Born in Shanghai but raised in Spain after moving to Madrid at the age of nine, Caraa co-founder Aaron Luo went whole hog when he decided to start a new business that had nothing to do with his luxury handbag brand.
Well, to be more accurate, whole hog leg.
Nostalgic for the stocked charcuterie boards on the tapas tables of his youth, Luo, who has called the U.S. home for the past two decades, decided he wanted to start importing premium meats from Spain instead of smuggling them back through customs after traveling abroad. So, after partnering up with his Caraa co-founder Carmen Chen Wu (who also has Spanish roots), Luo launched the direct-to-consumer charcuterie brand Mercado Famous in June after more than two years of development.
Sourced from pigs that subsist on a diet of fallen acorns and other organic foods that are raised in the UNESCO-protected pastures of a century-old family farm outside of Salamanca, Mercado’s pork products are buttery and nutty with intense color and a strong aroma. Ranging from 100% Ibérico ham that’s been aged for 48 months to jamón Serranía that’s been cured in the countryside for 17 months, Mercado’s offerings are all free of additives and nitrides and rich in omega-3 fatty acids and oleic acid.
According to Luo, the high-quality taste of Mercado’s melt-in-your-mouth meats stems from giving their free-roaming pigs a high quality of life. As he puts it, “tensed muscles translate to very tense meat.” (We’ve heard variations of that theory before, and it makes sense.)
“We treat our animals in a humane way. For example, for the last six months of their life before their sacrifice, they’re rent-free living in the open field and being fed acorns,” Luo tells InsideHook. “Because we are allowing the pigs to roam freely, the flavor of the meat comes out very differently. The fat content penetrates into the fiber of the muscle and marbleization occurs. When you carve a slice, the entire thing has a web of fat in between the actual fiber of the muscle which makes it much more tender and melty when you eat it.”
Tender, melty — and available in leg form. Entire leg form.
The captain of Mercado’s charcuterie corps, the 100% Serrano leg of jamón is cured for 24 months and shipped whole for customers to slice fresh by hand with some assistance from the included carving instructions. Tipping the scales at about 15-20 pounds (some pigs are leggier than others) with enough meat to feed up to 40 people, the leg is Mercado’s version of what can typically be found hanging out in the living rooms of many Spanish families during the holidays.
Free from moisture due to the curation process, Mercado’s jamón legs can last up to 1.5 months without being refrigerated depending on how fast they’re consumed. (Covering with a cheesecloth between carving sessions is suggested.) Given that timeline and the amount of meat, the $300 leg is actually a pretty good deal.
“Carving a leg sounds intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but it’s actually very intuitive,” Luo says. “I have one at my house pretty much year-round now. At night when I want a little snack, I just cut a few pieces of meat and get a piece of bread and enjoy it. It’s a marvelous way of consuming this type of meat and it’s a great conversation piece, as long as you have the counter space.”
And, even though it won’t fit in a stocking, it could make for a memorable holiday gift.
“Even if you leave it out for a month and a half, you can still carve it and it’ll be very tender and very fleshy,” Luo says. “It will last between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah or Christmas. Then again, I’ve seen households in Spain that basically clean up on one in a week.”
For Mercado, the goal is to make sure there are more American households like that moving forward.
“We started this mainly because we couldn’t get really high-end charcuterie in the U.S. for affordable prices,” Luo says. “The charcuterie here is basically stuff that’s not really consumed by the Spaniards. Our hope is to democratize this marvelous charcuterie category a little bit and also educate and build some brand affinity by telling the Spanish heritage of these meats and the farm and pigs they come from.”
They’ve already got a leg up on the competition.
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