What’s the new foodstuff that America’s best chefs are swooning over, and putting on their menus in an astonishing array of variations? It’s not some newly discovered sea creature. It’s not some obscure vegetable or rare fruit. It’s something so old that it’s new again: pork.
For decades chefs in fancy French or “continental” restaurants turned up their noses at pork, probably because it’s so commonplace. If pork made any appearance, it was usually as chops; but both chefs’ and diners’ attention focused on steaks, veal, seafood or fish.
As industrial farming increasingly dominated U.S. agriculture, American pork began coming from CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). Pig breeds, and diets – including growth hormones and prophylactic antibiotics – were developed for two purposes: first, that they gain weight as fast as possible in CAFOs’ overcrowded conditions; second, that they attain that weight while being as lean as possible. Pork, always relatively inexpensive, became even cheaper and as lean or leaner than other meats. But those goals came at the expense of flavor and succulence, as well as humane living conditions. Meat from CAFO pigs is so bland that it’s characterless; so lean that it’s easily overcooked and dry.
Then heritage breeds began reappearing, although they were – and are – a drop compared to the ocean of industrially produced pork. The meat equivalent of heirloom fruits and vegetables, they’d been developed for maximum flavor, not mass production. Some were still being raised on a small scale, most notably English Tamworths and Berkshires, breeds still produced for their superior taste. Berkshires had even thrived in Japan as Korubata pork, which fetches astronomical prices in a culture that pays hundreds of dollars for a single melon. Other breeds hadn’t fared as well. Many became extinct, others only raised by hobby farmers.
As chefs discovered the flavor, succulence and versatility of heritage pork they began featuring cuts of fresh pork on their menus. Some began making a range of charcuterie (a French classification for meat preparations such as ham, dry-cured sausages such as salami, confits and fresh sausages) that go far beyond standard ptés. Some searched out American artisinal makers of bacon and proscuitto. And they eagerly looked for ever more flavorful breeds.
When Mangalitsa (pronounced mang-ah-LEETS-uh) pork arrived on American shores in 2006, many chefs believed that they’d found porcine nirvana.
Mangalitsas were developed on Archduke Joseph Hapsburg’s Hungarian farms in the 1830s. They became highly valued for their extraordinary flavor and succulence. But with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after WWI, the Mangalitsa herds began a decline that accelerated in post-WWII communist Hungary.
Hungarian geneticist Peter Toth says that when communism collapsed, things got even worse for Mangalitsas. In an April, 2009, New York Times article he says: “The state farms that served as the last gene banks also collapsed. It was total anarchy.” Toth believed the unique Mangalitsas were worth saving. It wasn’t easy. “When I started to…search for them in 1991, I found only 198 purebred pigs in the country. Sometimes, I would rescue them right from the slaughterhouse.”
Toth was successful in saving Mangalitsas, and began sponsoring their production on small regional farms.
In 2006, Heath Putnam of Washington state imported 25 Mangalitsa pigs and founded a company, called Wooly Pigs because of the Mangalitsas’ abundant, often curly, hair. Putnam sells the pork as well as piglets. Only neutered piglets are available for purchase, however, which means that so far Putnam controls the American market.
Much of what makes Mangalitsas so special is their fat. There’s lots of it, and it’s exceptionally flavorful. That might sound off-putting, but pork fat (a.k.a. lard) has gotten an unfairly bad reputation in the last few decades. Unhydrogenated lard has half the saturated fat of palm or coconut oil, and contains 20 percent less saturated fat than butter. Lard also has almost double the proportion of mono-unsaturated (a.k.a. good) fat that butter has: 45 percent for lard vs. 23 percent for butter. (See my 10/23/08 IT column, “Food’s Four-Letter Word,” for more information.) According to Putnam’s Web site, Mangalitsa fat is even more unsaturated that normal lard, has higher levels of oleic acid (the component that makes olive oil so healthful), and tastes much lighter and cleaner.
One of the first chefs to begin using Mangalitsa pork was Seattle’s legendary Herbfarm chef Keith Luce. Luce said in the April NYT article, “We were laughing when we tasted it. We couldn’t control ourselves. The taste, the texture, was so unbelievable.”
As word spread about Mangalitsas, top Chicago chefs and influential figures, such as Slow Food regional governor Joel Smith wanted some. This wasn’t surprising; many in the food world – and not just Chicagoans – think that Chicago currently has America’s most innovative, dynamic restaurant culture.
But Chicago’s culinary stars didn’t just want to buy Mangalitsa pork. They wanted to be able to get it from a local farmer. For Smith, Stan Schutte of Triple S Farms was the logical choice.
Schutte sells beef, chicken, pork (which comes from his Tamworth-Berkshire crosses), and produce in Springfield at the Wednesday Farmers’ Markets, at Food Fantasies, and through monthly deliveries in the off season. I buy almost all my meat from him. His success in direct marketing the products of his 200-acre farm south of Mattoon is often pointed to as a model by local/sustainable food advocates across the nation. In 2006 Schutte was named Organic Farmer of the Year by both the Rodale Institute and the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service.
Schutte was enthusiastic about raising Mangalitsas. But I sensed he was also a bit nervous when he first told me about them last spring, shortly after buying six piglets. It wasn’t hard to understand why. Conventional feeder pigs (i.e. piglets) cost around $40 apiece; heritage pigs cost more, depending on the breed, but are still under $100. Putnam sells his Mangalitsas for $285. They not only grow more slowly than other breeds, their feed is three times the cost of the already expensive organic feed Schutte gives his Tamworth/ Berkshires. Schutte also planned to finish them with apples and acorns (which come from the Voss’s Pecan Farm), which traditionally produces exceptionally flavored meat. He calculated the price would be at least quadruple what he charges for his other pork. Would anyone pay that much?
Schutte needn’t have worried. There was virtually a bidding war for his woolies. The winning chefs were so enthusiastic, they made a predawn, three-hour trip to Schutte’s farm to inspect their prizes.
I was invited, but had a longstanding prior commitment and so couldn’t go. But Michael Higgins, chef/owner of Maldaner’s, was able to fill me in. That’s because he’s the only non-Chicago chef to get one of Schutte’s Mangalitsas.
Higgins has long been way ahead of the porcine curve. For years, he featured a braised pork shank. The accoutrements varied – in summer he might serve it with peaches; in winter, with sauerkraut. But the meat was always luscious. Higgins has also been Springfield’s leading chef proponent of local, seasonal ingredients.
Slow Food Springfield has joined forces with Higgins, and will be sponsoring a multiple-course Mangalitsa dinner Dec. 17. He’s told me some of his delicious-sounding menu ideas, but, like the Chicago chefs, is waiting until the pork arrives to finally formulate his menu. The dinner costs $50 per person – an incredible bargain; the Chicago dinners all cost at least $100. Whether or not Mangalitsa pork appears on Higgins’ regular menu depends on the size of the Slow Food dinner.
To make a reservation or for more information, contact Springfield Slow Food convivium leader Deanna Glosser at 217-629-8949, Deanna_Glosser@comcast.net or by mail at 22 Hollyhock Drive, Riverton, 62561
Find out more about Schutte’s Triple S Farms and his monthly Springfield deliveries at his Web site, http://www.triplesfarms.com/.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MALDANER’S PORK BRAISED IN MILK
Maiale al Latte
The main components of this Italian classic might seem like an unlikely pairing – pork cooked in milk – but once you taste it, you’ll realize it’s a marriage made in heaven. The recipe below calls for a boneless loin, but other pork cuts work equally well. It’s one of the ways that Michael Higgins prepared those shanks; I like to use a boneless pork shoulder (also called butt) roast. Rosemary or thyme sprigs can be substituted for the sage. If using rosemary, be sure to use sprigs with leaves still attached, and remove them before serving; otherwise their flavor will be too strong.
Some folks don’t like the appearance of the “broken” sauce with its soft golden curds and liquid; others feel that that texture is part of what makes the dish so exceptional. If you belong in the first group, remove the herbs and lemon peel; then purée the sauce in a blender. Either way, there’s simply no more delicious pork preparation anywhere.
- One 4-5 lb. boned pork loin, preferably sustainably-raised, with most of the visible fat removed.
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 T. olive oil
- 4 T. butter
- 5 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half, or more or less to taste
- 1 small handful fresh sage leaves (optional)
- Approximately 1 quarts whole milk, hot
- Peels of 2 lemons, cut into wide strips with all white pith (the white layer between the yellow peel and the fruit) removed.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or stovetop-proof casserole with a lid. The pan should be just large enough to hold the meat without crowding. Brown the pork on all sides; then remove to a plate. Discard any excess fat.
Return the pan to the stove over medium heat and add the butter. When the butter is melted, add the garlic halves and sage, if using. Sauté a few minutes until the garlic softens, but before it begins to turn color.
Return the pork to the pan, and add enough hot milk to come about three quarters of the way up to the top of the pork. Bring to a boil, add the lemon peels, and reduce the heat to low. Place the lid on the pan, slightly askew, and very gently simmer the pork for about 1 -2 hours. Resist the temptation to disturb the meat.
When the pork is cooked, the milk will have curdled into soft, succulent brown nuggets. Carefully remove the meat from the pan and slice it. Remove the lemon peels and sage leaves if desired, then spoon the sauce over the meat and serve immediately. Serves 6.