For years, Sergio Marsal had dreamed of sharing the Spanish cured-ham delicacy, jamón Ibérico de bellota, with the rest of the world—especially with the U.S. It was a dream borne of urgency after he’d moved from Spain to Miami in 2011 and couldn’t find his beloved ham there or anywhere else in America.
Unbeknownst to him, another Spaniard was having the same dream. Manuel Murga, an agricultural engineer living in Spain, grew up raising Iberian pigs—a breed that’s fed acorns for most or all of their lives, and whose meat produces that famous ham—just like his father and grandfather before him. Both Marsal and Murga possessed their own gifts and limitations: Murga knew more about raising Iberian pigs than just about anybody in the world, but he had little access to capital; Marsal, a marketing consultant, had contacts in the financial world, but he was no farmer.
One day, Marsal was sharing his vision of American-raised Iberian pigs with friends and, amazingly, they said they knew of someone who had the same exact dream. As fast as he could, Marsal flew to Barcelona to meet Murga, and five minutes after they met, they began drawing up a contract. “It was like magic to meet Manuel,” says Marsal. “And it was magic to make pigs fly and bring them to the U.S.” Acornseekers was born.
Marsal loves to use the “when pigs fly” line, because he heard it when he first mentioned his idea to potential investors—“That’ll happen when pigs fly,” they said. But to get authentic Iberian pigs to the U.S., they did indeed have to fly them over on a plane from Spain, where the animals are revered and deeply respected. The process was fraught with protocol, vaccinations, disease monitoring, closed borders and bureaucracy. But in 2013, after countless setbacks and delays, an airplane carrying 145 purebred Iberian sows and five boars finally touched down in New York City. After a 30-day quarantine in Rock Tavern, New York, Marsal and Murga loaded the pigs onto a truck and drove them cross-country to their new South Texas home on the range.
After scouting many locations, the land Murga and Marsal eventually chose in Flatonia had been a working hog farm until about seven years ago when the owner got out of the business. But the owner, happy to see pigs on his land again, was open to leasing the land to Acornseekers. The pigs liked it, too, because it’s full of live oaks and, thus, acorns—the key ingredient in authentic jamón Ibérico de bellota (“bellota” being the Spanish word for acorn).
Not all of the ham sold as jamón Ibérico comes from pigs that spent the winter fattening up on acorns, though. In Spain, the ham is marked with tags to differentiate between pork from mixed-breed pigs that are fed grain and the purebred, acorn-finished Iberian pigs, which receive a black label symbolic of the breed’s distinctive black hooves. Marsal says that Acornseekers’ pigs—which he and Murga classify as “Ibericus” pigs to note their U.S. origin—qualify for the black tag.
Beginning in late September, during the pig-fattening season known in Spain as la montanera, Acornseekers ships their male pigs to four sites in Texas, as well as one in Florida and one in California. They refer to these farms as “affiliate farms,” and Marsal says they separate the valuable passel of hogs because they “realized it was really risky to have all the eggs in the same basket. If there was a natural disaster or disease, we think it’s better to have some of the pigs in a faraway place.” The ranchers on the affiliate farms were chosen because of the way they raise their own animals. “Too many of the [American] pig raisers are used to raising the pigs in a barn and not outside,” says Murga. “[Outside] is how we have raised these pigs for 2,000 years in Spain.”
Murga says their Ibericus pigs are “like puppies all the time” and smart enough to realize that if they follow the humans around, good things will happen. The one bad day of their lives comes at about 18 months, compared to pig slaughtering at six months for most commercial operations. The meat is then cured for two years before it’s ready for the plate.
Currently, a crew from Spain flies in to process the pigs in Brookshire, Texas. Marsal says they bring in their own crew because the Spanish processors are familiar with the particular cuts for jamón Ibérico and some other specialty cuts, and that the processing takes longer than what American processors are used to. But Acornseekers just bought 19 acres in Columbus, Texas, with plans to build their own processing facility. Marsal estimates that Acornseekers and its investors have put about $5 million into the operation so far, with about that much more slated for the new facility. In the meantime, he’s trying to get the word out about his Ibericus pigs and the ham they produce. “We want [the Columbus site] to be our headquarters,” he says, “with a retail shop and a restaurant where people can see all the process, from the live pigs and piglets and the live oaks and how they are processed and how we cure the pork for two years. Our mission now is to educate people about these pigs and this pork. Once they learn, they will appreciate it even more.”
By Clay Coppedge • Photography by Andy Sams
For more information on how and where to get jamón Ibérico de bellota, visit acornseekers.com or call 786-338-8160.