Farm to Store: In NJ, a Portuguese Immigrant Perfects His Jamon

Rodrigo Duarte is meandering in the basement of his store in Newark, New Jersey — a treasure cave filled with hundreds of golden and ruby-red sausages, chorizos, and hams — smelling a loin cured for six months, checking the density of an entire leg of ham, when he stops and points to a scar on one of the fingers of his right hand.

“I got this one when I was 12 years old,” the 36-year-old Duarte says. “I had been working at the butcher shop for one year, doing all the work the older men didn’t want to do, like cleaning a cow’s head, when I cut my finger. I got five stitches.”

Ethnic Eats-04Born in Cantanhede, in central Portugal, Duarte started working as a kid to help support his large family of nine siblings. More than 25 years later, he is the only U.S. producer of pata negra or jamon ibérico, the ham made from black Iberian pigs, a traditional breed native to the Iberian peninsula. Many connoisseurs of cured ham believe it to be the best in the world – rivaling its more famous Italian cousin, prosciutto di Parma.

“Family, friends, everyone called me crazy when I said I wanted to bring semen and raise these pigs in America,” he recalls. “They’d say: ‘If no one is doing it, it’s because it doesn’t work. There’s no money to make there.’”

Then he gazes at one of the hams, with its taut golden skin and its black feet tied with a rope to the ceiling, and says: “This is a natural cured pata negra.” He pauses, then says: “At $399 a pound, this one sells for $8,000.”

A life’s work

Duarte was 8 years old when he first killed a pig.

In rural Portugal, the killing of the animal, called matança, was a true celebration that lasted an entire day, sometimes a full weekend. Extended family and friends would get together and, to the accompaniment of someone playing the guitar, butcher the pig, store the best cuts and use every single last piece of the animal to make a variety of sausages. “It’s not that I had any desire to kill it,” Duarte says. “I just wanted very much to be part of that tradition.”

After several years at the butcher shop, Duarte went to study at the Tourism and Hospitality Management School of Lisbon, and returned to Cantanhede to open his own business. “I had almost no money to invest, so when the business didn’t turn around a profit quickly I was in trouble,” he remembers. When he related his hardships to a fellow countryman who was an immigrant in the U.S. and a top manager at the Portuguese-owned chain of supermarkets “Seabra,” the man suggested he move to the U.S. and work for them.

Caseiro e Bom in Newark, NJ (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Caseiro e Bom in Newark, New Jersey (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Duarte landed in Newark in 2004 and, for two years, was in charge of the butcher shop and charcuterie at one of Seabra’s supermarkets in the city, which has a sizable Portuguese population. He then moved to Kings Super Markets, in Short Hills, for the same job. The Portuguese community in the state had been producing their own traditional sausages for a long time, but, Duarte says, the process “had become very industrialized, too concerned with mass production, and quality had declined.” In 2006, he used all of his and his wife’s savings to open a business. He called it “Caseiro e Bom,” homemade and good.

Duarte had to stay at Kings for several more years, until his business became profitable, so every afternoon he would leave his job and work another shift. “I always seasoned and prepared all of our sausages. There were many nights with barely any sleep.”

Starting off with a handful of Portuguese standards, like chorizo and blood sausage, he was very soon traveling to Portugal to learn more from his mother and aunts. He traveled all over the country looking for traditional recipes, meeting elders along the way, from Trás-os-Montes in the north to Alentejo in the south, and asking them to share their secrets. “That’s when I started thinking about sharing all this knowledge,” he explains. “When you are this passionate about what you do, like I am, it’s almost incontrollable that you want to share it.”

Rodrigo Duarte holding one of his hams, with the Caseiro e Bom brand (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Rodrigo Duarte holding one of his hams, with the Caseiro e Bom brand (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

It’s during school hours on a weekday, but through the window you can see teenagers smoking on a corner. Duarte shares some details of the partnership he is preparing with a local school, where he’ll teach kids at risk. “It may not be as glamorous a job as being a lawyer or a doctor, but it’s a respectable job, where you can make a decent living. I think we can keep some of these kids off the streets.”

A fat secret

Soon after opening his shop in 2006, Duarte had clients from all over New Jersey and New York. Some clients even drove from Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It was time to start working on his dream: to sell pata negra, the nutty, earthy, fruity ham whose import to the U.S., until 2007, was prohibited.

But Duarte didn’t plan on merely importing it. “I wanted to make it myself,” he explains. Bringing live animals into the U.S., was not a possibility at the time, so he worked with a laboratory in Alentejo to import semen to the U.S. and breed some pigs. After some tests, he discovered that the animals were 85 percent genetically ibérico. He had passed a crucial test: you can use crossbred pigs to make pata negra, just as long as they are at least 50 percent ibérico.

Duarte raises the animals on a farm in New Jersey, according to the traditional method: Fattened on barley and maize, the pigs are allowed to roam freely in pastures to feed on grass, herbs and acorns. He even imports some of their food, like the acorns, from Portugal.

Since 2008, he has only produced 10 of those precious $8,000 hams, using a natural curing process, but every year he sells around 300 of the normal cured ones, for around $2,000 apiece. Right now, he can only raise around 80 of these animals a year. “But I’m taking the steps to increase production,” he says, without offering any more details.

One of Rodrigo Duarte’s free-range iberian pigs, feasting on his farm in New Jersey (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Duarte)

His company now offers around 150 different charcuterie products. Despite being at the same location in the Ironbound, the building went through a $400,000 renovation a couple of years ago and Duarte says he’s planning the construction of a much larger facility. Still, he says, it’s not about the money. “It’s important to make money, especially in this country, especially when you’re an immigrant, but this is not why I do it,” he says. “I am just so passionate about this.”

He talks at length about the pigs’ meat: “It’s so delicious, healthy, with a richer, sweeter flavor.” About the curing process: “I use less salt than other low-end hams, so the risk of ruining the meat is bigger, but you gain a lot in the complexity of flavor.” And about his never-ending list of creations, like Port wine sausages with Iberian pig meat, chocolate truffles with its bacon, or the terrines he’s creating to participate in the Charcuterie Masters competition, happening at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, this Saturday. “This has been my whole life,” he says. “I’m still in my 30s, but I have over 25 years in this business. This is my life’s passion.”