India has its sacred cows, but in La Alberca, a Spanish village renowned for its juicy hams, an ancient Christian tradition has decreed that the chosen animal is a pig.
"Hello pig," the villagers call as they walk by the chosen animal wandering freely across a cobbled courtyard of the medieval village. One man stops to scratch the side of the hefty looking creature.
AdvertisementLa Alberca, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the western town of Salamanca near the border with Portugal, is like many other local villages.
On June 13, a carefully selected pig is released into its streets, treated with special care -- and then on January 17 slaughtered as part of a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.
But until then, town hall employee Raquel Canubo explained, local people know they have to treat the pig as an honoured guest.
"They are asked to feed it, take care of it, and drivers are expected to give way to it," said Canubo.
These are the pigs of San Antonia (Saint Anthony) -- sacred since the dawn of time. There is even an imposing granite statue of a pig in the village just in front of the church's main entrance.
January 17, the fatal day for the chosen animal, is the feast day for Saint Anthony.
One of the miracles attributed to him was having cured a wild sow and her litter of blindness -- which is why in icons depicting him you will often see a pig at the saint's feet.
"In the past, Saint Anthony's pig was put to death and his meat was offered to the most destitute family in the village," Canuto explained.
"But today, Saint Anthony's pig is offered to the winner of a big tombola." The proceeds of this lottery go towards the church's good works.
The lucky winner is expected to take the pig home and slaughter it himself.
Every year, a promising piglet is donated to the village by one of the many pig farmers that export their meat across the world.
For the ancient tradition has yielded a rich culinary legacy -- and a lucrative business -- in the region.
Spanish ham (Jamon Iberico) is a delicacy that starts in the surrounding hills of Sierra de Francia, where the pigs nourish themselves from the acorns that fall from the oak trees.
This year's pig was offered by the local producers Embutidos Fermin, which exports as far afield as Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Korea -- as well as Belgium and Germany closer to home.
Their special delicacy can sell at anything between 200 euros (295 dollars) a kilo (2.2 pounds) in Europe to a mouth-watering 400 euros in Japan.
And the firm has recently broken into one of the world's toughest markets, the United States, which cleared them to export their Jamon Iberico after they passed a series of strict food safety tests.
The firm won the US inspectors over after impressing them with the state-of-the-art facilities at their abattoir, and the first 30 samples arrived in New York on November 14.
Until now, the US market has only known 'Serrano ham', which is made from the kind of pig found in many countries.
The makers of Jamon Iberico on the other hand stress that what makes it special is that it is made only from the black Iberian pigs native to Spain.
In cellars across the region, the ham is dried slowly for two years before being ceremoniously sliced into thin slices of fat and flesh that melt deliciously in the mouth.
In La Alberca meanwhile, the chosen pig was tipping the scales at 150 kilos as it trotted the alleyways of the village, a succulent treat for one of those friendly villagers.
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