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

Friday, November 9, 2007

First-time Custom Slaughter And Other Questions

I will attempt to answer the concerns of a few commenters at once:

www.stlbites.com: so how does one go about requesting custom slaughter with a breeder?

I see three solutions to finding someone who will raise an animal for you so you can do custom slaughter:
  1. You can ask the "custom butchers" in the phone book which farmers they work with. But watch out - they may just try to sell you some cheap USDA meat from a commodity farm. Or they may try to sell their own animals to you, which may or may not meet your standards. You have to be very careful about what meat that guy starts with.
  2. You can ask farmers (perhaps those selling at the farmers market) if they'll raise an animal for you.
  3. You buy an animal from me, and I'll get CNJ Custom Meats in Clayton to do the processing. I know Curt does a very good job - I just got half of a heavy Berkshire turned entirely into bacon (jowl, belly, back, shoulder, fatback, etc) - it is very good!
ellen: Though I don't understand the Austrian process, either. What can an inspector tell just by looking at the carcass? Finally - what planet do you live on where freezers are cheap to buy and run? Obviously, electricity is a lot cheaper where you live than it is in the DC area.

When the inspector examines the carcass, he's looking for signs of disease. E.g. tubercules, abscesses and worms. I admit, if the inspector doesn't see the animal before he dies, you could have someone sell a sick or dead animal, and it could pass inspection. We probably avoid that with our USDA system, but at a huge cost in meat quality.

Second, freezers are cheap to buy. E.g. a freezer to hold the meat from a 400 lb hog costs under $300 and about $24 to run (according to the label on the freezer) per year. Being able to buy a whole pig or half a cow saves you a lot of money over retail, to say nothing of your ability to get the highest quality.

molly: A lot of interesting information. It's hard to trust a custom slaughter sometimes. My uncle had a situation where they seemed to have traded some of his good meat out for some other meat after it went to the shop for wrapping and freezing (?). Is that common of the "make a buck" custom slaughters?

You really have to shop around for the right butcher. As with contractors, plumbers, mechanics, etc. Find a good one and stick with him. There are definitely sleazy or sloppy custom butchers. You should ask around. The good ones should have lots of regular customers.

One general problem is that some custom butchers serve low-income folks who just want the cheapest meat they can possibly buy. If you care about quality, you probably shouldn't hire that butcher.

This guy is an Austrian custom butcher - and he's one of the best. Although you'll probably never need his services, you might enjoy his site.

molly: How would one best pick a local farm or custom slaughterer BEFORE committing to purchase the meat or services?

There are a number of things you can look for though: does the butcher hang his meat? Can he tell you what feed leads to good meat quality (for your particular animal)? Does the farmer know what to feed the animal? Does the farmer produce his own feed (e.g. grind and mix the feed), or does he just feed the animals whatever Purina sells him?

In general, if you stick to buying local, you'll only have a few choices - so you gather your information and go from there. Farm visits are a good idea.

There's one problem I have with the "buy local" approach: if you live somewhere were people don't have much skill at making what you want to buy, it may not be worth buying. E.g. if I try to buy local cheese, I'm disappointed - because people around here don't seem to know how to make really great cheese.

Stress and Meat Quality



Stress and meat quality is a very important topic. Although it has been studied in depth, e.g. here is an in-depth treatment of the topic, many Americans don't understand the importance of stress on meat quality.

Essentially, stress results in chemical changes that prevent meat from "ripening" properly as it otherwise would. There's two recognized problems - meat from an that's been so exhausted that the meat doesn't have enough glycogen to ripen properly. That meat is called DFD - dark, firm, dry. The other problem is meat from a stressed animal, whose meat's pH drops too quickly, damaging the meat. The meat loses fluid, texture and water, so it is called PSE (pale, soft, exudative).


Please note that stress immediately before slaughter has the biggest impact. There's all sorts of stress that could conceivably ruin meat (e.g. transport stress, weaning stress or the mental trauma of an unhappy piglethood) - but stress just before slaughter seems to be most important.

One technique Austrians recommend is to feed animals sugar water 12 hours before slaughter. The purpose is to increase the glycogen in the muscle, so that it will ripen better. Some runners do similar things, in an attempt to fill their muscles with glycogen before a race.

Regardless of the actual mechanism or science, it is interesting to see how companies or individuals behave when they pay the price of stress:
  • Austrian Mangalitsa breeders, like Mr. Gasser keep pigs, raise their young, slaughter them, then make and sell products from their meat. He is an integrated pork processor, in miniature. People like him are particularly careful to eliminate slaughter stress - they'll tell you that stress ruins months of work.
It is clear: those who have the incentive to produce good meat attempt to mitigate preslaughter stress.

Finally, small slaughter plants are often bad at controlling preslaughter stress. This does not fit the typical paradigm that local, small and family-owned is necessarily good.

The small USDA plants - the kind that a small farmer uses - can't afford to spend the money that big companies do controlling stress, and they have little incentive to do anything better: small plants are paid by the head, not according to the quality of the slaughter. Most of their customers don't care; they are just happy to get USDA slaughter so that they can sell their meat to people.

I talked with a guy who works as a custom butcher, but who used to work in small, family-owned slaughter plants. He confirmed that the small USDA plants are the worst. E.g. there are employees working there who delight in making hogs squeal. Who do you think works in these plants, anyway? It gets pretty irritating to handle big, squealing, stressed pigs all day long.



Also, it isn't possible to pay the smaller plant more money in return for better service - that's like expecting to walk into McDonald's, pay a bit more, and get a waiter and table service.

E.g. I took in a few animals for slaughter. The big pigs (pictured at the very top) were put in their own area, but my Mangalitsa piglets were put into a feces and urine-filled pen with a bunch of bigger pink piglets that started to pick on them.

The root of the problem was that our slaughterhouse doesn't have enough pens for small pigs. There was no place to stick them but with the other small pigs (from another farm). If they hadn't been stuck in that pen, they might have escaped and ran down the road. Taking them home was not an option - they might bring home a disease. I needed to get my pigs slaughtered, and I wasn't going to stand outside the stalls for four hours, watching to see if they were trying to squeeze out - so my piglets had to go in with someone else's pink piglets.

The slaughterhouse folks had told us to bring the animals in at 8AM and we figured they'd be slaughtered soon after - but after we arrived we found out they'd be slaughtered in the afternoon. It was all a real letdown. Everything we did to try to mitigate slaughter stress was probably overshadowed by what happened to the pigs after they went into the pen at the slaughterhouse. I'd wanted to see them get slaughtered, but we weren't able to witness it. I'm just hoping they got those hogs slaughtered with a minimum of stress and coercion.

Please don't get too upset by the photo: when pigs live outside and it rains, they sometimes wind up in muck. And big piglets always seem to pick on smaller piglets and take the better spots. A pig's life is not an easy one.

Mangalitsa piglets are very stress resistant; they still taste good even after stress. E.g. I ate one that jumped out of a trailer and mortally wounded itself. It was in pain for quite a while, until they decided to butcher it and keep the meat. When roasted, it tasted absolutely fantastic. So I'm hoping my three sorry looking piglets will very good. Hopefully their lives weren't wasted.

I was actually glad to get these hogs done USDA. I need to get them done that way to sell them. Hence, raising a big stink about the piglets wouldn't have helped anything; I need to get my restaurant hogs done there, and I need to get along with the staff. Their place is probably the best USDA plant in our area. My big hogs looked like they were set up just fine. One could even argue it was my fault for bringing in such small piglets.


Also, I understand the economic constraints of that slaughterhouse: they don't have enough secure pens, and $50 per slaughtered animal doesn't give them a lot of money to spend on improvements. Nor would their existing customers want to pay a penny more for marginally better slaughter - because they aren't as focused as Wooly Pigs on low-stress slaughter. As I might be the only customer who cares about this; I can't expect it to go my way.

As I mentioned previously, custom meat is the way to go for the highest quality and animal welfare. I find it interesting that supporting small farmers may mean supporting small slaughterhouses, whose animal welfare policies might shock people if they knew more about them.

If you want to buy custom pork from me, I will sell you a good hog and arrange for humane on-farm butchering.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Thoughts on Slaughter



Wooly Pigs is about to send our first pigs to market. Some of the first pigs are going to some famous American restaurants, including The French Laundry. This is a huge deal for everyone involved, and a bit stressful.

Restaurants can only serve USDA-inspected meat. Farmers trying to deliver high-quality meat have to work hard to control stress before slaughter. USDA slaughter typically involves things that naturally stress the pigs, so the farmer has to really work hard to keep things calm. As it is possible to ruin an entire animal's meat with stress, the farmer is looking at potentially throwing away entire animals.

The farmer can easily control breed, feed and how he raises the animal (important determinants of meat quality). But the law forbids the farmer from managing slaughter, except when someone buys a pig or half a pig, and has it slaughtered on farm. When the farmer slaughters on farm, he's in a position to deliver the highest quality meat.

Slaughter

Many people don't think much about slaughter, despite it being an integral part of eating meat. Few know that typical American slaughter really hurts meat quality. Almost nobody knows about alternatives to typical slaughter.

Slaughter is quite simple: the pig is stunned, typically by being hit on the head. While the pig is senseless, the butcher cuts an artery so that it quickly bleeds to death, without recovering consciousness. Here is a guide to the process.

Stress before slaughter is bad for the animal and the meat eventually made from it. Stress reduces meat quality.

Ideally the pig is going about his business when he falls unconscious, perhaps due to a blow to the head. He's dead soon after, without ever waking up. What we see may look messy, violent and bloody - but from the pig's point of view, he lost consciousness and that was it; he never felt anything bad. Imagine dying in one's sleep.

This no-stress method of slaughter is only possible with on-farm slaughter, as slaughtering a pig any other way only involves more stressors. Loading pigs used to living outside into a truck, and then taking them to a slaughterhouse, stresses them. If the pigs have to be herded somewhere, even into a mobile slaughter unit that visits their farm, there's typically some stress. Just smelling strange stuff can stress pigs.

A farmer who slaughters himself can waste fewer pigs by not killing the stressed ones. If a pig is stressed, he lives another day. Eventually he'll get slaughtered. Such careful selection isn't usually possible if animals go to a plant: all of them get slaughtered, relaxed or not, and the farmer has to sort it out later. That leads to a lot of waste: a producer determined to only sell the best meat has to discard the low-quality carcasses.


Comparison With Austria

Austria has a meat inspection law, but it is different enough to allow small farmers to consistently give their customers better meat.

In Austria, a farm can have a slaughterhouse. It gets inspected, and then the farm may slaughter on site. There's no inspector on the farm. The farmer is supposed to get the pigs into the slaughter room and do everything there. After he prepares the halves, the farmer takes the carcass to an off-site state inspector, who examines it. If it is OK, he gives it the necessary stamps, and the meat may be sold.

The interesting thing is that unlike in the USA, slaughter does not necessarily happen in view of the inspector. The farmer can bend the rules.

This leads to small farmers like Christoph Wiesner doing the following: they kill the pig in its pen, as with custom slaughter in America. They then drag the pig into their slaughter room and prepare the carcass (scald and evisceration) for inspection.

When the inspector gets the halves, he can't tell that the pig was slaughtered in a pen. He just sees the meat. If the meat is wholesome, it gets the stamps, at which point the meat is legal. It might even get sold in a very fancy restaurant like this one. In America, that would be a huge scandal.

Of course, the farmer is supposed to kill the pig on the kill floor - but getting the pigs to go into the room is tricky, and might alarm them. It is easier and more humane to slaughter them in their pens. The farmers who do this argue that the meat is just as safe: whether the animal dies in its pen or in a clean room, it is the same.


Foodies

Individual consumers are strongly advised to do custom
slaughter. There are numerous reasons:
  • More humane for animals, better meat quality
  • Buying a half or whole is cheaper per pound. Just buy a freezer to hold the meat, or share with friends and family.
  • Custom butchers are motivated to process your meat how you want it. They are usually good at what they do.

Advice for the Savvy Customer

  • Visit the farm before you buy. Make sure they are finishing the hogs on good stuff, like acorns or barley. Continental Europeans have a system they use to produce good meat. If you follow the system, you get the desired results.
  • Freezers are cheap to buy and run. You can buy a lot of meat and eat it over several months.
  • If you buy between January and July, you might get a discount - it is slow then.
  • If you can stomach it, go watch them slaughter your pig. If they screw it up, tell them you want one killed properly. You are going to eat it - you might as well watch.
  • If you are there when they kill the pigs, take the one that has the carcass you want. E.g. take the leaner or fatter pig. Most people don't care, so if they are killing a few, you get the one you want. If you want the heads or organs of the other pigs, you can probably get those too, for free.
  • If you buy an older pig, make sure it hangs in the cooler long enough. E.g. 5-7 days for a year-old pig. Your custom butcher will probably be OK with this. But your local USDA plant may be too busy to allow your meat to rest; they'll want the meat in and out. Yet another reason to do custom slaughter.