Foodies go to great lengths to get their lips on the world’s finest ham. But if you wouldn’t transport prize boar sperm from Portugal, invest $200,000 to import your own pigs, raise litters free range on organic grains and imported acorns, and dry age their hind legs by hand for years—well, then you’re not as obsessed as Rodrigo Duarte, owner and butcher at Caseiro e Bom.
The son of pig farmers in Portugal, Duarte grew up raising and butchering hogs, but didn’t have the opportunity to open his own place until he emigrated to Newark, New Jersey’s Portuguese enclave, the Ironbound district, where he worked at a supermarket meat counter while saving for his own butcher shop. “I didn’t really sleep back then,” Duarte says. “I worked long shifts, then stayed up all night making my own sausages.”
In 2010, he bought a bodega and converted the back into a smokehouse and every inch of ceiling space into a pork lover’s paradise, dangling dozens of ham legs you have to duck beneath to approach the counter. Then he bought a farm where he raised free-range domestic pigs, before becoming the only person in the United States ever allowed to import and breed true black Portuguese Alentejano hogs.
Why all the fuss? Close your eyes while a paper-thin slice of Duarte’s aged presunto (Portuguese for ham) dissolves over your tongue. As its marbleized fat melts, your taste buds are bombarded with a range of sweet, buttery, nutty and savory flavors as complex as the world’s finest wines or whiskeys. The intense flavor comes from the pigs themselves, an ancient line of black hogs called pata negra praised in writing two thousand years ago.
The easiest comparison is to Spain’s famous jamón Ibérico de bellota, which can sell for $4,500 a leg. But some think Duarte’s New Jersey–crafted delicacy is even better—he’s claimed top honors at the Charcuterie Masters international competition every year since 2016. Now it’s on the menu of some of New York and New Jersey’s finest restaurants, with Duarte charging $499 a pound for a leg aged for four years. Sales increased even during the pandemic.
“I’m not scared of finding customers,” he says. “I’m scared of trying to keep up with demand. I don’t want to rush the process.”
Thanks to Duarte’s new online shop (usapatanegra.com), you can try some without schlepping to Newark. Slice it as thin as possible, serve at room temperature and, if you must, pair with aged Manchego, crusty bread and a good bottle of wine or sherry-finished whiskey.
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