“I appreciate the vegan perspective”: A Q&A with the owner of the Spanish Pig, a specialty ham shop on Roncesvalles recently protested by animal rights activists

“I appreciate the vegan perspective”: A Q&A with the owner of the Spanish Pig, a specialty ham shop on Roncesvalles recently protested by animal rights activists

“They put paper on my windows before painting slogans on them, which was actually very considerate”

The Spanish Pig
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Larrad

His Roncesvalles boutique hasn’t even opened yet, but Jonathan Larrad has already run afoul of animal rights activists. Late last month, a group of protesters gathered outside of the Spanish Pig—the high-end ham and seafood boutique set to open later this spring—to voice their objection to animal consumption and octopus farming. Larrad says the demonstration was not what he had in mind for a launch party, but he welcomes the opportunity to defend his sustainable products.

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Before we talk about the protest, tell me about when and why you founded the Spanish Pig. Do I detect a British accent?
My mom was British, my dad is Spanish. I was born in England, but I moved to the Canary Islands when I was five and stayed there until I went to university. I was living in London when I met my future wife, Leonie, who is also English but who grew up in Waterloo. I was working in the corporate world at the time, but I always had this pipe dream of running a restaurant. My great-grandfather had a food shop in Madrid, so maybe it runs in the blood. We decided to move to Toronto in 2011 to be closer to family. Back then, the Spanish restaurants here were serving ceviche, which is actually a Latin American dish, and the Spanish ham I was able to find was not of great quality.

So you decided to launch your own shop?
Pretty much. In 2017, I got in touch with a local supplier who was importing Spanish products into Canada. In the beginning, the focus was on Iberico ham, hence the store’s name, and then we started carrying premium canned seafood, just because that’s another thing that is done so well in Spain. I know conservas have become really popular in North America over the past few years—and more recently huge on TikTok—but when I first came here, “canned fish” was what you kept in your pantry in case an atomic bomb went off.

For the uninitiated, can you explain what makes Iberico ham so superior to the humble Black Forest variety?
Iberico ham is rich and really does melt in your mouth. It has that deep umami flavour that comes from the fat. The key difference is that it’s made using a different breed of pig: the Iberico pig, which is specific to the Iberian Peninsula. They’re also known as black-hoofed pigs because they are descended from wild boars. Iberico de bellota is what you would call the king of hams—it doesn’t get any better. The pig is raised free range on a farm and enjoys a diet that consists mostly of acorns. The meat is cured for three to four years, and just one leg can fetch up to $2,000. The second category, Iberico de cebo, is made using the same breed of pig, but they’re raised on a farm and fed a diet of grain, which affects the taste and quality of the meat. It’s still high-end but about half the price of Iberico. And then, finally, you have Serrano ham, which is from a regular white pig but is cured rather than baked or smoked, which is how the ham you might get in the grocery store is usually prepared.

Just so we’re clear, you have customers paying $2,000 for a leg of ham?
Oh, definitely—although we also sell it in 70-gram portions, already carved, for about $60. For the first few years, we were probably selling about one leg of the bellota a month, and these days it’s more like one a week. Business picked up a lot during the pandemic, which is why I decided to quit my job and focus on the store full time. We had been leasing warehouse space in Mississauga, but when that lease came up, I decided it was the right time to open a physical shop. I chose a storefront in Roncesvalles because that’s where I live and because it has this great neighbourhood foodie culture. In Spain you’ll see the jamoneros, the master carvers, carving a leg right in the store, and it’s like a show. So that’s how I’m planning to operate.

And are you a jamonero?
I actually went to Madrid this past January to hone my skills. My instructor was a master who has carved 8,000 legs, and it really was like watching an artist at work.

Your store was recently the site of a protest by animal rights activists. Was that a surprise?
I actually wasn’t there when it happened—nobody was, because the space is still being renovated—so I had no idea, but I did have a look online after the fact and saw a post on one of the activists’ websites. From what I understand, a small group of protesters showed up on a Sunday afternoon carrying signs. And there was a chalk artist who drew a big image of an octopus on the sidewalk out front. They put paper up on my windows before painting slogans on them, which was actually very considerate. The police showed up, but everything was extremely peaceful.

Any idea why your business was targeted?
I know that one thing the protesters took umbrage with was a particular graphic that I had in the window. It depicted two animated pigs and an octopus. It was a temporary window covering, just for while we finish the reno, but I guess it struck a nerve—particularly because of the octopus. The protest was about my business but also about a new industrial octopus farm called Nueva Pescanova, which is opening in Spain. We have zero connection to that business, but I think the protesters were looking for a local business to connect to that international story—and we do sell canned octopus. Octopuses have gotten a lot of attention in the animal rights community recently, partly because of the popular documentary My Octopus Teacher and the fact that they have been recognized as sentient, intelligent beings.

Are you moved at all by the argument that more-intelligent animals like octopuses feel pain and experience fear?
I think it’s a tricky debate to wade into—and I will add that pigs are also highly intelligent. I love animals, and I understand that it’s a bit of a paradox to feel that way and eat animals. I appreciate the vegan perspective. I just think it’s a bit misguided for activists to come after us when the products we sell are relatively sustainable and ethically produced. I already talked about how the pigs are raised, which is the opposite of the factory farm situation, where an animal is stuck in a cage for all or most of its life. Canned seafood is sustainable in the sense that a lot of it is line caught, and it uses product that might otherwise go to waste. I understand that there are people who are going to say that there is no such thing as sustainable animal products, but there are certainly degrees of harm. Most of us aren’t going to go vegan overnight.

Did you get a chance to speak with any of the protesters?
I got a message from someone asking me if I would consider not selling octopus. I politely declined. But I did remove the cartoon animals from the window. I’m not looking to pick a fight or stir the pot. We put that sign up because we thought we should let people know what we would be selling, but we also sell other imported products, like Spanish olive oil. In retrospect, maybe I should have put animated olives in the window instead.