Rodrigo Duarte, The King of Hams

Rodrigo Duarte spared no effort to bring the prized pig of his native Portugal here. His long quest nears completion.

“It’s not all about money,” says Rodrigo Duarte of the purebred alentejano pigs he raises on his farm. “I want to show people here what good food is about.”
“It’s not all about money,” says Rodrigo Duarte of the purebred alentejano pigs he raises on his farm. “I want to show people here what good food is about.”
Photo by John Bessler

In a cool, dark curing room beneath his Newark specialty shop, Rodrigo Duarte shines a light on 80 masterworks of charcuterie dangling from the low ceiling. Black-hooved, with a glistening rind, they are legs from pure-bred ibérico pigs, prized source of the world’s finest, most expensive ham.

Duarte is the first person certified to raise 100 percent pure ibérico pigs from Portuguese bloodlines outside of Portugal—and he’s doing it on a farm in Wantage, in Sussex County.

Duarte, 39, is no novice. He grew up on his family’s ibérico pig farm in central Portugal, began his training as a butcher at age eight and mastered charcuterie in Barcelona at 20.

Ibéricos are native to the rugged plains of both Spain and Portugal on Europe’s Iberian peninsula. Their well-marbled ham—cured longer and a tad firmer and drier than Italian prosciutto—varies in cost and quality. The best of the best comes from purebred ibéricos whose unique wild acorn diet imbues their fat with an inimitable nuttiness and the same heart-healthy oleic acids found in olive oil, avocados and nuts. This luxury food is often referred to in rapturous tones by its Spanish name, jamón ibérico de bellota (bellota is Spanish for acorn).

“In Portugal, we call our pure ibéricos alentejanos for the [Alentejo] region where they are primarily raised,” Duarte says. “The Spanish might be better at curing hams. But our pigs are purer bred and provide better, fattier meat.” Indeed, no small portion of Spain’s best jamón ibérico is actually made from Portuguese alentejanos.

When the 80 alentejano legs presently curing in the cellar of Duarte’s Ironbound store, Caseiro é Bom (“homemade and good”) are ready—shoulders this coming July; hind legs a year later—their garnet-red meat will command $199 per pound or more. Even at that price, orders are already rolling in from customers who know the handmade chorizo, blood sausage and other products that make Caseiro é Bom a magnet for connoisseurs.

After emigrating here in 2002, Duarte worked as head butcher of Seabra Market in Newark and then at Kings in Short Hills. All the while, “I missed how good our pork was in Portugal,” he says. “So in 2005 I decided, damn it, I have to bring it over.”

Easier said than done. In 1976, all imports to the U.S. of Iberian ham were banned, due to a European outbreak of African swine fever. In 2017, restrictions were lifted on ham from Spain but not Portugal, possibly because Portugal hasn’t invested the time or money that Spain has in order to gain clearance.

Duarte’s initial workaround: “In 2005, I convinced the Portuguese [and U.S.] governments to let me import ibérico semen from a lab in Alentejo so I could raise hybrids here,” he says. Genetic testing showed that piglets born to Duarte’s Duroc sows were 85 percent ibérico. The ham he made from these hybrid pigs won best traditional pork charcuterie in the country in both 2016 and 2017 at the Charcuterie Masters Competition in Flushing, New York.

Yet Duarte wasn’t satisfied. In 2016, after much negotiating, he arranged to bring 10 purebred Portuguese alentejano pigs here. First, he had to spend $200,000 quarantining them—in Portugal, then in Beacon, New York, for a total of 120 days.

“To get the real McCoy,” he adds, “the Portuguese government made me stop raising my hybrid pigs.” That halted production. Duarte sold out the last of his hybrid ibérico-Duroc jamón in September.

If all goes as planned, Duarte will soon move his curing operation to a 30,000-square-foot New Jersey facility outfitted with traditional Spanish equipment. Meanwhile, his growing herd of alentejanos, now 100 strong, are happily snuffling around on the 222 acres in Wantage Duarte purchased last summer. Each breeding sow is tagged and catalogued by Portuguese government-appointed regulators. Inspectors fly in annually to ensure that all the animals are being raised according to Portuguese standards.

Under those standards, Duarte’s alentejanos are not sent to slaughter after six-to-eight months of intensive feeding—the average for commercial pigs in the U.S.—but grow at a more natural rate for 16 months. Early in life, they are fed cereals and fruits. They spend their last months roaming on grassy pastures, where they fatten up on wild herbs, grasses and tons of sweet acorns and chestnuts Duarte imports from Portugal.

“Modern farming has no respect for pigs,” Duarte says. “They are seen as numbers, not animals. I do all I can to give each of my pigs a good life, free from suffering, right until the day I say goodbye. I put all my soul and effort in this for more than a decade. I want to show people here that something amazing comes when you honor tradition. If you take care of the pig, they are happier and make healthier, richer meat. And that’s better for everybody.”

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