Raley turns a curious eye to acorn-fed hogs

Bob Raley shows one of the acorn-flavored hams that he hopes in four or five years will take on the unique character of world-renowned Iberico hams. The cheesecloth-covered meat, complete with leg and hoof, is one of many hams that have been hanging for several months in a temperature- and humidity- controlled room. Also shown are some of the acorns from red oaks in a Raley woods that will help fatten and flavor this year's crop of pigs. BY DENNIS FORNEY
September 21, 2012

Bob Raley turned 80 recently. Not the retiring type, the campground, real estate, natural beef, vineyard, wedding venue, marina and farming entrepreneur has set his sights on a new venture: specialty cured hams.

Taking a page out of the playbook of the world-renowned Iberico hams that cure in the low-humidity air of the Sierra Nevadas in southern Spain, Raley is fattening hogs on acorns that fall from oak trees on one of his farms near Millsboro. “The acorns help give the meat a unique, nutty flavor. That flavor resides in the fat of the ham which – unlike marbled beef – is distributed evenly through the meat. We will be curing these hams for at least four or five years before they develop the flavor and consistency we're after,” he said.

In Spain, where tapas are a mainstay of the dining experience, wafer-thin slices of Iberico ham often accompany pieces of melon and cured cheeses on small plates, served with glasses of Rioja wine. The flavor of the carefully cured ham melts in the mouth as the meat lays on the tongue and each bite of the tapas is savored. This is not meat to be wolfed.

These hams typically feature the hindquarters of pigs, complete with leg bones and hooves in place. They sell for as much as $2,000 each, and bars and restaurants often display them on special carving racks. Instructors teach people the proper technique for carving thin pieces - with razor-sharp knives - from the flavorful ham whose flavors concentrate and mellow as the meat dries and tightens with age.

John Hall, working with Raley on the project, said pieces of properly carved ham are practically thin enough to read a newspaper through and about the shape and size of a tongue. In a bar or restaurant, thin piece by thin little piece, a single ham can last for months. Since they have been air-dried and salt-cured, spoilage is not a problem. Long before refrigeration was an option for curing meats, salt and sugar curing were the standard for preserving meats.

The Spanish have been perfecting their Iberico hams for hundreds of years. Raley isn't expecting his Sussex specialty hams to be a success overnight, but that isn't stopping him from getting a start on a new industry. And when nature - in the guise of acorns - is providing food that can create hams that draw a premium price, he plans to take full advantage. After all, this is the man who filled a gum ball machine at his Holly Lake campground with shelled corn and ended up banking lots of quarters from people who were delighted to feed his ducks and geese for him.

About that geek word

A T-shirt on sale at Lewes Public Library proclaims: "I geek Lewes Public Library." It's only been in the last few months that I've noticed this noun - describing a non-mainstream person going deep into heady things like comics and computers - starting to be used as a verb. One internet site explains that the geek term dates back to as far as the late 1800s when it was used as broadly as describing a fool or as narrowly as describing circus performers who did weird things like biting off the heads of live chickens. Geek as a verb describes a passionate enjoyment of something. Like humans, language evolves continuously.

Red fish in local waters

Twice in one day this week different fishermen told me they've seen and are hearing about red fish - also known as red drum - being caught in local waters. Chris Bason of the Center for the Inland Bays said he has seen red fish along the rocks of the Delaware Breakwater in the mouth of Delaware Bay. Matt DiSabatino of Striper Bites fame said he and some of his fishing buddies have also been seeing red fish in the lower Delaware. Red fish are one of the prized species of the inland, salt waters of the Carolinas. Black drum are far more prevalent in our waters though red drum have shown up from time to time in the past. More evidence of a warming climate?

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