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Gourmet ham saves pig breed’s bacon

A charcuterie specialist from the Ardèche has saved a race of pig from extinction and produced a gastronomic ham included on the menu in Michelin-starred restaurants.

Jambon de Mangalica has been compared to the Pata Negra from Spain, though charcutier Christophe Guèze, from Vernoux-en-Vivarais, insists it has its own distinct qualities: “A chef said to me it is like comparing a Ferrari with a Porsche as they are both exceptional but different – and it is the same for these hams. 

“The meat has a delicacy which is incomparable, it is very mellow, but with a distinctive taste, full of character. 

“We salt it using an Italian method which reveals all its flavours. It is matured for at least two years though the finest are left for three-and-a-half.

“Its unique quality is in the fat. The Mangalica pig comes from Hungary and its name means ‘pig with a lot of lard’.

“However this fat contains a high level of Omega 3 and 6. Studies in Hungary have shown it contains two to three times more Omega 3 than fish. So it is far better for your health than other pork products. The creamy fat melts at 32°C, just like butter and when you eat it, it melts in the mouth in a similar way.”

The high fat content almost sounded the death knell for this extraordinary looking pig which has a curly, woolly coat that makes it look like a sheep.

Its young are similar to baby wild boar with stripes along their backs. They come in different colours which affects the meat so that there are three colours of ham; white, red, and black and white.

It lives a slow, gentle life uprooting nuts and food and takes far longer to mature than other pigs.

Mr Guèze says that an intensively raised pig will be slaughtered at around 10 months, a free-range pig at between 12 and 18 months but a Mangalica will live two years.

They are very docile and affectionate and farmers enjoy raising them. However, in 1990 there were just 198 left in the whole of Hungary. 

Originally the Mangalica was prized for its high fat content which was not only used in cooking before the rise of vegetable oils but also for making candles, shoe polish, soap and cosmetic products. Between 1850 and 1950 its fat was more valuable than its meat.

Then new products replaced animal fat in industry and lard was disapproved of for health reasons. At the time it was not understood that the lard from a Mangalica actually contains less saturated fats and more unsaturated fats than an equal quantity of butter and has none of the trans-fats found in margarine.

In the 1970s the Mangalica, with its longer life-cycle and need for a large grazing area was not adapted to new intensive farming methods and the breed began to die out.

Christophe Guèze said he discovered this breed by chance and decided to experiment with it as a challenge which he shared with three star chef, Régis Marcon, who has his restaurant not far from his charcuterie business.

He started four years ago and his first hams have now been sold. They cost between €50 and €250 a kilo depending on how long they are left to mature: “I sell between 70 and 80 hams a month”, says Mr Guèze.

“I sell mostly to restaurants and there is more demand than there are hams. There is a waiting list and you would have to wait about six months if you wanted to buy one.”

But he says he does not want to increase his rate of production: “I work with some exceptional farmers, many of whom are women who take great pride in the way they rear their Mangalica pigs.

“I don’t want to rush things and make mistakes. It’s a rare product which needs time and care and we must not go too far, too fast.”

He says at present it remains a luxury item, mostly reserved for fine diners in top restaurants and warns against cheaper alternatives: “You can find Mangalica ham in the supermarkets for around €30 a kilo, but this is not the real thing.

“It is more likely to have come from a breed that is a cross between a true Mangalica and a leaner pig which means the fat will not be the same and that they will have been raised for a shorter period of time. 

“A true Jambon de Mangalica is an exceptional product for real gourmets.”

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