Chef Dan Fox helps raise 40-50 heritage-breed pigs.

Chef Dan Fox helps raise 40-50 heritage-breed pigs. Photo By Jerry Luterman

A passion for pork

Chefs are turning to heritage pigs for more flavorful pork

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Remember when meat tasted good? Most of that flavor came from fat, especially in the case of pork. In the 1940s, the ratio of fat to lean meat on pigs was 50–50, according to Chris Hostetler at the National Pork Board. Then came the ’80s mantra, “Pork: the other white meat.” The slogan helped pork get a leg up in the battle with beef, but one casualty was the heritage pig – with its darker meat and higher fat content. Heritage breeds like the Meishan and Mangalitsa, known as “lard-type” pigs, fell out of favor as the production of pork was standardized.

Like heirloom vegetables, heritage breeds hearken back to a simpler, more natural process of breeding and raising pigs. “All aspects of a once local food system are under threat as ways of producing and processing food has become increasingly industrialized,” says Martha Davis Kipcak, regional governor for the nonprofit Slow Food Upper Midwest. “We lose more than taste when our food comes to the table by way of factories. We lose a precious connection to diverse food and the traditions and stories that go along with it.”

The genetic lines of heritage pigs can be traced back hundreds of years to the traditional farming cultures of Asia and Europe. The Mangalitsa, for example, was first bred by a Hungarian Archduke in the 1830s and was highly sought after for its lard and extremely flavorful meat. More and more, Wisconsin chefs are opting for these time-tested breeds, with some, like Madison chef Dan Fox, joining the farm-to-fork movement by raising their own heritage breeds.

Savory swine
Because heritage pigs are hard to come by here in the land of beef and beer, Fox, a former executive chef of the Madison Club, decided to bring some breeds to Wisconsin. Three years later, Fox and Micah Nicholes raise breeds like the Chinese Meishan, known for its copious fat, on Nicholes’ Cress Springs Farm in Blue Mounds. Other breeds among the 40 to 50 pigs on the farm include the Iowa Swabian Hall, which is cross-bred in Iowa from a Russian Wild Boar and is known for its rich, gamey meat. They also raise Meishans that are part Ossabaw, an American breed originally from Ossabaw Island, Georgia, which many believe are descended from the rare Iberian genetic line that’s used to make prized Serrano hams.

Most of these specialty European pork products are hard to find in the U.S. For Fox, raising the breeds allows him to cook and serve these meats while controlling the cost and quality of the dishes. Like other heritage pig farmers, Fox and Nicholes believe their animals taste better than commercial pork – not only because the pigs have great genes, but because they’re raised using more traditional farming practices. At the Cress Springs Farm, the animals constantly graze, forage and eat a kind of “gourmet slop,” made of vegetable compost from Nicholes’ and Fox’s own kitchens and expired cream from local dairies. They also get spent mash from local breweries and distilleries, like Ale Asylum and Death’s Door. Nicholes and Fox believe that raising the animals this way contributes to a more sustainable food economy. “We’re really building a perfect circle” of compost and feed, says Nicholes. What pigs eat matters. “Pigs truly are what they eat. If a pig eats fish, the pork tastes like fish. If they eat good grazing food, you get tastier fat,” says Scott Buer of Milwaukee’s Bolzano Artisan Meats.

“Fat is flavor,” says Fox, and fans of heritage breeds agree. Adam Powell, food critic for the Isthmus newspaper and A.V. Club Madison, says heritage pig meat tends “to be much richer and the meat often fattier, but it’s the fat that adds taste and texture to the hog-flesh.” When Powell first tasted meat from the Red Wattle breed, he found it had “a smoky and mellow flavor that calls for slowing down and eating slowly, savoring the taste.”

Lard-type pork is so dramatically different from standard pork that Fox and other chefs have had to learn how to handle it. While an adult meat-type pig like a Berkshire might have an inch of fat on its back, a Meishan or Mangalitsa can grow three to four inches of back fat. This produces exceptionally juicy, well-marbled meat. “The structure of the fat is completely different,” Fox says. “It’s creamier. The raw pig literally melts in your hand.”

Last August, Fitchburg resident Scott Meskan hosted a birthday party at the Madison Club where Fox roasted a whole hog in a Caja China roasting box. Meskan remembers it as “melt-in-your-mouth meat with a crispy skin.” When Fox talks about the lighter, airier structure of the fat – and how he can render the lard and “whip it like cream” – he gets a dreamy sparkle in his eye. “These pigs are the perfect animal,” he says. “They’re delicious. And you can use every single part of them. The only thing you have to the throw away is the squeal.”

Rearing a movement
On the dining circuit, heritage pork is gaining in popularity. Chef Francesco Mangano of Madison’s Osteria Papavero uses Fox’s heritage pork for everything from sausage to lardo, a delectable Italian charcuterie made by curing fatback. He also makes a spicy sausage called Nduja, from the Calabrian region of Italy. He serves the pork over pasta, mixed with garlic and olive oil and topped with a mild ricotta cheese. “It’s been one of our best-selling dishes by far,” Mangano says.

Last October, farmers, chefs, purveyors and epicureans came together for SlowPig, an event Fox organized to celebrate heritage pork that Madison’s 77 Square named the Best New Food Event of 2011.

The event was a hybrid – part educational symposium, part cooking competition. Held at the Madison Club, chefs from Madison’s L’Etoile and Osteria Papavero restaurants and Milwaukee’s Roots and Sanford restaurants each used heritage meat to make a variety of unique dishes. Osteria Papavero’s Mangano, for example, served a pork belly confit with quail eggs and fried oysters. Sue Renger of Loganville’s Willow Creek Farm served fresh kielbasa and Braunschweiger made from purebred, pasture-raised Berkshire meat. Black Earth Meats served nibbles of slow-roasted pork from Red Wattles. Later, guests could go downstairs to watch butchers Scott Evenson and Alberto Sanchez of Black Earth Meats demonstrate their craft by taking apart an animal. Bolzano’s Buer also conducted a class on charcuterie, or prepared meats, like pate, salami and more.

Chef Justin Aprahamian of Milwaukee’s Sanford won the first SlowPig cooking competition with his gourmet Swabian Hall pork corn dogs. Prior to the event, Aprahamian had been using mostly Wisconsin-raised pure Berkshire pork meat at the restaurant. Now that he’s served Fox’s meat, he’ll insist on using that, too, he says. One reason is simple: positive feedback from dinner guests. After curing and braising some pig shoulder, then slicing and searing it in a pan, one customer actually mistook it for tender pork belly. Aprahamian agrees that many cooking techniques were born of necessity, but it’s particularly “soul-satisfying,” he says, when chefs can return to those traditional techniques using such high-quality modern products.

While the heritage trend hasn’t caught on as fast as heirloom vegetables, “there is certainly an increased interest in heritage pork particularly in certain markets and in a subset of consumers,” says Hostetler at the National Pork Board. “If this increases demand for pork and can make smaller producers profitable, then I am all for it.”

For food enthusiasts, the higher price of heritage pigs isn’t an issue. “Like heirloom tomatoes or apples, heirlooms grow slow, taste better, and cost a little more,” says Buer. “Heirloom breeds like these show off what is best about small farms in America, where farmers raise their animals on pasture and without hormones or antibiotics. The quality and flavor is something cheaper pork can’t compare to.”

Erin Clune is a Madison-based writer. Her essays on local food culture appear regularly on WPR’s “Wisconsin Life.” This article appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Wisconsin Trails.

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