Tradition is important in the Portuguese cuisine, especially when it comes to porco preto. In the Monchique region, producing Portugal’s most flavoursome meat is done by methods that have been passed on from generation to generation. According to the local Iberian black pig farmers, this is the only way to keep the traditional flavours alive.
See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine December 2015
Producing a dry-cured black Iberian pork ham like the ones hanging from the ceiling in the Loja de Porco Preto in Monchique takes about two years. First, a year is needed to patiently raise a little black Iberian piglet into a beast of over 100 kilos. Then, after butchering, (sorry pig), the back leg lies completely covered in Portuguese sea salt for about three months and is hung in a cold room to dry for another eight months. Patience is key: Portugal’s finest ham is definitely not fast food.
It is, however, worth the wait. Local people line up as soon as the shop opens again after lunch at 3pm and keep coming, buying either a few slices of ham, a couple of sausages or some raw pork chops in the butcher’s corner. On the sign hanging in the shop can be read that ‘these products were made while respecting all the traditions from the country’. As such, the sausage and traditional ham factory of Idália and António Duarte and their children is the only company in Monchique with all certified black pigs, a species that is native to the Iberian Peninsula.
All meat comes from their farm, located high in the hills that surround Monchique. There, the Duarte family has been raising the precious black pigs for 20 years now. When driving up the hills the pigs can already be smelled – and heard – from a distance. There are just over 1000 of them, varying from piglets that are merely one day old to ones that are already a year and will soon be slaughtered.
The new-born pigs stay with their mums in the stable until they are two months and then move onto another stable with their peers. “We try to let them roam as free as possible, but if we let the mothers give birth in the field, too many young piglets die,” Eduardo Alexandro Duarte (37) explains as he whispers calming words to a protective grunting mother pig.
From the age of four months, all pigs are left out in the fields. They’re still divided into age groups as putting them all together would lead to fights. The young ones are curious and constantly on the move; rolling in the mud, chasing each other in the grass, and playing with hay in the adjacent stables.
Despite the huge amount of space, they stay together when anything scares or excites them. New visitors are first considered a threat, but then deemed interesting and soon the animals are crowding in front of the gates to get a closer look. Even though these pigs will be killed soon after their first birthday, at least they’ll have a good time before that, with plenty of exercise, fresh air and sunshine.
Treating the animals well isn’t only done out of niceness, but also out of a business point of view, as their lifestyle shows in the quality of the meat. Eduardo explains: “The way we do it, it takes us a year to produce a pig of 100 kilos. It could also be done in just five months, but then the meat won’t be of the same quality. People will notice the difference immediately, especially locals who know how good black pork should taste.”
This flavour largely depends on what the pigs eat. Back when there weren’t as many pigs on the farm, they’d eat the nuts of the cork trees, which are growing on the farmland. Now, these trees can’t produce enough acorns to keep up with the pigs’ appetite, so their diet mainly consists of cereals and corn. “If we would feed them medicaments to retain water, like they do in some other countries, the pigs would grow very big very fast. But what would happen if you then put the beef on the grill? It would shrink to about half the size!” Eduardo explains as he shakes his head in horror. “We want to stay true to our traditions, this way we keep the quality. I only eat the pork meat that’s produced on this farm. I’ve been growing up eating porco preto as a sausage or with rice, cabbage or beans. These are the flavours of my childhood.”
Porco preto goes back way further than when Eduardo was a little kid: families in rural areas in Portugal have been raising pigs for domestic consumption since medieval times. The animals were kept on a piece of land next to the farmers’ homes and fed with leftover scraps. Every year, one or two pigs were slaughtered, which was a big social happening and involved neighbours, family and friends. Up until a few decades ago, many people in these rural areas didn’t have access to electricity. As they couldn’t store the meat in a fridge or freezer, they had to come up with other ways of conserving and instead wrapped the ham in salt and the sausages in butter. Because of hygiene requirements, the Duarte family nowadays has a factory with huge fridges, although salt is still used for preserving.
The only other difference is that, instead of just killing the pig onsite as it was done in the old days, pig slaughter is now taken care of by a specialised company and the animals are first rendered unconscious.
When meat comes from the slaughter in Odemira, it is taken back to the farm’s factory. Those feeling squeamish shouldn’t look in the big refrigerator where halves of pigs are hanging from hooks. Also, vegetarians better avoid the spaces where the employees are preparing smoked ham, filling blood sausages or cutting fat into pieces for the traditional bolo de torresmos. Still, in a world that’s full of supermarkets offering pre-processed packaged meat, it’s good to be able to trace back the exact origins of your food and know a bit more about how it’s produced.
One type of sausages, for example, are made by adding a secret mix of herbs and spices to the meat, and boiling them in water with garlic and onions. For another type, the meat is cut up and put into a big basket with white wine, vinegar, garlic and tomato sauce for a week to absorb all the flavours. The sausages are then filled with this mixture and smoked for eight to ten days. In the nearby smoking room, you’ll find thousands of sausages, neatly hanging in rows. A wood fire is burning in the corner. Seeing as the wrong type of wood can pass on bad flavours to the meat, only wood from the Medronho trees growing on the family’s land is used.
The factory is a paradise for meat lovers; one room is filled with about 2,500 to 3,000 cured hams. The secret, Eduardo explains, lies in the simple way of producing: take the back leg of a pork, add salt, dry. Nothing more. Same goes for the other products from the farm; none of them contain weird additives.
Instead of exporting the meat all over the world, it’s only for sale in the small shop in Monchique. Eduardo explains: “We can’t compete on price with supermarket meat; we can’t even produce enough meat to export to foreign countries. In order to do this we’d need to grow the pigs in 4 months, which wouldn’t be good for quality at all. Things like antibiotics, genetic modifications, chemicals and conservatives aren’t only bad for the meat, but also for the people. Think about it: everything you eat goes into your body.”
“For us, this is more than a business,” also confirms Idália Duarte (58), Eduardo’s mother. While she’s preparing pão com chouriço by wrapping slices of the spicy sausage into bread dough, she explains: “Sometimes, memories fade and traditions become forgotten. We try to preserve the tastes of the previous generations by keeping alive the old and more natural ways that people in rural Portugal used to live.”
See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine December 2015