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The ham from the black pigs of the Alentejo is recognised by chefs and gastronomes throughout Portugal and beyond.

Bust that cholesterol!

Porco Preto:
The Olive Tree on Legs

Porco Preto is a speciality produce of which the Alentejo is very proud. Healthy and flavoursome, it ought not be a great surprise.

WORDS: Charles Metcalfe & Kathryn McWhirter|PHOTO: Shutterstock| 4 October 2014

Porco Preto:<br>The Olive Tree on Legs

‘The porco preto
is apparently descended from
a wild boar of Iberian or Roman origin with a particular genetic capacity for laying down fine streaks of intramuscular fat.’

THE BLACK PIG of the Alentejo is recognised by chefs and gastronomes throughout Portugal and beyond as very special meat: not only the fresh meat, but also the charcuterie (enchidos) and the wonderful, rich, flavourful ham (presunto). The porco preto is apparently descended from a wild boar of Iberian or Roman origin with a particular genetic capacity for laying down fine streaks of intramuscular fat. These marblings give the meat its unctuous consistency and unique flavour. Dark of skin, the pigs usually also have dark trotters at the end of their long, thin legs.

The black pigs run free for much of their lives, 14 to 16 months, in the Alentejo cork groves, opening and eating the fallen acorns, as well as grass, herbs and roots. There’s no shortage of fodder – the Alentejo has 400,000ha of holm oak, and 725,000ha of cork oak forests. The best and most expensive hams (presuntos), classified as ‘Bolota’, are from pigs that were slaughtered directly after this life of free foraging. The acorns (bolotas) are rich in oleic acid, a beneficial, cholesterol-busting fatty acid found also in olive oil. And the flavoursome fat of these black pigs contains between 50 and 60% oleic acid – the porco preto is ‘an olive tree on four legs’, according to one nutritionist. Nowadays, some Alentejo pigs have a diet in their last months supplemented with grain or other feed. ‘Recebo’ on the label indicates a partially grain-fed pig. These hams are still good, if less deeply delicious.

The top, acorn-fed hams have the classification of DOP (Denominação de Origem Protegida): Presunto do Alentejo, Paleta do Alentejo, and Presunto de Barrancos (a town in the mountains by the Spanish border whose cool climate is especially suited to the production of fine hams). Presunto is ham from the back legs, paleta from the forelegs. Presunto serrano simply means that the pig was raised in the mountains. Pata negra (black foot), incidentally, is not an official term, though it is often used for the black, aristocratic, acorn- eating pigs, some but not all of which have black feet. Confusingly, another, lesser breed also with black feet is also called pata negra...

This is an extract from The Wine & Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal, published by Inn House Publishing. Reproduced with kind permission of the authors.

Look out for The Wine & Food Lover's Guide to Porto & Gaia, due to be published before Christmas 2014.