization of meat production. In 1991, Juan Vicente Olmos, a leading figure in the production of ham in Spain, sought out and purchased the remaining breeding stock of this venerable breed to avert this disaster. He recognized that the Mangalica was genetically similar to the iconic Cerdo Ibérico of Spain, source of Europe’s finest ham.
Like the Ibérico, the meat of the Mangalica is marbled with beneficial fat and bursting with flavor. Remarkably, both the Mangalica and the Ibérico meats are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (more than 50%).
The possibility of saving this special breed motivated Juan Vicente Olmos, head of Monte Nevado - a quality ham producer in Spain, to join with Hungarian agricultural scientist Peter Tóth to acquire every Mangalica pig they could identify. In 1991, there were only 198 purebred Mangalica pigs in the country, and 30 breeding sows. These big hearty pigs could only be found on a few farms in the remote steppes of Hungary.
Olmos and Tóth entrusted their rare animals to local Hungarian farmers who raise them the traditional way. To this day, the Mangalica pigs live a happy farm life and occasionally roam the rolling meadows of their native land. These wooly snow pigs stay in barns where they live in large groups, under "pig friendly" conditions. During their lifetime, the pigs are given plenty of opportunity for exercise, unlike ordinary commercial pigs of today.
After the Mangalica pigs are slaughtered in Hungary, the meat is brought to Spain by Monte Nevado to be cured in the rugged mountains of La Rioja, following the traditional Spanish regimen. When the ham cures naturally in the cool mountain air, the extra marbling permits the luxury of a longer cure - resulting in a higher flavor and taste profile. The result is a delicious, sweet and supple ham cured in Spain, new to the world market.
In less than 20 years, Olmos and Tóth have accomplished a dramatic recovery for a nearly extinct species. Today Monte Nevado breeds 8,000 pigs on its own farms, and controls the breeding of an additional 12,000 pigs on farms in the surrounding regions of Hungary. Even at that level, the supply of these rare hams is severely limited.
A select number of whole boneless Mangalica dry cured hams are now available online for delivery in the United States exclusively from La Tienda. The company is a gourmet Spanish food importer and online retailer based in Williamsburg, Virginia, owned and operated by the Harris family. They were the first to deliver Jamón Serrano to homes across the United States in 1997, and the first to retail Jamón Ibérico de Bellota in the USA. The typical Mangalica boneless ham weighs about 9 pounds. A representative boneless ham runs about $495. In comparison, the typical Ibérico boneless ham costs more than $700 in the United States.
With over 700 fine products from Spain, La Tienda is the leading source of quality Spanish food in America. “We are proud that La Tienda will be providing a superb ham, in partnership with the producer, Monte Nevado,” explained co-owner Jonathan Harris. “In addition to offering a superb new ham, we are helping in the recovery of a vanishing breed, preserving traditional agriculture, and encouraging humane animal husbandry. What could be better?”