This is the tough part, but if you want to make ham, you have to spill some blood.
It’s not always easy being a pig. When the acorns disappear and their flesh can be no fatter or sweeter, the Iberian pigs are corralled from the countryside and slowly funneled through the doors of the killing floor.
This shot comes from Embutidos Fermín, a small family-run operation outside of Salamanca producing some of Spain’s finest ham. These guys are the heroes responsible for getting the USDA to finally relax their antiquated policies on cured meats and allow jamón ibérico into the United States. Not long after the jamón floodgates burst open in the US, Fermín invited me and a group of well-known American chefs (lead by Jose Andres, the relentless ambassador of all things Spanish in the States) out to see the operation.
Despite the brutal nature of this picture, this was no secret PETA mission to expose the horrors of hog warehouses like Smithfield. Fermín runs a small, clean operation, staffed with a few dozen locals who have been processing pigs their entire lives. Small consolation for the hog, I suppose, but you can ask no more from a company whose bread and butter is turning pig parts into modern-day manna.
The killing starts early, long before the sun comes up, and it’s over by the time most people are still on their first cup of coffee. The pigs are shocked one by one with what looks like a giant pair of pliers, and while they’re stunned, a man with a boyish face and a brutal blade slices open the jugular in one swift motion. Game over. From there, the pig goes from whole beast to a pile of primal cuts in under five minutes. First the hair is burned off, then the belly is split open and the viscera removed, and finally the pig is broken down into belly, loin, ribs, and legs along an assembly line outfitted with some of the most bad-ass knife-wielding motherfuckers you’ll ever see. (Flip through the pictures to see more of the process.)
Regardless of the professionalism on exhibit at every turn, there is nothing easy about seeing all of this go down. Death hangs in the air, a mixture of warm blood and burnt hair and primal squeal that clings to your skin long after you’ve traded in your white coat and hair net for street clothes. But maybe that was just me. The chefs, most of whom had seen hog factories in action back in the US, were like school girls who had just stolen a lock of Justin Bieber’s lettuce. Chris Cosentino, chef of San Francisco’s offal palace Incanto, an amazing guy who cares deeply about animal treatment, said he had never seen anything so incredible.
That, of course, was before we walked into the curing room, where the real magic happens.