Every year, with the arrival of the first October rains, the Dehesa of Extremadura is transformed and starts coming to life. Once the grass has pushed through, the holm oaks and cork oaks amaze us with the ripening of their prodigious fruit and mark the start of the quintessential season of our natural environment: the beginning of the montanera season in the pastures.
Managing the work in the fields during the montanera season is a trade handed down generation to generation. At Señorio de Montanera we have been working for hundreds of years in this traditional system of rearing pure Iberian pigs in order to maintain biodiversity in the Dehesa of Extremadura.
What is the montanera season?
The montanera season is the last stage in the rearing of Iberian acorn-fed pigs . It usually begins early to mid-October and lasts until the end of February. During the montanera season, the Iberian pig lives in freedom in the pastures and fattens naturally feeding exclusively on acorns and natural pastures.
Señorio de Montanera has more than 60,000 hectares of dehesa land, which serve as a natural setting for the rearing of their pure Iberian pigs, who yield the very best Iberian acorn-fed ham with Extremadura Designation of Origin . A Señorio de Montanera Iberian pig benefits from more than 2 hectares of land per animal.
At the beginning of the Montanera season an Iberian pig weighs no more than 115 kg (maximum 10@) and must gain a minimum of 46 kg during this period on a diet based on acorns and grass from the pastures.
During this stage, each Iberian pig can eat between 10 and 15 kg of acorns a day, and, therefore, when the season ends, it will have consumed around 600 kg of acorns in total.
But, the Dehesa ofExtremadura is capricious and delicate and does not provide the same emblematic landscape each year. Every year we are at the mercy of the weather, in hope that the rain will fall just at the right time, the grass will push through in large quantities, the fruit will ripen and reach the required quality to yield the most exquisite flavour of thebest Iberian acorn-fed ham from Extremadura.
The montanera in the Dehesa of Extremadura has been even better than last year
Contrary to the initial predictions, in the end at Señorio de Montanera we can declare that the 2019-2020 montanera has been of better quality than last year .
Between May and October there was practically no rain at all in southwest Spain in general, and in Extremadura in particular; we were expecting the worst. Fortunately, in the end, acorn production was of exceptional quality, although it was better in holm oaks than cork oaks.
Year after year, we fear for the quality of this fruit which, with the first rains of September, may end up spoiling due to the appearance of pests (weevils or small beetles), which eat the acorn, causing it to rot. This year, the absence of rain during this period yielded healthy acorns that the Iberian pigs have put to good use!
Furthermore, the rain in November and the absence of low temperatures have helped the grass to grow in abundance, so the pigs have benefited from both foods in quantity and quality. This key combination of food helps our Iberian pig grow bigger and better, meaning that the quality of the meat will be superior to previous years.
The Iberian pig usually begins the montanera between mid and late October. But this year, until the arrival of the rains in November, our Iberian pigs were not able to enter the pastures.
The minimum amount of time that a pig must spend in the dehesa to be considered an Iberian “acorn-fed” pig is 61 days. Therefore, the delay in the start of the montanera also caused a delay in its completion.
The different types of acorns
The holm oak acorn and the cork oak acorn differ in a series of morphological and physical characteristics. Cork oaks have two ripening periods in the montanera, one earlier in mid-October when the acorns are fatter and are known as “brevas”; and a later one with smaller, rounder acorns. Holm oaks only ripen once, from November onwards, and yield longer acorns. In terms of flavour, the oak acorn is sweeter and juicier , and Iberian pigs prefer it to that of the cork oak, which is more bitter and astringent.
This year, the quality of the holm oak acorn has been much higher than that of the cork oak, and therefore the montanera has not been the same in all the dehesa lands of Señorío de Montanera.
The areas with the best montanera in Extremadura have been the dehesas in the south of the province of Badajoz bordering Portugal, where the pastures are rich in oak woods. Further north, the Sierra de San Pedro, located between the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz, has yielded very few acorns and as we move eastward, we find a slightly weaker montanera season.
In Portugal, the montanera has been exceptional only in those pastures dominated by holm oaks. In the country’s Alentejo region, mostly dominated by cork oaks (sobreiro in Portuguese) acorn production has been quite scarce.
The sustainability of the Dehesa of Extremadura
The Iberian pig and the dehesa of Extremadura are two mutually complementary and dependent elements, so much so that one could not exist without the other.
The value of the Iberian pig in the preservation of the pastures is incalculable, and the benefits of the acorn in the rearing of the Iberian pig provide nutritional qualities far superior to that of other foods. That is one of the reasons why the traditional rearing of pure Iberian pigs by the montanera system, despite the strong entry into the sector of production systems that are not based compulsorily on the dehesa.