Monday, December 31, 2007

Feedback from a German Customer

We got some positive feedback from a German customer today. It was very nice to get her report:
... I wanted to let you know just how much I have enjoyed the
pork. Today for lunch (just like in Germany) we had some of
the most wonderful pork chops I have tasted in a very, very
long time. Even the fat tasted good, and after cooking it, my
little old house even smelled good. Usually when I cook
store-bought pork, my house smells rather unpleasant for days
after cooking it (I don't have an exhaust in my kitchen), but
today the little that lingered was nice.

I also gave some ham to my friends in Deer Park for Christmas,
and they loved it... Before this year is over, I wanted to
let you know that the chops and the ham were exquisite!!!!!
Thank you for doing what you do.



Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Note From a Customer

Just last week, a new customer showed up and bought a huge amount of boneless loin roasts from me, to feed 26 people. I was very nervous about this - he bought a lot of expensive meat, and if it didn't turn out well, that could be very bad for Wooly Pigs.

I'd heard from some people that our meat was tough (older pigs are tougher, in addition having better flavor), so I gave the customer specific instructions not to cook the meat too quickly. Here's the note he sent me today:
Hi Heath,
Just had some bacon for breakfast. Delicious.
The loin roasts were fantastic. I thawed them, salted them
overnight, took them and rinsed them under a dripping faucet for a
couple of hours,
browned them on the top of the stove and roasted them in the oven @
175 degrees for 5.5 hours (with a little bacon on top---don';t need
much). Took them out and let them rest for 40 min .
Couldn't have been better. Tender, juicy with amazing flavor. 25
happy guests. I told everybody about you, too.
Merry Christmas....
There's a number of things he did right: he brined the meat, but then soaked out the excess salt (a potential problem with frozen meat). And he roasted the meat very slowly - with the addition of some bacon, to make it that much better. He did a better job than I did with my boneless roast - I had mine on too high, and as a result had some chewy connective tissue in there.

Mangalitsa Sows Make Good Mothers



Some Mangalitsa sows have been farrowing lately. It has been a bit ridiculous, because the Mangalitsa sows are very good mothers.

For pigs, being a "good mother" means a few specific things. The above photos shows a Mangalitsa sow being a good mother - that hair standing up on her back means she's ready to attack anyone that gets close to the piglets.

When her time comes, a good mother goes to a hut or builds a nest out of vegetation. She lies in there and farrows (or "pigs"). The piglets come out and get their first milk. The sow doesn't get up much or move around, because if she does, she might trample the piglets.

A bad sow lays in an exposed place and farrows, and her piglets get trampled or eaten by other pigs. Or she moves around a lot in her nest, trampling her just-born piglets. Gestation crates can turn a bad mother into a productive sow, by stopping her from killing her piglets - but some folks think they are cruel to the sows.

If she's a good mother, she'll lay with her nose pointed out the hut or nest, so that she can bite anyone that comes close. If she's a bad mother, she lie with her nose in the hut or nest, and the piglets pop out into the cold, perhaps freezing.

If she's a good mother, when humans or anyone else comes to investigate, she'll attack them and chase them off. Even if the human has been feeding them for months and treating them nicely, a good mother will attack. The better mothers attack with less provocation.

A good mother stands up and gets upset when her piglets make distress calls. That prevents her from crushing them inadvertently: if she starts to crush them, they squeal and she jumps up, upset, ready to attack. A bad mother ignores them, perhaps crushing them to death. It can take a very long time for her to do it. She'll even do it in front of humans, as they watch, which is simply infuriating.

We've got two Mangalitsa sows who just had litters - #12 and #20.

Sow #12 will let you go up to her hut and scratch her nose. If you try to reach in the hut, she'll get upset and bite. Sow #20, in contrast, won't let you get near the hut. She'll come out and chase you away. #20 is the better mother. Both of them will probably wean all their piglets - but #20 is probably the better mother.

The farrowing reminds me of the Certified Humane standards - we'll never count as humane by them, because we can't get those piglets castrated in the first week. Even if you could keep the sows away physically, castrating the piglets in the first week would traumatize the sows, because they'd hear their piglets distress calls and get very upset. You'd rather traumatize the male piglets that are getting castrated more than your sows, because you need a working relationship with the sow, whereas that male pig, once castrated, is certainly heading to the slaughterhouse.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Reflections on No-Nitrite, No-Nitrate Bacon and Meat Quality

Our bacon is about to be sold in a specialty store, so I thought I'd better do some market research and see how our bacon stacked up against what they've got already.

They had two bacons:
  • Applegate Farm's Sunday Bacon - a no-nitrite, no-nitrate bacon, costing about $8.50/lb
Nitrates and Nitrites

First off - a lot of people are worried about nitrites and nitrates in their meat. So they seek out no-nitrite/no-nitrate products, and pay a premium for it.

However, if their goal is to avoid nitrates and nitrites, consumers need to do more than buy no-nitrate, no-nitrite bacon: many no-nitritte/no-nitrate products use sea salt and celery juice -- because they are natural sources of nitrates and nitrates.

The reason that manufacturers resort to this is simple: if you don't use nitrates/nitrites, the meat turns an unappetizing gray. People are afraid to eat the meat, which kills sales. This trick of using sea salt and celery juice is similar to companies using grape juice concentrate in a product and throwing "no sugar added" on the label.

I don't worry at all about nitrates or nitrites in my food. Almost all Austrian books - like Wagner's "Räuchern, Pökeln, Wursten. Schwein, Rind, Wild, Geflügel" start by explaining that you get more nitrites and nitrates in your tap water and vegetables than you do from cured meat products.

If people want to avoid nitrates and nitrites, you should go for the low-hanging fruit: just eliminate tap water from your diet, and stop eating vegetables. Then you can eat all the cured meat you want.


Taste Test


Here are the three bacons: Applegate, Organic Prairie and then Wooly Pig's bacon:

I put in two slices of the Wooly Pigs bacon because neither piece is very representative of what I sell. The right is too lean and the left has a few spots on it. I figure those spots are from the processing - but I don't know - I pull those ones and eat them at home, so that customers get bacon that looks as ideal as possible. Here is a prettier picture of my bacon.

First off, the top two bacons - the commercial ones - are from young hogs. You can see from how narrow the bellies are. That's because those hogs were probably 5.5 months, while mine was at least a year old. The reason is simple - older hogs produce the best cured products. If you want the best bacon, you need old hogs.

I've had people complain to me that the bacon was too wide. I can't remedy that right now. Historically, today's hogs are slaughtered a lot younger and smaller than they were in the past. In the future, we'll have Mangalitsa bacon, which, when produced from year-old hogs, will look a lot like the bacon made from 6-month old modern hogs. Looking at them side-by-side, I'm shocked at how wide my bacon is - but that's just how it is; bigger hogs have wider bellies.

Another difference is the thickness of the bacon: the commercial bacons are thin-cut. My processor likes to do thick-cut bacon, so mine is thicker. Mine doesn't crisp easily, due to the thickness.

Here's the bacons cooked:



When I tasted the bacons, here's what I noticed:

  • Applegate Farms is smoky, but there wasn't much meat flavor. Compared to most bacons, the fat tasted quite good.
  • Organic Prairie was less smoky. There was a little more meat flavor. The fat on this tasted better than that from Applegate Farms.
  • Wooly Pigs bacon had much stronger meat flavor than either commercial bacon. Older meat just tastes more meaty. It is tougher, but the curing and smoking takes care of that.

Summary

If I couldn't eat my own bacon, I'd probably not eat either commercial bacon - because they didn't have enough flavor. I'm not a die-hard carnivore; before I had my own hogs, I wasn't eating much meat. If I had to pick one of the two commercial bacons, I'd go with Organic Prairie, because it tasted a bit better - but I'd wish it had a bit more smoke, like the Applegate Farms.

When I brought home the other two bacons, I was really nervous. I figured that if my bacon didn't taste substantially better than them, I was going to be in big trouble. Having eaten them, I'm not afraid anymore - my bacon clearly has more flavor than theirs. And that's not due to any magic - if you control the breed, feed and raising of the hogs for maximum flavor, that's what you get.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mangalitsa Piglets Running in the Snow



Here's a video of Mangalitsa piglets running around in the snow.

I want to slaughter 10 of these in January and sell them. They'll be about 6 months old and should be very good for fresh meat - e.g. frying, roasting, grilling, etc. They aren't recommended for cured products - they are too young.

They only weigh about half the weight of modern breeds - 120# versus 220#. Of course, their meat is substantially more marbled and flavorful than that of modern hogs.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Please Don't Overcook My Bacon




Besides people cooking my hams (that have already been cooked) and complaining that they are too dry, I've also heard that my bacon "cooked down into very small pieces (smaller than other offerings)."

Please don't overcook the bacon.

As noted by mamster, "It’s hard to get it at all crispy without, as Heath warned, overcooking it, but if you like a thick, chewy bacon, this one has superb flavor."

At 160F the bacon is done. It should have glistening fat sticking to it. Please eat it then! If you cook the bacon too much, that fat renders out, leaving just a small amount of overcooked meat.

When I cook it, I stop when it looks like in the photo above.

Food Labeling

Almost everyone takes food labeling for granted - but it is a huge deal.

Obviously it helps that we've got standards. E.g. a restaurant can shop for "boneless pork loin roasts", and they have some idea of what they are getting. It isn't OK to call a trotter (pig foot) a pork chop. It helps that there is an official definition of what a pork chop is, and what a trotter is.

The federal governments FMIS (part of USDA) regulates the labeling of meat, under the FMIA and other laws. As food labeling is an important and complicated issue, they provide a "comprehensive, user-friendly document on the basic food labeling requirements for meat and poultry products" to help everyone. As it explains, mislabeling a product can have huge consequences:

If a product is deemed misbranded, its manufacturer faces a wide range of penalties that can be imposed by FSIS. These include withholding (rescinding) the use of labeling; product retention (prohibiting shipment); product detention (prohibiting sale from anywhere in the chain of commerce); request for product recall, press releases, and/or fines; and criminal prosecution. In addition, the facility producing misbranded product faces the possibility of inspection suspension or withdrawal.
The NAMP "Meat Buyers Guide" is one specification of pork cuts. You typically see things quoted with NAMP codes - like NAMP 412A for "center-cut pork loin roast".

Another set of specifications is from the USDA's AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service). They've got their IMPS (INSTITUTIONAL MEAT PURCHASE SPECIFICATIONS) documents. For pork, fresh pork (series 400), says, for example, that item 413A is a "pork loin, roast, boneless", defining it from item 413, which is defined from item 410, which says:

Item No. 410 - Pork Loin - The loin is that portion of the side remaining after removal of the shoulder, leg, belly, and fat back leaving a portion of the blade bone, its overlying lean and fat, not less than two (2) sacral, but no caudal vertebrae on the loin. The shoulder and leg shall be separated from the loin by straight cuts that are reasonably perpendicular to the split surface of the backbone. The outer tip of subscapularis muscle shall not extend past the center of the base of the medial ridge of the blade bone. The belly side shall be removed by a straight cut (a slight dorsal curvature is acceptable) which extends from a point which is ventral to but not more than 3.0 inches (7.5 cm) from the longissimus on the shoulder end, to a point on the leg end ventral to but not more than 1/2 inch (13 mm) from the tenderloin. Surface fat shall be trimmed to an average of 1/4 inch (6 mm) in depth or less except in the hip bone area. The hip bone area is defined as the area contained within two (2) parallel lines, 2.0 inches (5.0 cm) on either side of the anterior end of the hip bone and associated cartilage. Fat in the hipbone area shall be trimmed to the same contour as the rest of the trimmed fat surface of the loin. At least 2.0 inches (5.0 cm) of the false lean shall be exposed. Lumbar and pelvic fat shall be trimmed to 1/2 inch (13 mm) or less in depth. The tenderloin shall remain intact. The diaphragm and hanging tender shall be removed. The spinal cord groove shall be evident on at least 75 percent of the vertebrae.
Until very recently, I had no idea of how complicated and legalistic all this is.

My First Ever Bonless Pork Loin Roast


One of the most valuable parts of a pig is the loin. It is essentially solid muscle without much connective tissue, so it is easy to prepare. It gets turned into many things - chops, steaks, roasts or my favorite - Canadian bacon.

I had the loins from our very special hogs boned out and turned into roasts. Boneless pork loin roasts are a very special product: essentially pure loin meat. They are expensive, because boning out reduces the weight, and has a high labor cost. But boning them out results in meat that is extremely easy to prepare and eat.

I'm more of a bacon, sausage and chops sort of guy - but I figured I had to make a boneless pork loin roast, so I'd know my product. So below are photos of me preparing my first ever boned out loin roast. The basic steps were:
  • Chop all the vegetables.
  • Rub the meat inside and out with the garlic.
  • Put the parsley inside the roast, close as best as possible.
  • Make the bed of veggies under the roast, cover the roast with the veggies. Insert meat thermometer.
  • Roast at 325 to an internal temperature of about 150F. That takes a few hours.
  • Let it rest for 15 minutes.

First, the vegetables. This took the most time - chopping the parseley, carrots, onions and cabbage:
Here's the meat about 5 lbs:




And here it is opened up:

Rubbed with garlic and covered in parsley:

In the pan on the bed of veggies, covered up and with the meat thermometer:


Done cooking, with some slices taken off:


And then on the plate - please see that first picture at the top of the post.

All in all, it was very easy. I let the thing cool, made my meal-size portions of meat and vegetables and then froze them. My wife and I ate them over the next few weeks.

The meat was extremely tender, juicy and flavorful. The accompanying vegetables were really tasty.

A boneless pork loin roast is an expensive cut, but it was very easy to prepare, and the results were superb.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Our Hams are Ready to Eat

I got an email from a customer today about her pork. She said she loved her pork chop, but that the ham was too dry. That really threw me for a loop. Many people who've eaten our ham have said it is the best ham they've ever had.

A few questions later, I discovered that she'd cooked her ham, because she figured it needed cooking. That's a mistake!

As the USDA explains, you have to read the label to know whether or not you need to cook the ham:
"Hams that must be cooked will bear cooking instructions and safe handling instructions."
"Hams that are not ready to eat, but have the appearance of ready-to-eat products, will bear a prominent statement on the principal display panel indicating the product needs cooking, e.g., 'cook thoroughly.' In addition, the label must bear cooking directions."
I don't cook my ham. I typically put a slice of bacon in the frying pan, render some fat and then put the ham in. I brown it a bit, then get it out of the pan and eat it.

Or I take the ham out of the package, warm it a bit, and eat it - like in a sandwich.

Another guy I know puts some sauce on it, then roasts it a bit - but he doesn't cook it - because then it would be too dry.

Seattle, Bacon and visitors to our Farmers Market Tent

My wife and I went the U-District Farmers Market in Seattle yesterday. It was our first time. We received a very warm welcome, partly because we also got mentioned in the Seattle PI. We had a great time, and plan to be there all winter.

We sold a lot of bacon. It helped a lot that we had a grill with bacon on it, so people could smell our superior meat and fat quality. It will be great if we get some feedback from our customers next week when we are there.

Most people eat bacon, but they don't know that it comes from pork bellies. People make bacon by wet curing and cold smoking pork. That pork can be belly, in which case you get bacon. When done to the shoulder, you get shoulder bacon - aka "Kansas City bacon."

Shoulder bacon is leaner than bacon. It is a very nice product, and very pretty! When Sara Dickerman visited with us, she took away some jowl bacon and shoulder bacon. Sara is savvy about bacon! You can see the shoulder bacon here - it is the rectangular bacon at the top of the photo. Sara Dickerman visited our tent yesterday with her husband and son. Sadly, we didn't have any jowl bacon for her. And we won't have any next week, either - but we'll have shoulder bacon.

We bumped into Seth Caswell there. He got a pig from us a while back, which he's using at the Stumbling Goat. Although I was very tired (from getting up very early), it was great to see his photos of our pig done "four ways" - a dinner composed of 4 dishes from different parts of our pig. It really looked great.

Seth explained that he's been wet curing much of the meat, in several different brines - so only now (after several weeks) is he able to taste the stuff. He's very happy with it, of course.

I asked how our fat compares to that from pigs from other producers. He explained that much of theirs isn't usable. I understand exactly what he's talking about: yesterday some people came buy our stall, and they ate some bread dipped in our bacon grease. The fat from our hogs is so "light" and "clean" that it tastes delicious. I can't imagine doing that with any normal pork - it would just be gross.

The fact that other pigs don't have as good fat as ours (likely due the feed) is quite sad: there's a lot of fat on a pig, so if it is unusable, that's a lot of waste. Also, fat is more expensive to produce than protein, compounding the problem.

Like most chefs who buy our hogs, Seth also makes stock, reduces it and uses it like a sauce. It tastes great, and is very versatile in the kitchen. So he's using the meat, fat and bones. When you consider how much sweat and tears goes into each pig, it is disgustingly wasteful to transport a hog all the way to someone, only to have him throw away a bunch of it.

We were extremely happy to sell people leaf lard yesterday. We sold it how it came from the processor: 10 lbs, 10 lbs and a 6 lb package. I hope those guys are able to render their lard successfully. Sadly, small USDA plants won't typically render lard for small farmers. Too much hassle. The processor was actually suprised that we wanted the stuff - normally people just donate it to the processor, who turns it over to a renderer. I asked them to bag the stuff smaller for retail customers, but they made it clear that they absolutely didn't want to do it.

Heidi Broadhead of Edible Seattle also stopped by, along with her husband and son. Heidi was the first journalist to ever visit the farm, and the first American not associated with Wooly Pigs to ever try our Mangalitsa.

Other visitors included our publicist, Hsiao-Ching Chou, and Kim Prohaska, both of Suzuki + Chou Communimedia. Hsiao-Ching brought her daughter, who looked great ensconced in her baby carriage. It was fun to watch Hsiao-Ching feed her our bacon and sausage!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pork Chop Comparison, Increased Meat Consumption

A customer recently bought some pork chops from me. They were from our year-old Berkshire hogs. She cooked them side-by-side with some pork chops from Costco, to see if ours were really worth the price.

Costco is supposed to have good stuff - but they don't have pork from year-old free-range Berkshire hogs, finished on barley and hay.

She said she browned them each (in separate pans), then put them in the oven for 40 minutes at 320F. In comparison to ours, the Costco ones were mushy, "flat" tasting and bland. "Greyed out" was how she described the Costco product. She and her husband tasted a few bites of each porkchop, but in the end, they threw away the Costco pork chops.

I thought that was pretty extreme.

She was also really grateful for some pork fat I sold her, which she said produced fantastically white lard. She says the stuff from the store has a nasty waxy texture, which probably comes from the hydrogenation.


I bumped into another customer today, who told me that since he got his order of our pork, he's been eating it nearly every day - e.g. bacon and sausage for breakfast, ham in his ham sandwiches, etc. He especially liked the jowl bacon.

It has been great to sell these people pork and get immediate and positive feedback.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Animal Fat Coming Back In

I saw this neat story about some special animal fat being in high demand.

That's very interesting. Mangalitsa and Iberian Black pigs have similar lipogenesis. Acorn-fed Mangalitsa could produce fat like the Spanish stuff. Maybe there will be a market in the USA for that one day.

However, there is some serious disinformation in that article, where Chris Saul says,
"If you render down good bacon fat, you can get the same taste and that would be my recommendation for the perfect Christmas dinner."

He's simply wrong. Fat from normal pigs, especially bacon fat, doesn't taste the same as fat from acorn-finished Iberian hogs (or Mangalitsa hogs). The two types of fat are very different. As shown here in table 4, breed is a major determinant of fat composition. In fact, it has already been shown that Iberian hogs, finished on acorns, have very different fat from confinement-raised pink pigs.

Him saying that is like someone saying that the fat from Angus cows tastes like that from pureblooded Japanese Wagyu (not the watered down American stuff confusingly called "American Kobe"). Or a guy saying that plain old Hershey's chocolate is just as good as Lindt. But imagine that the guy runs a chocolate store, and he's supposed to be an expert on chocolate.

Farrowing, Mothering and Cruelty


Berkshire and Mangalitsa sows are farrowing on the farm right now. This is a big deal, because it is cold here - 21F (or -6C).

The Mangalitsa sows are supposed to do fine, even in the cold, as long as they have some basic shelter. Humans don't need to attend the birth and help them or their piglets - given the minimum, they should survive.

The Berkshire sows on the farm are much worse mothers. This is apparent in multiple ways:
  • They farrow in bad places - e.g. in the open, where their piglets freeze.
  • They are indifferent to their squealing piglets, so they let their piglets get hurt.
  • They don't keep their piglets out of trouble.
  • They are more likely to attack their piglets.
The Berkshire sows we have came from farms that use gestation crates. Those farms aren't selecting for good mothering, because the crates take care of that. So some of them are good mothers, and others are terrible mothers. The only thing to do is to figure out which sows are good and keep them; the rest get culled.

The behavior of the bad mothers is very hard on Gary, the herdsman: one Berkshire sow attacked her piglets whenever they got near her food. She'd pick them up and throw them, maiming or killing them. Another Berkshire sow farrows out in the open, where her piglets get crushed or eaten by other pigs, or just die of exposure. Another crushes them, ignoring their screams of distress. This is simply terrible to witness.

All of that brings up the interesting question - what is more humane, using crates, or not? Is it inhumane to use crates on the sow, or is it inhumane not to use them, and have a large number of piglets die because of it? It is very easy to say gestation crates are inhumane, until you need to dispose of lots of dead piglets. Guys who use crates will tell you that if you let the sow out of the crate, she'll just go back in it, because she's used to it and considers it her spot. Dogs can have the same relationship to their kennel. It isn't really clear how miserable a sow in a crate is or isn't.

The Mangalitsa pigs are completely different from the Berkshire sows - just give them a hut with straw away from the other pigs, and they'll give birth. They won't crush their piglets or farrow them out in the open.

The downside is that if a piglet squeals in distress, sows get upset and bite. It happens very quickly - it is an instinct.

That means that you can't "process" the piglets (e.g. ear notch, castrate, deworm) with sows around. For example:
  • Gary, the herdsman, tried picking up a piglet that had a bump on its head. The piglet squealed, so sow #5 ran up behind Gary and bit him in the thigh, twice. She ripped his jeans, tore his skin and gave him a massive bruise. I tried to get between him and the sow with a hog panel, but it didn't work. He was sore for weeks and walked with a limp.
  • In another instance, we were grabbing piglets to process them, so one squealed. Although his dam (mother) was confined, sow #17, in an adjacent pen, stuck her snout through the fence and bit the helper in the back of her knee. The helper wasn't even picking up a piglet - she just happened to be in the general area of a squealing piglet.
As both cases illustrate, sows look out for the piglets of others, which makes the sows dangerous. It isn't enough to get a piglet's mother away - you have to keep all the other adults away too. That pig solidarity is fascinating - because they are absolutely awful to each other, and do things like eat the babies of each other.

One interesting thing about the humane standards from groups like Certified Humane Raised & Handled is that they often require that piglets be sterilised in the first week of birth. Although that makes sense for pigs raised in confinement, that can't work for us, nor anyone else that lets the pigs farrow unattended in a big field or forest. Because if you have to go out to a sow and castrate her piglets in those first few days, you are probably going to get maimed. If the sow isn't confined, she will attack. You'll just get maimed, and no piglets will get castrated.

So if a farmer wants to have "Certified Humane Raised & Handled" stamped on his pig, he'll pretty much have to confine the pigs. Another thing about their standards: clipping the needle teeth is allowed, as is tail docking. So the humane producers can confine their pigs, cut their needle teeth and dock their tails and still be humane. Anyone who doesn't confine the pigs (like us) can't be humane without getting maimed.

The EU has similar standards about castrating piglets in the first week. Due to the Mangalitsa sow behavior, the farmers just castrate later and lie about it. They are all breaking the EU's animal cruelty laws, despite the fact that most people would consider their farms extremely good for the pigs.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Chef Kevin Gillespie Talking Fat Quality

We visited Kevin Gillespie, Executive Chef of Spokane's Luna restaurant. We gave him some Mangalitsa piglet meat to taste - as we'll be slaughtering a batch of those, and need people to get ready for them.

He compared our hog's fat to that of other hogs. He also showed us products he's made from the hog, but technical difficulties prevent me from uploading the video of it:



He went on to explain that his favorite hog ever was a Red Wattle. The Red Wattle breed is famous for the special flavor of the meat (but it is a lean breed). But he also conceded that our hog's fat was indeed the best he'd ever gotten.

We are very happy with Chef Gillespie's assessment; the hogs with the best fat make the best cured products - and the best cooking fat. Lard is hands down the absolute best cooking fat. If you don't believe me, please read this article in Food & Wine.

And then Chef Gillespie ordered a buch of pork fat - 50lbs - which we'll deliver to him next week - along with more pork. Our pork fat is better suited to some applications than butter - and a lot cheaper. Until very recently, lard was the cooking fat, and pigs were raised for their fat.

We appreciate Chef Gillespie tremendously for being willing to buy our fat!

If you are a consumer and you want to buy lard, don't be surprised if a farmer can't sell you lard from his hogs: almost no USDA processors will make lard for a guy with just a few hogs.

So you'll have to buy fat. But don't be surprised if the farmer wants to deal in big blocks of it. This isn't the farmer's fault: if he asks the slaughterhouse to pack the fat in small packages, they'll refuse, or insist on charging $1/lb for the service - too much work. And legally, the farmer can't just open up his big packages, cut them and repackage them - unless he's a meat processor too.

Don't be afraid about 20 lbs of pork fat. Just render the stuff and keep in a cool, dark place. It keeps a very long time. You can always share it with your foodie friends.

Of course, the fat quality is key - if you use high-PUFA fat from a commodity hog (or a hog raised by a small farmer who doesn't finish the pig properly), expect it to be soft, yellowish and runny. That fat will go rancid quickly, and taste nasty. If you are going to do the work of rendering, why not work with the best fat? Even the best fat doesn't cost much - just $1/lb or so.

Friday, November 30, 2007

More Feedback From The French Laundry



One of the most frustrating things about sending people pigs is that because ours are optimal for turning into cured products, we need to be patient before we'll get real feedback. The products simply aren't ready, so nobody can eat them and say "yum". And the really fine products take longer to cure and ripen - so you have to wait longer if you are selling pigs like ours to demanding customers.

Another funny thing is that you send someone a giant pig (the photo just shows a half) - and the poor chef has to do something with it. What a daunting obligation. So you've got a guy who is stuck with a lot of work ahead of him, and you (the guy who sold it to him) are calling up, asking, "well, how is it?"

So far, the answer is something like, "I don't know yet" or "I haven't finished processing it."

So it was very nice to read this from The French Laundry's Devin Knell (Executive Sous Chef),

"I tasted some of the saucisson sec today when recuring the hams and speck, It really was excellent, it just needs a couple more weeks of age."

A peek inside Thomas Keller's Kitchen




Devin Knell, executive sous chef of the French Laundry, sent me a gallery of Thomas Keller's staff working on our pigs.

You can see the pictures here (including Mangalitsa preparations) and more here. You can get some sense of how big the Berkshire hogs were here. You can see how the Mangalitsa is a bit dark here. Older Mangalitsa are darker yet.

Thanks very much, Devin, for showing us what you did with those pigs!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Mangalitsas on Small Farm

I'm busy this week, but thought people might enjoy this video.




Those are pigs on Christoph Wiesner's farm. Christoph is the President of the IGWÖ, the Mangalitsa Breeders' Association.

He's got those market hogs on a fairly small plot on his land. You can see how they are tearing it up with their rooting. There's a stump in that video. A week later, the pigs had dug it out completely. Given enough time, they'll dig up every tree you can see.

That red Mangalitsa sow has no business with those market hogs. She's supposed to be in a different area, but she broke into that area. She was terrorizing the market hogs and stealing their food.

When you keep pigs the way Christoph does, it is extremely tough to deal with exceptions and problem animals - you can't easily make that sow go back where she belongs. If the animals don't want to do what you want them to do, there's not much you can do about it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Mangalitsa Pigs at Feeder



Here's a video of Mangalitsa pigs celebrating Thanksgiving together at their feeder, by eating together.

These pigs are run in a family group, so there are piglets and adults together. The mostly black adult is Franz, a boar.

As they always have a feeder full of food, pretty much every day is Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Feedback From Seth Caswell at Stumbling Goat




Although the hogs just got delivered this morning, Seth Caswell of The Stumbling Goat Bistro says that the fat from our Berkshire hogs is whiter & creamier than the hogs he's bought from other folks. He hasn't cooked it or tasted it yet - but that's the sort of thing you can see. He also said the fat on the shoulder was nearly 3 inches thick.

That's no surprise. Having studied how to fatten pigs inAustria, we know how to produce hogs with excellent fat.

If you do anything differently than we do, you'll probably not get fat as good as ours. Go ahead and feed them organic feed - but if you feed them the wrong stuff, you'll ruin the fat. Just ask Mr. Gasser (pictured above).

Franz and I Got Mentioned



Leslie Kelly mentioned Franz and me in the Seattle Post Intelligencer - along with the restaurants that just got their heavy Berkshire hogs this morning.

The article is about "wild boar" appearing in restaurants. I suspect it is popular because it is so different from normal pork. That reminds me of the feedback I got from Executive Sous Chef Devin Knell of the French Laundry, about the Mangalitsa - the fat and flavor is amazing.

Franz, pictured above, looks a lot like a wild boar. That's not surprising - the Mangalitsa breed is derived from Europe's wild boar, without any improvement from Asian pig breeds. A key difference between Mangalitsa and wild boar is that Mangalitsa are bigger and easier to manage - that's why the Hungarian breeders went through all that trouble hundreds of years ago.

Here's a nice photo of European Wild Boar (note how feminine the sow is, and how masculine the boar):


You can see the connection in the piglets. Unlike most pig breeds, Mangalitsa piglets have stripes. That's like wild boar:


Here are some wild boar piglets, for comparison:

Feedback from the French Laundry on our Pork

I got some preliminary feedback from The French Laundry's Devin Knell today.

Here's what he says about the hogs we sent them:

The baby Mangalitsa had fantastic flavor and fat development for being such a young animal, more so than a comparably aged Berkshire...

The Berkshires were great as well. Really beautiful hams with a great cushion of fat. I can't wait to taste the finished product. We also got really nice, thick slabs of back fat which we cured for lardo. With the rest we made: guanciale, reosette de Lyon, Truffled cervella, saucisson a l'ail, bauchspeck, cured and confit hearts, rendered lard, chicharon, a couple variations of pate de campagne and loin and sirloin roasts.

The only problem I had with the packaging was that I wish they would have removed the whole head before spitting and also that they cut portions of the cheek and face off the head. The way it was processed, we lost the tongue and it made it impossible to roll and braise the pig's head like we normally do. Not a big deal at all, just something to consider.


At some point, we'll have some pictures.

I'm relieved it worked out well. It is no surprise the Mangalitsa, even a piglet, had better fat than a typical pig.

His problems with the head are due to the USDA mess. We have only one plant that scalds. They are so busy right now, we can't pay them enough to do a better job on the heads.

Some Perspective

Well, I was feeling bad about not being able to sell Canadian bacon, picnic bacon or smoked fatback from my hogs - but then I read about this woman's troubles.

If you can't read that New York Times story, there's a woman accused of smuggling in bushmeat. She's looking at as much as 5 years in prison.

I'm betting the non-human primate aspect of the story is going to cause her grief. If she was just smuggling in prosciutto, there'd be folks saying, "hey, give her a break. I got busted with that too!" But monkeys and critters that look like Bambi?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

USDA Processing Frustration - No Canadian Bacon

As mentioned previously, I want to turn a bunch of hogs into cured products so that I can resell them. That's the best use for the hogs I've got.

If I want to retail the meat, I must do USDA processing. In a two hour radius, only one processing plant can make bacon for me. So I told them to kill the hogs and make bacon out of the backs, shoulders, loins, etc.

They don't "have a label" for Canadian bacon - that is, bacon made out of pork loin. That means they can't produce Canadian bacon and put a "USDA" stamp on it, which means I can't sell it legally. I would be an outlaw if I did - like these nice folks.

So I will have some butt bacon (part of shoulder bacon), bacon (belly) and jowl bacon - but if they produce bacon from the loin, I can't sell it. Same for the picnic - they can't cure and smoke the stuff, and stamp it USDA. This diagram might help, if you don't know the hog terms.

So I told them to turn the loins into roasts. The whole thing was so disheartening. I felt like telling them to just grind all the pigs up into sausage. Even if they just had a label, "pork", I and my customers wouldn't mind. Who cares about labels, anyway?

Part of the problem is that there is only one processor in this area that will make bacon. In an area with more processors, I'd just take the hogs to the one that would do what I wanted. Here I take what I can get.

Also, as these hogs are very fat, I asked them to pack the fat, so that I could resell it. They don't have a "fatback label", nor a "leaf lard" lavel - it is just labeled "pork fat". When I asked them to pack it into roughly 5 lb units, they said that that was going to cost me extra - perhaps a lot extra - like a dollar a pound extra. I asked them to segregate the fat - but as they aren't used to doing that, it will probably all wind up in one 50 lb container.

So I hope I can find someone who wants a lot of very high quality pork fat. Were I to break the fat out and repackage it myself, I'd be breaking the law. It isn't unreasonable to use pork fat in bulk in a restaurant - this guy told me he's getting rid of butter in his restaurant, and will just use Mangalitsa lard. It tastes better and is cheaper.

The whole situation is so frustrating.

Of course, this all gets back to the superiority of custom butchering. A good custom butcher will do things your way - and it is cheaper than USDA processing. And the animals don't have to leave the farm, which saves them stress.

Our favorite custom butcher is CNJ Custom Meats, of Clayton, Washington - Curt is a very smart, conscientious butcher. We want to sell as many hogs custom as possible, and have Curt butcher them.

Monday, November 19, 2007

These Pigs Need to be "Baconified"




We just took 10 very fat hogs to a slaughterhouse to have them
slaughtered and turned into bacon and ham.

The hogs are too huge to scald at our local plant that scalds -
they'll break the scalder. They eat so much that we can't afford to
feed them anymore. They are so big Gary can barely fit 10 in his
trailer. If you stress them, they'll knock you down and bust down
fences to get away. You can't make them do anything - you have to
trick them.

They are about a year old and 500 lbs - more than twice as old and
twice as heavy as normal hogs. A lot of their extra weight is fat,
which represents a huge amount of feed. They have visible jowls and
fat. These were the biggest and fattest hogs on the farm. The barley
bill will drop perceptibly with their departure.





The video shows Gary getting the hogs out of the trailer. They were
packed in pretty tight, and as they'd been sleeping during the ride,
he needed to agitate them a bit to get them out of the truck.

Gary uses a paddle to get them out. The paddle irritates them enough
that he can somewhat control their movement. The hog panel blocks
their vision, which encourages them to go elsewhere. Getting the first
few out is the key, the rest will follow.

Don't think that's abusive or mean. First off, watch how the hogs treat each other at feeding time or when one hog is injured; then you'll see some abuse. And if Gary were to abuse the hogs and they got scared, they'd heave up and try to get away from him, injuring themselves and Gary. They could crash right though Gary's puny red panel too, if they felt like it.

Some of you are probably wondering how it happened that the hogs went from playing in a nice field to winding up in a trailer, and then a pen at a slaughterhouse - without being visibly stressed.

It took a lot of brains and planning on Gary's part. He lured them in
from the field by letting their feeders run out, and offering feed
where he wanted them. He got some into a barn using sour apples. He
sorted the small ones out of the barn, and then finally the barn had
10 big and fat hogs in there. Then he used more apples to lure them
down a narrow alley into trailer. At no point did he stress them - had
he done that, they would have busted the panels and gotten away,
ruining everything. Big hogs like that can jump several feet in the
air.

So at every step of the way, Gary outsmarted the hogs.



There's Gary (Rocky Ridge Ranch) and Zuzana Putnam (of Wooly Pigs)
relaxing with the hogs in the trailer. Gary is probably just happy to
have the pigs in the trailer and settled down for the trip to
slaughter - it could have gone wrong so many different ways. Zuzana is
dreaming of the juicy, flavorful bacon that these hogs will provide.



And there's the hogs in the trailer, settled down and sleeping. Despite
being quite tight, they weren't particularly stressed. That's how they
sleep on a cold night.


Older pigs like these, fattened appropriately, are best used for cured products. In about 10 days, we should have jowl bacon, shoulder bacon, back bacon, ham, etc.

"Bacon" doesn't just mean cured and smoked belly! You can do that same process to different parts of the hog. Everything that we can cure on these hogs will get cured - and it will be USDA-inspected, so we'll be able to retail it legally.




The top video above show some of the cured products cooking in a pan. That's "bacon chunks" (aka random scraps of cured meat) and a strip of bacon, cut in half. Raising the hogs properly gives the fat a
very special quality. The rendered fat is fantastic - very, very light. The photo shows my dinner. I soaked up the grease with my homemade bread. Most pork is so gross I wouldn't eat the grease that way.



In the end, it was time to say goodbye to the pigs. Gary got them off the truck and into the stalls of the slaughterhouse. Tomorrow they'll be killed, and then turned into bacon. That look on the pig's face is the usual "got some food?" look. I think she's a beautiful pig, but at the same time, I can't help but think that her jowl is going to taste fantastic.


If you want to get such bacon, and not pay retail, I recommend that you order a half hog and have a custom butcher turn it into bacon. That's more humane and less trouble for the farmer. You'll also save yourself a lot of money - doing USDA processing costs a lot more, for no perceptible benefit. As long as you don't need to resell your bacon, you might as well go custom.

E.g. Turning a whole (monster) hog from Wooly Pigs into bacon, via custom slaughter and processing, should cost $800. That's a lot cheaper than paying retail, considering that our bacon will probably cost $10/lb.

If you just need a hog, please contact me - we've got lots of them and now is the season to slaughter them.

Evolution of Head Cheese and There's a Heifer in Your Tank




There's a Heifer in Your Tank is a neat agriculture site oriented to young folks. They cover interesting things that most take for granted. This PDF of theirs contains nice information about the evolution of head cheese. They also have something on stress and meat quality.

And something on how pork has changed over time. There's a neat photo in there of a chop from the 1940s. That's roughly what Mangalitsa looks like today (see photo above).

Given how much pork has changed, I really don't understand how recipes from 1940s or before could work with today's lean pork.

Of course, that lardy pork used to cost a lot. Fat takes roughly 3x as many calories to produce as protein. Pork tasted much better in the 1940s, but most people didn't eat much of it. It was too dear.


That black and white photo is from a set with the description:
"Noonday dinner, family-style, at restaurant in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The price of this dinner was fifteen cents. It included a medium-sized serving of meat, sliced tomatoes, beans, corn on the cob, potatoes, dumplings, corn bread and butter, tea and coffee, various jellies and preserves and onions. All you wanted of everything except the meat."


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Wooly Pigs Pork in Seattle


A few restaurants in the Seattle area will be taking delivery of our special Berkshire hogs next week. They'll get delivered Wednesday morning. These hogs are really big - around 440 lbs live, 310+ lb hot carcasses.

These are the restaurants (in alphabetical order):
Above is a blurry photo of Gary (the herdsman) trying to get 3 of the hogs out of the trailer. We took 5 of them to the slaughterhouse that day. Two had already left the trailer. One, a sow, was a bit stubborn. She was hard to get in the trailer, hard to get out of the trailer.

I don't have detailed info on when/how they'll get served. If you really want to try them, you'd better call and make arrangements. They probably won't be served immediately. For example, if they get cured, that will be at least a week or two.

Old Pork Processing Method

Here is some nice old material on preserving pork. As I've mentioned, wet curing is particularly easy:

"The great utility of this method of curing consists in the certainty of the meat keeping in good condition for years in any climate. The blood gets all drained out of the meat before it is barreled, and hence one great cause of injury is avoided. I saw pork and beef which had been two years in the barrel, which was as sweet as when first put up, and the brine was perfectly clear. The large hogs, or heavy pork, which is uniformly cut in six-pound pieces, is packed in tierces, and is then called India or navy pork. The four-pound pieces are put in barrels."


http://books.google.com/books?id=rzhH_kqIyZ4C&pg=PA467

http://books.google.com/books?id=hs85AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA373

If you look at that material, there are a few interesting things about how people used to keep pigs:

  • They used to kill them at 16 months. Typical hogs are now killed at 5-6 months. The ones Wooly Pigs is killing are 12 or months. Older hogs are fatter and taste better - but you've got a lot more money in that hog. Hogs fattened for pork or for curing were fed differently.
  • Hogs ate porridge. These days they just get food ground to a powder. The point is the same - give the hog easily digestable food so that it can put on weight. It is unthinkable that you'd be cooking hogs food in 2007. It sounds like an incredible amount of labor.
  • There was almost no "fresh meat". People ate the organs after slaughter, but most of the meat got put up.
  • The hogs back then were tremendously more lardy. Most hogs were raised for their fat.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Basic Butcher Information - Whole Hog Skills




If you are serious about curing meat, you'll probably need to learn how to cut up a hog.

The reason is that the best cured products are made from older heritage-breed pigs, fattened on a special diet. Those pigs have more flavorful meat and fat; the composition of the fat changes as they get old, and the proper feed helps tremendously.

The problem is, such hogs are very special - you essentially have to contract for them with a farmer. They have no commodity value; if you try to sell such a hog at auction in America, you'll be heavily penalized. They are too big and fat.

Hence, you can't just go down to your neighborhood store and say, "hey, do you have any pork from a really fat hog, that got fattened on things like barley and fresh hay, or perhaps some acorns and chestnuts? I want absolutely no high-PUFA feed in the finishing diet. And it needs to be scalded. And oh, I just want a jowl and perhaps a raw ham, so I can cure it in my basement."

Similarly, if you are a restaurant, and you call me up to get the jowls and hams from my specially fattened pigs, you put me in a jam. How can I get those cut and delivered to you at a reasonable price? And what do I do with the rest of the meat? If I freeze it, it is no good for curing. So I have to sell it.

But how do I sell someone a hog missing his legs and jowls? Anybody who'd take that hog is probably skilled enough that he wants the legs and jowls, to make his own products. Rather than selling to you, I'm better off selling the whole hog to someone, even if I have to work harder or give a discount.

Also the people who want the best hogs have the skills to use the whole thing, or they have friends who will take the parts they don't want. Transporting a half costs as much as a whole, so there isn't much of a market for halves.

A hog for curing should be at least 275 lbs or so (9 months, 300 lbs live). The ones we are selling now to restaurants are over 320 lbs (12+ months, 420+ lbs live). If you buy that, you'd better know how to cut it up and use it. Just the size of it is intimidating - see Kevin Gillespie, of Spokane's Luna, dwarfed by half of his hog - there's another half a hog hidden somewhere in that kitchen.

There aren't very good materials on hog butchery in English. That's too bad - people who want the best meat need to learn how to do it.

There's a really great "Hausschlachten" by Aichwalder. It is available from Amazon.de and Amazon.ca, and recommended highly by Austrians who make their living curing hogs on their small farms. The book covers all sorts of things: how to fatten a hog properly, how to slaughter it, divide it, wrap the meat for freezing, cure the meat, etc. If you read German, it is a great resource. There's nothing like it in English.

The book has more detailed info - that's just from the overview on the different methods, including wet curing, dry curing, mixed curing, various smoking methods, etc.

  • Here's Aichwalder on curing. I've include d a chart showing the Austrian cuts and their names.
  • Here are some photos from Marcel Kropf's very good book, "Spezialitaeten aus Flesich Selbstgemacht", showing how to cut up a hog. Marcel Kropf's is arguably the best butcher in Austria.
If you want to learn how to cut up a hog, I recommend you practice on a a piglet. You can learn a lot in one evening!

Also, wet curing, the way it is done in Austria, is a very neat process. Guys do it because it is foolproof and gives great results. American chefs seem to do more dry curing - but the older generation does the wet curing. There's not much information in the newer American books on it - so that summary above might be helpful.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Why the Mangalitsa?


When talking about which lard-type pigs to raise for restaurants, people typically mention the Ossabaw Island Hog or the Mulefoot. I'll try to explain why I imported the Mangalitsa, instead of just acquiring domestic stock.

The Ossbaw Island Hogs are small and nasty. That means you've got a lot of work to raise a hog that produces a small carcass. The reason they are this way is that they are feral; for hundreds of generations, they've been exposed to natural selection, not selection by humans. That's why they are so small and difficult to handle. Also, if you are going to go that route, you could just trap some feral pigs and start raising them. Or raise Guinea Hogs - they are small but probably easier to manage.

The Mulefoot hogs look very promising, but they were all on one guy's farm at one point, and they lost the breeding records. The existing stock is probably very interrelated at this point. If and when you start seeing typical inbreeding problems, what are you going to do? I heard they've got two lines. If that's true, that means they can breed for two generations, and then the pigs will all be related to each other, increasing the chance of inbreeding problems. Also, just try getting some Mulefoot stock to get a reasonable operation going - you can't.

With Mangalitsa, there's the very well-run Austrian Mangalitsa Breeders' Association. They got me a bunch of unrelated stock and transferred a tremendous amount of information about how to raise the pigs properly to produce the best meat. They've got plenty of lines and they are on top of the breeding - inbreeding is not expected to be a problem.

The hams I at from Mangalitsa tasted better than any that I'd had from the USA - and they don't finish pigs on acorns in Austria. That convinced me that if I imported Mangalitsa, it would be possible to produce the highest quality meat in America -we'd just have to do what the Austrians do.

If anyone is interested in seeing how the Austrians raise pigs or make products, you just have to go to Vienna. The Wiesners can pick you up and show you their farm, their pigs and their products.

I know of one American chef who stayed with the Spitzbarts and made cured products with them. It was a real eye-opener for him to see their operation; he agreed that the stuff we do in America doesn't come close. When you actually see the pigs, the processing (e.g. in a farm kitchen) and eat the products it hits you that it isn't magical - you just need the right pigs and methods.

Christoph's farm is probably the best farm to see if you want to see what you can accomplish with almost nothing - his pens are built of scrap, he smokes his meat in his house's chimney and he stores his stuff in his cellar. He makes his stuff the way people did in the Middle Ages. His only innovation is to vacuum pack the meat once it is fully ripened, so that it stops drying out.

If you make it to Vienna, you should call ahead to Zum Weissen Rauchfangkehrer and try to get them to serve you a Mangalitsa dinner. Then you'll see what one can really do with a Mangalitsa.

Some might ask why I didn't import Iberico, if I was going to go through the trouble of importing pigs. Besides our climate (and most of America's) not being like Spain's, it didn't look like it was going to be easy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pig Eating Habits - Dirty Little Secret




A lot of people who eat pigs want to eat pigs that haven't eaten byproducts or meat. I'm hoping people who think that way can explain their preference.

Pigs are omnivores and eager cannibals. Whatever you like to eat, they like to eat - and they probably crave it more than you do.

As many humans like a good blood sausage or liverwurst, you can bet pigs love that stuff. It is natural for pigs to eat animal protein, including pork; wild pigs eat lots of carrion, which includes pork and anything else they find. I've seen pigs fight over carrion, which tells me they like it.

There's not much you can do to stop pigs from eating meat, even if you give them a vegetarian diet. If a chicken goes into the pig area, looking for some feed, the pigs may catch it and eat it. There will be a feeding frenzy if one catches a chicken. Often there's no trace - the pigs just vacuum it up. It is horrific to see the pigs do that; they seem like such dinosaurs. Just like most humans, pigs only eat a vegan or vegetarian diet when there's nothing tastier.

If one understands pigs it is obvious that denying pigs all animal fats and proteins is cruel and unnatural.

I'm not saying that pigs should be fed rendered products. If they don't taste good enough for humans to eat, the pigs probably don't like them much either. But if you had some really good butter or suet, wouldn't it be OK to feed it to pigs? If that's OK, what's wrong with feeding them some really tasty lard? Is it better to feed a big margarine (hydrogenated vegetable oil)? I guarantee you that if you gave pigs their choice of good lard and margarine, they'd favor the lard.

The only justification I can see for the "all vegetarian" or "no byproducts" diet is that consumers assume that unless a pig is on a no byproducts diet, he's been eating incredibly disgusting stuff. But what is it with the "all vegetarian" diet?"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fat Quality




Austrians who raise Mangalitsa tend to talk about fat quality obsessively. It is only natural: that pig produces a lot of fat. Do it right and there's a lot of great fat. Do it badly and the whole pig is a waste.

Most pig fat is so inedible that people can't understand why someone would go on and on about fat quality. But when those same people eat a hog with good fat, it really impresses them - they are normally converted, instantly, into fat lovers.

People who raise Mangalitsa tend to go on and on about how long meat can keep. It sounds a bit gross to be talking about how long meat or fat keeps - it reminds you might be unintentionally eating something unwholesome.

But how long the meat (or fat) keeps is very important: it isn't about having to throw meat away because it goes bad. Typically meat goes a bit rancid, and all you notice is that it doesn't taste as good as the other meat that isn't as rancid. So it really is about that ham just not tasting good enough. Or that pork patty not being the best pork patty it can be.

With pigs, whether or not the fat goes rancid or not depends a lot on the fat composition. If the pig has a lot of PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids), it will tend to go rancid, even in the freezer. If the pig has a lot of MUFA (monounsaturated fatty acids) or SFA (saturated fatty acids), it won't tend to go rancid.

You probably know this already: corn oil, highly polyunsaturated, goes rancid. You can chill it, freeze it, etc. -- it will go rancid. Flaxseed oil (very high in linolenic acid, a triply unsaturated acid) is even more prone to going rancid. Olive oil or high-oleic sunflower oil, doesn't go rancid nearly so fast.

When talking about oils, people talk about stability - e.g. high-oleic oils are more stable than their normal counterparts, meaning the normal stuff tends to go rancid a lot faster. High-stability oils are a big deal, especially with the phasing out of hydrogenated oils. You need good cooking oil to make french fries economically.

With pigs, it is clear: what you feed the pig in the last 60 (some say 90) days essentially determines the composition of the fat. If you feed the pig stuff high in polyunsaturated fat, you produce very soft bellies, which can't be used like normal bellies: it goes rancid fast and can't be sliced by typical equipment.

Another important issue is antioxidants: if the pigs eat antioxidants, it winds up in their fat, and works against oxidation. So it is good for pigs to eat green stuff, especially certain herbs high in antioxidants.

The genetics of the pigs influence their fat composition. The lean pigs favored for efficient production of pork tend to have a lot of PUFA in their tissues, which works against quality.


If one sets out to produce the best pigs - for something like lardo - there are many variables to control. But if you do everything right, you can wind up with something really extraordinary:





If you are interested in seeing more of Chef Stockner, you might want to check out the other videos of him.

One interesting thing is that the Iberian Black (aka Iberico) pigs that mast in the forests get a high-MUFA diet, and a lot of antioxidants. And their genetics, like those of Mangalitsa, cause them to produce more MUFA in their fat. So those pigs, raised that way, produce the best raw material for cured products: high in MUFA and antioxidants.

What many probably don't know is that when the Spanish raise pigs for the high-end market, but can't mast the pigs, they feed them special diets to mimic the natural stuff. That's not very romantic, but it works.

If you look at the literature, you'll see that Spanish producers try nearly everything to produce pen-raised animals that taste as close as possible to the free-range animals. That's really something. It isn't necessarily a pointless exercise: I've eaten pen-raised animals in Austria that taste better than free-range American animals. The reason was that the producers in Austria knew what to do to get the best results.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pigs to Market Update




We recently slaughtered 4 Berkshires and 3 Mangalitsa piglets.

These are very special Berkshires - around 400 lbs live, raised and fattened for optimal meat and (especially) fat quality. That's the kind of hogs that Wooly Pigs raises. We use Austrian techniques to achieve these results.

Right now, one Berkshire is on the way to Brix, while two will go to The French Laundry, where they'll be processed, with some parts distributed to Bouchon and Ad Hoc. The French Laundry will also receive one Mangalitsa piglet. FWIW, there are 4 Michelin stars in there - and these are the first hogs that Wooly Pigs has ever sold. From talking to Devin Knell at the French Laundry, it sounds like they'll have the older chefs showing the young chefs how to process a hog - that's very exciting.

They all got loaded on the truck a few hours ago - barring catastropes, the trucker, Rod, will ensure that they all get what they ordered.

One Berkshire got sold to a Spokane restaurant, Luna, where Chef Kevin Gillespie just got his today. He picked the hog from the slaughterhouse and drove it back to Spokane (2 hours). Also, Kevin agreed to take whatever we gave him - if anything went wrong at the slaughterhouse, he'd take the pigs that we couldn't sent to Yountville. He got a price break for this, as all we had to worry about was delivering the animals to the slaughterhouse.

Kevin is from the South. His grandparents used to keep very big hogs (like ours), and slaughter them in the cold months and put everything up. He was there when they were doing all that stuff. So not only will Kevin buy a whole hog (unlike "chefs" who don't know what to do with a hog), but he'll buy one of our 400+ lb hogs optimal for curing. To top it all off, he just bought a hog last week, so he didn't really need one - but having gotten samples, he wanted to help us out. And from the looks of his kitchen -- he's doing it all himself. That's like Chef Stockner in Vienna - the guy does it mostly by himself, because he wants to make all the cuts.

Anyway, hats off to Kevin for making our stressful week a bit less stressful! If we had to retail the cuts off these, keeping track of everything would drive us crazy.

I've been eager to see the Berkshire carcasses since we took the hogs in. I went over to his restaurant and saw him and half of the pig (the rest was in the cooler). His hog was about 400 lbs live, with a carcass of over 312 lbs. They had some trouble with the head, so it is missing some skin - but at least he's got the jowls. Here he is, showing off the carcass:



So having seen how white and firm the fat is, I'm fairly sure that the folks in Yountville will be happy with the pigs. We at Wooly Pigs are breathing a big sigh of relief. It will be interesting to see which hog has better fat - this batch, or the 400 lb one we killed on farm (finished on 100% barley).

These Berkshires have been fed about 80% barley and 20% wheat these last few weeks. That's a typical Austrian finishing diet used to produce the whitest fat with the best bite. Switching from 100% barley to an 80/20 mix like this is the sort of thing that distinguishes the very good hogs from the best. Let's see if our experience jibes with the experience of the Austrians we so respect, like Master Butcher Kropf.

Chef Gillespie explained that this hog is almost entirely for curing - he'll be doing his normal method (bone-in), and trying out the Austrian-style wet cure method: bone out the meat, pickle it, then cold smoke and ripen. Taking the bones out reduces the risk of rot. The uniform process, regardless of the cut, makes things easy. That's from the book "Hausschlachten" - an excellent resource for people looking for simply ways to raise, slaughter, butcher and conserve hogs. You can see Christoph Wiesner (head of the Austrian Mangalitsa Breeders' Association) doing part of that process in this video.


Kevin got a hog recently, from some other farmer. Here he is explaining what he did to it. It is great to work with such a chef - we know that all the animal will get used. Almost none of it will wind up in the garbage can:

Are we nice to the animals?


Sean asked me, "From your posts, you seem committed to producing the highest quality meat for your customers with the best, most humane methods. However, you couch all concerns of the treatment of your animals in terms of the quality of the finished product. Do you strive to treat your animals well, over and above activity that will ensure a quality product? How can you reconcile the relationship you develop with these animals with the act of slaughtering them for food? Do you own pets?

I'm not trying to insult you but merely trying to understand what I, as a vegan, see as the cognitive dissonance of people like you who are intimately connected with both the raising and slaughtering of food animals."

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Those are important questions.

Yes, I do strive to treat the animals well, especially the breeding stock. So does Gary, the herdsman.

We give them treats. We've bought them toys, which is ridiculously sentimental by the standards of other farmers - the pigs destroy them immediately anyway.

I try to pet the pigs, the way kids want to pet animals in a petting zoo. When I was with the Mangalitsa yesterday, I was shocked at how beautiful they are, and how great it is to have them out roaming around, despite the fact that it is expensive and difficult to manage them. We have to do everything on "pig time", not our own schedule.

We have personal relationships with the breeding stock. The breeding stock all have numbers (or in the case of boars, names), so you know, for instance, that Hans is very calm, Franz is skittish but a great worker, sow 25 is very friendly and demanding of food, that sow 5 is very protective (and bites) and that sow 22 has a particularly nice personality. They are essentially our pets.

When it comes down to slaughtering animals for food, it depends a lot on how it is done. I wish I didn't have to send them to USDA slaughter, where they tend not to get treated very well - especially in small plants. I've explained that here - small and local, in the slaughterhouse business, normally means that the slaughterhouse won't have the best lairage systems.

I don't feel bad at all about properly done on-farm slaughter. From the animal welfare perspective, it couldn't be better.

The eating of the breeding stock is an issue that probably bothers you. If they are like pets, why eat them?

What do you do with a retired 350 lb pet, that say, has serious arthritis, or is going around, biting the vulvas and eating the babies of the other pigs? All I can see is that you move the pig to a pig sanctuary. But there's no way a sanctuary can take all the pigs you might want to give it; the animals simply eat too much and need too much space.

You could euthanize them and bury them (with a nice grave marker), but then all that great meat would be wasted. You don't want to waste the meat. If I can't bear to eat the meat, you can bet that the folks who manage the pigs, who are essentially subsistence farmers, want to eat the meat. Even if they don't, Mangalitsa tastes so incredibly good that people would probably get angry at us if the animals didn't get eaten. You could give the animal to charity and raise a lot of money.

Feedback, Farm Visitors

I just got some feedback about my Berkshire pork from a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars:
I'm very impressed with the pork. The fat has a very low melting
point similar to wagyu. The pork tasted like..........well..............
pork! Sometimes it seems as though modern pork is a four
legged turkey, this was a refreshing departure from the norm. As
I've stated before, we're all excited by this.
I feel relieved now. Someone else can see that our finishing program produced fat with the desired qualities. If he hadn't noticed the huge difference between our stuff and other pork, we'd have been really worried.

Besides the feedback, we had some farm visitors this weekend.

Today Sara Dickerman, a freelance food writer, visited the farm. Given her nice article that mentioned how Chez Panisse used bacon, I thought we should give her some samples of our various bacons, produced from the 400 lb, year-old, barley-finished Berkshire hog that we had Curt (of CNJ Custom Meats of Clayton, WA) slaughter on the farm:

That hog, slaughtered without stress on the farm, and ripened 10 days in Curt's cooler should, according to theory, produce great cured products. If we were in Austria, we'd ask the butcher to make Speck, a product that ripens months. The butcher could turn nearly the entire hog into wet-cured, cold-smoked meat. But American processors typically make faster products like bacon.

So I asked Curt, the butcher, to turn half of the pig into bacon. That is, he used the same wet-cure-and-smoke process used to make bacon with the different cuts from the same hog. From the top clockwise there is Kansas City bacon (cured shoulder), Canadian bacon (cured loin), ham (cured leg), bacon (cured belly), smoked fatback and jowl bacon (cured jowl).

There are a lot of neat things about turning the hog into these products: the taste is more intense, they take up less space and there's a spectrum of bacons, from lean ones (Canadian bacon) to fatty ones (jowl and fatback).

When they were cut into sample sized pieces and cooked (and with some ground pork thrown in), they looked like this:


That's (from the top, clockwise) Kansas City bacon, Canadian bacon, bacon, fatback, jowl and sausage. The fatback really shrunk - the fat rendered out of it. It seems Sara's favorites were the jowl and the Kansas City bacon. I suspect I scorched that stuff a little too much. It still tasted very good.


After serving our bacons, we let Sara eat some roasted pork from a Mangalitsa piglet:


She's got some loin, ribs there and other meaty parts. That yellow looking thing in the lower left of the plate is the roasted fat attached to the meat underneath. Mangalitsa fat, even from a piglet, is very tasty. Older pigs have even higher quality fat. I just put the meat into the oven at 350 F for about 45 minutes, then warmed it up again for Sara the next day. That allowed her to taste the Mangalitsa without interfering flavors.

The day before Sara showed up, another freelance writer, Heidi Broadhead, visited and we likewise gave her pork to eat. We didn't have the camera though, so we lost those historic moments. Heidi (and Gary Angell, the herdsman), were the first Americans to eat Mangalitsa slaughtered in America. They both said that Mangalitsa was very, very different from normal pork.

It will be very interesting to see what The French Laundry says about the Mangalitsa piglet once they try it.

Finally, here's a video of some piglets running around on the farm:


video