Sergio Marsal and Manuel Murga are standing in a Columbus, Texas, slaughterhouse describing their plan to turn the Spanish pigs they’ve been raising on a nearby ranch into a cured ham often considered the world’s best: jamón Ibérico de bellota, as it’s known in Spain. “Instead of importing it, we’re making it here,” Marsal says. “Like the Europeans who planted vines in California.”
Acornseekers, the duo’s three-year-old company, based in Flatonia, Texas, is the first to bring Ibérico pigs, a breed indigenous to Spain and Portugal, to the U.S. for commercial production. The omnivorous animals graze freely in pastures dotted with oak trees, feasting on the hundreds of pounds of acorns they find in the winter, a centuries-old tradition. The goal is to produce nutty, marbled meat that’s as good as or better than what’s available from Spain’s multibillion-dollar pork industry, the world’s fourth-largest producer and exporter. About 50 high-end restaurants across the U.S. have sought Acornseekers’ fresh cuts of pork, which it started selling in small amounts in April, Murga says. “We’re saying no to clients that want a lot.”
It’s been a bureaucratic adventure for Marsal, a former marketing executive from Barcelona who now lives in Miami, and Murga, an agricultural engineer who grew up rearing Ibéricos outside Seville and now lives in Columbus. The duo had to persuade the Spanish government to let them take the pigs out of Spain and then follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s protocol regulating European swine imports, which the agency put into effect in late 2009. In 2014, after corralling investors, Acornseekers flew 150 Ibéricos to New York, where the pigs were quarantined for a month, per USDA regulations, then trucked to the company’s 75-acre ranch.
Marsal and Murga settled on Texas because of its plentiful oak trees. Acorns, the pigs’ favorite food, give the meat its flavor and consistency. Marsal, Murga, and five other Spaniards have invested more than $3 million of their own money in Acornseekers. Last year it trademarked the name Ibericus to show its pigs are purebreds, unlike most in Spain, which are crossed with other breeds. “We’re not targeting the general public,” says investor Manel Echevarría, a Miami-based executive for crystal maker Swarovski. “We’re targeting the elite.”
Ibérico meat, both fresh and cured, is in demand among influential U.S. chefs, who praise its rich taste and texture and say it’s notably different from the lean factory-farmed American breeds. Consumption of cured ham in the U.S. is at “historic highs” today, according to a 2015 report from ICEX, the Spanish government’s export agency, which estimates the wholesale value of cured ham sold in the U.S. was about $200 million in 2014.
Katie Button, the chef and co-owner of Spanish restaurant Cúrate in Asheville, N.C., describes both fresh and cured Ibérico as “amazing.” She’s worked in the kitchens of Spanish star chefs Ferran Adrià and José Andrés. “Even people who don’t eat pork tell me they had to try it, and it absolutely blows their minds,” she says. Josh Merrow, a co-founder of Hamlovers.com, an online retailer based in Greenwich, Conn., says the U.S. is the strongest market of the more than 20 countries he serves. Merrow recently started Jamonwholesale.com, a site for U.S. retailers, chefs, and caterers.
After two years of breeding, Acornseekers owns more than 2,000 Ibéricos, 250 of which were set to be slaughtered in late May. (The slaughter happens in the spring, after pigs have fattened up over the winter; they gain about one-third of their weight during acorn season.) Marsal and Murga say they’ll have a total of 5,000 pigs next year. The company also supplies pigs to family farmers in Texas and elsewhere who raise the pigs at their own expense in return for a cut of the annual profit. It’s a way to lower overhead, says Hines Boyd, a real estate broker with a Ph.D. in agriculture who’s raising several hundred Ibéricos for Acornseekers on his family’s 2,000-acre farm in northern Florida. Compared with U.S. commercial pigs, raising Ibéricos is “expensive and time-consuming,” Boyd says.
Betting on the U.S. is smart, says José Miguel Montoya Oliver, a professor at Madrid’s Universidad Politécnica who’s one of Spain’s leading forestry experts. In Spain’s main ham-producing regions, thousands of oaks are dying annually, and they’re not being replanted because of poor forestry management, he says, resulting in “fewer and fewer” oaks and shrinking Ibérico production. It’s a problem for the industry, he says. “They know that one day they’re going to be left without product.”
For Acornseekers, the most pressing need is to build a curing facility. Marsal and Murga have selected a site in an industrial area of Columbus and will launch a $2 million crowdfunding campaign in June. They hope to complete the project by yearend. Acornseekers will cure its ham for two years, then sell it for as much as the imported version to signal its quality.
After that comes the fun part: persuading Americans to eat the entire slice, including the creamy white fat. At Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant Andanada 141 in Manhattan, most leave it on the side of their plate, says chef Manuel Berganza. “You have to teach. You have to explain.” Boyd is a fan: “No other breed of pig is capable of marbling like the Ibérico. In Spain they call them olive trees on legs because their fat is much higher in oleic fatty acids than almost any other breed of pig, especially when you feed them things like acorns,” he says. “It’s a healthier fat.”
The bottom line: With consumption of cured ham rising in the U.S., Acornseekers estimates it will raise as many as 5,000 pigs in 2017.