Yunnan's little black pig by the Angry River

Updated: 2012-01-16 14:51

By Li Yingqing and Guo Anfei(China Daily)

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Yunnan's little black pig by the Angry River

Yunnan is famous for its ham, traditionally made in Xuanwei, a region in Qujing county. It is arguably the best ham in China and world-famous, although the citizens from Jinhua in Zhejiang province may beg to differ.

And now, there is a quiet little revolution taking place by the banks of Nujiang River, the "angry river", the upper stretch of the famous Mekong as it passes the narrow gorges near Lijiang.

Here, little black pigs wander freely by steep meadows, grazing on wild herbs and foraging as freely as wild animals.

They are relatively small, compared to their bigger cousins bred in farms.

These sturdy little animals are reared for about two to three years before they are slaughtered and made into the region's organic hams - called black hams for their deep-colored crusts.

If you visit the villages by Nujiang, you may chance upon a strange sight in winter, when the hams are hoisted high on trees so they can catch the best of the drying winds. These trees with hocks of ham hanging from them seem to bear strange fruit indeed.

Ham-makers elsewhere in the country do not spend as much time in making and curing the hams as much as the villagers here.

Wang Yingwen, a 47-year old farmer who has raised the black pigs for more than 30 years, says the pigs are fed spring water and they live on wild fruits, mushrooms and ants on mountains, an all-organic diet if there was one.

Also, their hams are cured with half the salt used in factories. Instead, they are allowed to dry-cure for at least eight months to about three years, so the meat has time to mellow and mature.

Naturally, the longer the ham is cured, the better the quality and the most popular product now is the three-year old cured ham.

As a result, little black pig hams develop a rich flavor with a smoky aftertaste, and smooth, silky texture. It is finding a faithful following among China's expatriates, some of whom have compared it to very good Spanish jamon.

Huang Longhua, a businessman in Yunnan, operates an online shop selling the Nujiang black ham on Taobao, China's largest e-shopping platform.

He tells China Daily that the ham retails at more than 80 yuan ($12) per kilogram, double the price of the traditional Xuanwei or Jinhua hams. That means a whole ham may cost about 400 to 500 yuan, depending on the weight.

In China, where progress arrives in quantum leaps, it is good to know that some producers still hold firm to traditional practices that honor the land and nature, and time.