Grabbing the Niche Market
Premise: Gourmets who savor exotic flavors rate the Jamón Ibérico ham as one of the most exquisite and delicately flavored hams in the world. The Black Iberian Pig, clustered in the central and southern territory of the Iberian Peninsula, in Portugal and Spain, lives freely. Since they are constantly moving around, more space is needed to raise a single pig. The ecosystem is a richly diverse habitat with four different types of acorns (bellotas) and herbs that are crucial in the production of the prime-quality ham. This pig accumulates fat under its skin and between its muscular fibers which produces the white marbling that make this ham so special. Meat aging takes place in dark cellars where the darkness, humidity and temperature combine to complete the curing process, allowing the ham’s unique flavor and aroma to develop fully. As an indication of the difference, Jamón Ibérico de Bellota can cost twice as much as a normal Ibérico ham.
The Lightbulb Over his Head: Chuck Talbott, owner of Black Oak Holler Farm in Mason County understood that there could be a market here in the United States for a similar pork product. Talbott and his partner, Nadine Perry, teamed up with ham aficionado and Washington, D.C., investor Nic Heckett to produce Appalachian dry-cured hams under the label Woodlands Pork LLC. With a chef/partner in Lousiville, KY who runs a facility for curing the meat to make charcuterie, Chuck is in charge of the animal on the hoof.
First, the breed. The pigs at Black Oak Holler are a cross of several heritage breeds, including Duroc, Large Black and Ossabaw Island, a pig that is believed to be a descendant of the Iberian hog. He needs breeds that winter well outdoors and recognizes that some interbreeding occurs with some “mystery pigs”, otherwise domesticated hogs that have escaped their Mason County farms. The original Ossabaw were swine released on the barrier islands off southeastern North America in the 16th century by Spanish explorers. They often left livestock on islands as a future food source. Over time, some of the Spanish pigs escaped and became feral in southeastern forests. The quality of their fat and marbling has increased their popularity within the chef community.
Then, the handling. Chuck , Nadine, Stevo Briggs and RD Herdman interact with the pigs each day, letting them know who the benevolent source of all food and treatment is. The pigs come running when the staff whoop out. We were given peanuts to feed them as treats and the huge animals came running, gathering around us, grunting excitedly. In no way was this as disruptive as a group of untrained dogs jumping for attention, although respect for the animal’s size must be maintained. Handling is through the use of canes and paddles to urge movement; electrical prods are forbidden. It was simple to just move slowly around them. They are trained to respect the electric fence so when they are released to the woods, they will also recognize and stay within the limits of the fencing.
Next, the process. Sows produce two litters a year and as many as 12 piglets in a litter. Nursed for a few weeks, they are transitioned to solid foods and start enjoy wandering the fields eating the greens as well as a diet supplemented with some grains. Chuck is working on developing the optimal mixture of corn, sunflowers, cowpeas and soybeans. By the time the pigs are 4 months old they are well over 100 pounds, with additional weight growth at about 1.7 pounds a day for a weight at 7-9 months of 300 pounds. By late summer the pigs are ready to move up to the woods where they eat mast-the droppings of acorns, black walnuts and hickory nuts and herbs growing naturally there. During the weeks spent there they add more weight but even more important, they add up to 4 inches of back fat. This extra layer of fat helps provide seasoning as well as moisture during the long dry curing stage.
Finally, off the farm. Chuck uses a local slaughterhouse and then the carcasses are trucked to the curing facility where they are hung for over 2 years. In comparison, some hams are brined and considered ready to cook in days; a country ham is usually cured for 2-4 months. Chuck points out that the longer curing used for his hams of course ties up a lot of capital, thereby also adding to the cost of the final product.
Current and future market. Wholesale prices are good for the cured hams and expected to double in a year or so. In recent years $25 a pound has been normal, with many of the restaurants that purchase the hams estimating it at $75 a pound in their dishes. Balancing the cost of raising the hogs and processing them prior to the cure period is the goal in this phase. Prosciutto with an Appalachian terroire. After that, whooo ooooopppp!
BLACK OAK HOLLER FARM, LLC
6909 Black Oak Road Fraziers Bottom, WV 25082 304-937-3243