The Black Iberian Pig, also known in Portugal as Alentejano Pig, is a breed, Mediterraneus, of the domestic pig (Sus scrofa domesticus) that is indigenous to the Mediterranean area. The Iberian pig, whose unique origin can be traced back to ancient times, is found in herds clustered in the central and southern territory of the Iberian Peninsula.
The most commonly accepted theory is that the first pigs were brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Phoenicians from the Eastern Mediterranean coast (current day Lebanon) where they interbred with wild boars. This cross gave rise to the first Iberian breeds whose origins, in this case, can be traced back to about the year 1000 B.C. The production of Iberian pig is deeply bound to the Mediterranean ecosystem. It is a rare example in the world swine production where the pig contributes so decisively to the preservation of the ecosystem. The Iberian breed is currently one of the few examples of a domesticated breed which has adapted to a pastoral setting where the land is particularly rich in natural resources, in this case the holm oak, gall oak and cork oak.
The numbers of the Iberian breed have been drastically reduced since 1960 due to several factors – the outbreak of African swine fever, the lowered value of animal fats, and the massive introduction of more efficient foreign breeds. In the last few years, however, this population bottleneck has been reversed and the production of pigs of the Iberian type has increased to satisfy the new demand for top quality meat and cured products. At the same time, the old breed structure, with differentiated varieties locally distributed, has been replaced by a pyramidal structure based on crossbreeding with Duroc. Consequently, some ancestral varieties have disappeared, and others are endangered or blended, necessitating a new design for programmes of conservation of these genetic resources.
This legendary and select race has many qualities, including a great capacity to accumulate fat under its skin and between the muscular fibres. This fat is what produces the typical white streaks that make its hams so special. The production of meat products from Iberian pigs has very little in common with that of meat products obtained from other selected breeds of pigs raised under intensive conditions on industrial farms, and it constitutes an example of the preparation of high quality meat products, comparable to the most exquisite food products in the world.
The Iberian pig is dark in colour, ranging from black to grey, with little or no hair and a lean body, thus giving rise to the familiar name “pata negra”, or “black hoof”. Because the animals live freely, they are constantly moving around and therefore burn more calories than other species of pig. This in turn produces the fine bones typical of this kind of Jamón ibérico. At least a hectare of healthy dehesa is needed to raise a single pig, and since the trees may be several hundred years old, the prospects for reforesting lost oak forest (dehesa) are slim at best. True dehesa is a richly diverse habitat with four different types of oak that are crucial in the production of prime-quality ham. The bulk of the acorn harvest comes from the holm oak (from November to February), but the season would be too short without the earlier harvests of Spanish oak and gall oak and the late cork oak season, which, between them, stretch the acorn-chomping period from September almost to April.