Every August I visit the town of La Alberca for a language immersion programme and to escape the heat of Madrid. Nestled in the Sierra de Francia region of Salamanca, the area is named after the influx of French workers who arrived in the early 1200s. This economic migration was encouraged by Raymond of Burgundy, a French nobleman married to Queen Urraca I of León. It’s famous for its French-style medieval timber buildings, decorative doorways (check out my post from August 2021) and that most Spanish of gastronomic treats: Iberico ham.
But this isn’t any old jamon, this is the finest quality you can get; higher in fat, with a marbled texture and a sweeter taste, hence the fact it’s twice the price of Serrano ham. The local pigs are black in colour, with slender legs and less hair compared to their pink cousins. This ancient breed, represented in prehistoric Spanish cave art, is fed on an acorn-rich diet. Varieties of holm and cork oak trees cover this mountainous landscape, originally planted in the Middle Ages to provide firewood and building materials for the local farmers. The pigs have certainly developed a taste for the acorns from these trees, they can eat up to 10kg of the nuts each day while putting on up to a kilo of fat.
La Alberca certainly celebrates this famous food. Alongside pig themed souvenirs, the streets are lined with butchers advertising chorizo, salchichón and morcilla sausages, and the local specialty: the Belotta (acorn) and Pata Negra (black hoof) varieties of pork. In darkened rooms, the salt cured legs, dried for over 2 years in the mountain air, hang like giant bats and fill the air with a sweet meaty scent. At over 1000 metres above sea level, the town of La Alberca and its mountainous surroundings can boast fresh air and a cool breeze all year around.
The importance of pigs to the local economy and culture is celebrated on the 13th of June, when a black pig is released after being blessed and a bell placed around its neck. The animal, always nicknamed San Anton, roams freely around the town, being fed and given overnight shelter by locals. This life of luxury ends on the 17th of January (San Anton’s Day) when the animal is dispatched and raffled off for charity. In the past, the pig was fattened by the neighbours, and then presented to the most disadvantaged family in the village.
I’ve never actually ever seen this famous pig, it’s probably avoiding the herds of tourists that can descend on the town in the summer. I’ve also never partaken in the other local ritual, whereby couples wanting to have a baby touch the testicles of the granite pig sculpture located outside the church at midnight. There is no way I’m taking that risk, so I’ll stick to enjoying the real thing.