Wednesday, April 30, 2008
I came across this entertaining photo tonight. The housing estate looks very ordinary - you see them all over Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, etc.
I'm wondering how staged the photo is. My wife says that if you did that where she grew up, there'd be people on the balconies, watching and talking.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Humans breed a variety of animals for their milk, meat and working ability. Unlike cows or goats, pigs are almost without exception raised for their meat. Roughly 1 billion domestic pigs exist at any given time, and almost all of them have been created so that we may kill and eat them.
Wooly Pigs recently sold six very fat Berkshire hogs. We arranged to have them slaughtered on-farm by our favorite state-licensed slaughterer and butcher, Curt of CNJ Custom Meats. The six Berkshires we killed were unusual because they were so large and fat. For various reasons, heavy hogs make great cured products like bacon, ham and sausage.
Some of the customers wanted the butcher to kill and process the hogs. Others (from Culinary Communion - Seattle's extreme food instruction institution) just wanted him to kill their hogs; they'd do all their own traditional processing back in their kitchen. The Culinary Communion folks also wanted many of the organs from their hogs. As Curt put it, "they want it like in the 3rd World."
Traditionally, people didn't skin pigs, as they valued the skin. They removed the hair by scalding or burning. The skin appears in traditional preparations. In Central Europe, it is still common to serve roast pork with the skin on (the skin is called "Kruste" in German). Although modern equipment like a hog scalder or an Abflammofen (a chamber with many gas jets) makes dehairing easy, the typical process in the USA is to skin hogs.
In the modern world, people who will process their hog typically just want it skin-on. They will often insist on this, as the Culinary Communion folks did. It wouldn't surprise me if the Culinary Communion slaughters their own pigs in the future.
Slaughter is a business where small typically means "too small": a small USDA plant typically organizes their business as a high-volume, low-frills operation serving their local market, which is often economically depressed. It would be rare for them to have a scalder capable of handling very heavy pigs - as they cost tens of thousands of dollars when bought new. Harvesting things like blood or the intestines would complicate a small plant's operations too much and would require exotic equipment that would usually sit idle. Even if a small plant has the equipment, it is very difficult to ask employees (often family) to do dirty jobs like clean intestines.
Given the size of our pigs, we opted to burn the hairs off. Building a giant scalder for a few pigs didn't make sense. Burning would be more work, but it seemed like the outcome was certain. Also, some think that burning gives the bacon a superior flavor. As the burnt skin smells like roast pork, I can believe that it imparts a nice flavor to the raw material. As I worked scraping the hogs, I got hungry.
The herdsman (Gary Angell, seated on the tractor) and I selected and penned up the pigs in an area with straw a day before slaughter so that they could get clean and also fast a bit. Keeping the hogs dry and clean makes the burning go smoother. Making them fast means there's less feces to deal with later, and less chance of contamination.
Curt's method is to stun the pig by shooting it in the head. He's very careful not to shoot a pig unless he's going to hit it and knock it out. A badly placed shot can ruin everything.
As shown in the video above, some of the pigs move around a lot in response to Curt, making it impossible for him to stun them properly. There's a lot of suspense in those videos - you know what Curt wants to do, but the pig may or may not make it easy.
After Curt shoots the pig, he sticks it to bleed it out. The pig in the video below is sleeping. If things went correctly, and it appears they did, she wasn't at all conscious when he bled her out.
It is important that the pig not be stressed before death. Besides the animal welfare issue - which is absolutely crucial for us and the customer, glycogen depletion in the muscles, due to struggling, leads to stress-damaged meat. Stress can ruin an entire pig. For the customers who are buying a whole or a half, there's a lot at stake. Hence Curt is extremely careful when stunning the pig.
The Culinary Communion folks wanted us to catch the blood that comes out after the sticking so that they could use it, but Curt nixed that. He didn't want to have to get into the pen to catch the blood. One could easily get hurt by a thrashing pig. As Randy pointed out, if one of those monsters kicked you it could break your jaw. I just imagined getting my eye poked out. Later Curt admitted that collecting some blood wouldn't be too hard to do - but then you'd also have to stir it and add an anticoagulant, so that it could be used later.
I missed the stunning of the first pig. According to Randy, a farm helper, Curt walked over to the pen, sticking the barrel of the gun into the pen at snout level. Pigs are very curious, so some came over. The doomed pig sniffed the barrel of the rifle. After the pig lost interest and dropped his snout, Curt shot him in the head, dropping him.
After each pig bled out, we moved it out of the pen with a tractor to a cleaner area for processing.
After the humans clear out the pigs, one or more pigs typically busies itself eating up the blood in the pen. They really love it. If the blood falls in the dirt, they'll every bloody bit of dirt. In a few minutes, there's typically no trace - except perhaps a pig with a bloody nose. Even that vanishes soon. Pigs like blood and meat for the same reasons we do: plants simply don't taste good in comparison, because they aren't as nutritious. A pig on an all-vegetarian diet is an unhappy, unnatural pig.
In response to some concerned remarks from my readers, I called WSDA and asked their custom slaughter bureaucrat (Roy) if they have a problem with the pig eating the blood. He said he didn't, and that he'd never even received a question about it.
Even if we'd wanted to stop the pigs from engaging in last-minute cannibalism, there's not much we could do about it: we had to work on the pig we'd just killed, not fool around the still-living pigs. And we didn't want to stress out the live pigs, as we'd be killing them soon. In any case, it isn't easy to get the big pigs to do anything they don't want to do.
After we got the pigs out, we burned off the hairs and scraped the skin. I volunteered to help with the dehairing. I wanted to help and see how hard it was. It takes a very long time, and the work was very sooty.
We looked for sources on how to dehair the pig properly (as if there would be just one way to do it), but we couldn't find much. In the end, we went with a simple burn and scrape. Maybe we'll do things differently next time, assuming we can get some good information.
Some parts, like the feet and the head, are nearly impossible to clean. Pig feet are absolutely filthy. I'll never look at them the same way again. Having tried to get them clean, I now understand why folks like Curt don't even like to attempt to clean them:too much work, and they don't seem to ever be clean, especially between the toes.
It is amazing that pigs, who are undeniably filthy, taste so good. Even their feet taste good.
After we dehaired the pigs, Curt cut them open and removed their gut and pulled out their organs. He's done that for about 15 years, so he's very smooth. After removing the organs, Curt split the pigs with his saw into two halves.
Eastern Washington is dusty and windy, even in April. Curt was extremely careful about contaminants while working on the pork: we parked some vehicles near the work area to block the wind, and Curt made sure to keep the meat clean. Even so, it didn't strike me as very sanitary - but clearly humans have lived through dirtier times and survived.
Just as people are envious and nasty, so are pigs. Pigs express their feelings with their mouths, which are full of sharp teeth.
For pigs, being nasty works: aggressive pigs eat the food at the expense of the other pigs. Aggressive boars (in the wild) fight off the other competitors and get to pass on their genes. Aggressive females also out-compete the less-dominant females.
The alpha-female is called the boss sow. A typical boss sow day might include standing in the trough and eating (and biting any other pigs that try to eat at the same time), biting any other pigs that don't get out of her way or biting a few rival sows in the vulva. A really nasty boss sow might eat the piglets of a rival or bite the penis of a boar servicing another female. Boss sow behavior gets worse with age.
Our boss sow was a long Berkshire we were hoping would produce some good piglets. She was quite sweet to people, even as she harassed other pigs. I remember scratching her back as she ate some feed, watching as she nastily snapped at other pigs that got too close.
When we finally decided to be rid of her and moved her from the breeding area into the finishing area, intending to kill her after she'd eaten the finishing ration for 60 days. She didn't like the finishing area, so she'd escape back into the breeding area, where she'd eat feed that that wasn't the best for her fat quality. So we'd move her back to the finishing area and start the cycle again.
In her final days, she came down with arthritis in her back leg. The cause wasn't clear, but it looked like it was a good time for her to go. Had she lived longer, she would have suffered a bit.
Her death was particularly nice, considering how awful she'd been to the other pigs. As shown in the video, she got shot while asleep. It took about two minutes for her to go from an alpha-female to a giant dead pig. She probably weighed 600 lbs live, which is about 3 times the size of a typical hog.
Watching the boss sow become meat was a strange experience. She was such a presence on the farm for so long, and now she was 446 pounds of pork. When it was all over I decided I was happy she got sold to customers who would use all of her.
 With experience, some people get less fussy. We recently talked with Seth Caswell, Executive Chef of Stumbling Goat. He said that in the future, he'd probably be willing to take our heavy hogs skinned. The last skin-on hog we gave him had (minus the head) had a 330-lb carcass. Seth had so much extra skin that he wound up giving a bunch of it away.
 Doing the slaughter on-farm makes it a lot easier for us to deliver the best pork possible. One downside is that the pigs have to be sold before slaughter, and customers have to buy a whole or a half, so it can't work for the average consumer.
 Burning the hair is common in Hungary, Romania and some other countries. Scalding is common in Northern Europe. Scalding seems to require more equipment and less labor, while burning is the opposite. Here's one American source on the superiority of burning:
 Viewing slaughter is a good idea. You can ensure you don't get a stressed animal that way. Unfortunately, most USDA plants won't allow you to view slaughter - even of one's own animals - in the wake of the recent beef slaughter scandal.
"In order to have good bacon the hair should be burnt off - not scalded - the flesh will be more solid and firm and it will keep better."
 Randy commented that for all the talk of pigs being smart, going and sniffing the butcher's gun was quite dumb. Another way of looking at is that our pigs are incredibly pampered and trusting, because almost all their interactions with us have been pleasant.
 Of all the pig parts, I don't understand how a head can ever be clean. The ears, mouth and nose have so many cavities for filth, food and other foreign matter. I recently found hay in the teeth of my pig heads.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Here's a presentation about Mangalitsa in Hungarian. It has some pictures showing how they produce Mangalitsa pigs and products in Europe. I've heard that the brand, Monte Nevado, will be available in the USA in the near future. I wonder how much it will cost.
Some people will probably be bothered at how the pigs are raised in confinement. Well, that's how most iberico is produced too - but that doesn't stop people from buying it and raving about it, or repeating the falsehood that all of it is produced from free-range hogs that fatten on acorns.
People don't seem to get that there are gradations: purebreds versus hybrids, free-ranging acorn fattened hogs, penned hogs that eat acorns brought to them, hogs that eat acorns and some barley, hogs that eat a mix of acorn-like feed (but no actual acorns), hogs that eat barley, hogs that eat corn and wheat, etc.
If you want to see a nicer version of how people raise Mangalitsa (which is a lot more like our operation in Eastern Washington) you have to look at something like this, from Switzerland. Hungarian producers, who actually make money off the Mangalitsa, typically scoff at that.
Even if you think the Hungarian system looks depressing, there's one very important fact: from a breed conservation standpoint, the Hungarians have done the most to preserve the Mangalitsa - because they are making money off it.
Moving on, one thing I've heard from restaurant customers is that they want really fat Mangalitsa pigs. Are they really sure? Just look at the photo above. That's a tremendously thick border of fat on that loin. It looks scarily different from most pork loins. Would you really want to pay a fortune for such a pig? It certainly costs a lot to put all that fat on a pig; a gram of fat requires 5x the calories of a gram of protein.
I remember when I ate my first Speck at Christoph Wiesner's house. I was a bit shocked at how thick the fat border on the Speck was. The Bauchspeck (belly Speck) was essentially all fat, with little red lines running through it. When I went to Gasser's house and saw his Speck (shown below), my wife and I were horrified - it was even more fatty. They didn't really expect us to eat that stuff, did they?
It will be very interesting to see how quickly the market for very fat Mangalitsa pigs develops in the USA. There's a general problem: meat processors in the USA are too price sensitive to buy such pigs.
The few customers who do want such pigs - e.g. The French Laundry - can only buy a handful of such pigs a year.
Anyone who buys such a pig has to figure out how to sell that fat to the customer. If the customer won't eat a piece of cured meat with a giant border of fat on it, then what?
If there were more chefs like Stockner out there, it would be easier to sell such pigs:
Monday, April 21, 2008
Looking on the web, I saw Dawn and Eric Wright's food blog talking about our Mangalitsa pork. That's a Mangalitsa jowl in that pan.
Pork belly is hot now, but whenever people buy it, I advise them to try jowls instead. If you can sit down and eat a super-fatty Notorious C.U.T. (a cut of Mangalitsa ribs and belly) you might as well eat jowl and get the maximum flavor. Someday jowls will replace belly as the popular cut. People just need to learn how great jowls are.
Anyway, I'm very happy that the Wrights liked the Mangalitsa jowls so much. I noticed that they said it was as good as the hype:
It turns out that this pig is worth every bit of hype that’s been surrounding it. What incredible flavor. The stuff is tender, moist and just melts in your mouth. It is insanely rich and I can’t recall a more flavorful meat I’ve ever eaten. Just amazing.When my wife and I were touring Austria, eating at Austrian farmhouses, whenever we expressed how wonderful we thought the Mangalitsa tasted, our Austrian hosts acted as if they'd heard it a million times. It actually got to be really irritating for us. We were having a profound eating experience. For them it was probably the hundredth time they'd heard how great it was.
Recently, Jess Thompson, food author and personal chef and her friends told us that their Mangalitsa meal was one of their best ever. Without meaning to, we acted completely blase about it. When one of them pointed out, we apologized.
Recently, Rebecca Denn (Seattle PI Food Editor) wrote:
When I first heard about the Mangalitsas I wondered if they would turn out to be over-hyped, and was prepared for chefs to tell me that the pork emperor had no clothes. It didn't turn out that way. Luce, for instance, noted that he's been fortunate enough to work in both France and Italy as well as some fine places in the U.S., that he's worked mainly with heritage breeds and even set off on a cross-country search a few years ago for the best (he found the Red Wattle pig to be "incredible"). Even he thinks the Mangalitsas are the closest thing to European pork he's found here.Anyway, The Herbfarm is buying six live pigs from us. It is a huge deal that they are buying live pigs. Since when do restaurants buy live pigs? How old-fashioned!
They'll fatten them on their place, feeding them hazelnuts to give them superior fatty acid composition. They'll raise them big and fat and then kill and cure them. I just hope they give them some food with tannins (like acorns) so that they get that super-nutty flavor.
For many reasons, the Herbfarm team is very farsighted to do this. They save money and get to kill their pigs on their schedule. There's nothing like owning them and taking delivery to lock in a supply. I'm happy they'll be in charge of the slaughter. I've disappointed them a few times now - not being able to give them the livers or heads that they wanted. Hopefully they'll have better luck, given that they'll be dealing directly with the slaughter plant.
Keith Luce and his team are a joy to work with. They've been very supportive of our efforts with our Berkshires and Mangalitsa. Keith Luce has helped us to increase the quality of the pork that we produce by pointing out some mistakes at the slaughterhouse.
In other news, Michael Ruhlman wrote about the Notorious C.U.T. that we sent him. I'm very happy that he finally finished and and tried it out. He said positive things about it too, of course.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Below are some old photos of heavy Mangalitsa pigs.
Looks like this pig is being sold. The pig looks blissfully ignorant:
These Mangalitsa look like they've been bred to deposit the fat preferentially on their backs instead of their bellies. Just as the bacon-type hog is a life-support system for a belly, these hogs are a life support system for their fatback. at slaughter, it would typically be taken off in a sheet and cured. You can see somewhat gruesome photos of that here.
More Heavy Mangalitsa
I found some nice photos of someone working on a Mangalitsa.
That's a much bigger and fatter pig that the ones we've been selling. The older the Mangalitsa pigs get, the more fat they get. We don't yet have a processor that can turn such pigs into products, so it pays to kill them young, before they get too fat.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
It is great to get some coverage in our major market! I hope everyone rushes to Monsoon and Le Gourmand to try the Mangalitsa. Or we've got the meat at the U-District and West Seattle Farmers Markets (and Bellevue and Kirkland when they open).
The article also mentions Mr. Oak, whose real name is Kylan Hoover. He has bought himself a huge herd of Mangalitsa and Mangalitsa-Berkshire crosses, which he'll be finishing in the Bay Area.
While we are killing our hogs relatively young, he'll raise his old and fat. Also, he's got acorns and other mast - the best feed possible - so his hogs will be better than ours for curing. We expect his hogs to be the best available in Fall 2008 for cured applications. You can reach him at:
There's an inaccuracy in the article. E.g. instead of one sow farrowing in quarantine, we had 13 farrow in quarantine and 2 en route from NY to WA. If it had just been one sow, one semi-trailer would have sufficed. As it was, they needed to build nests for 15 sows, which took up a lot of space. Would-be animal importers should know that it is inherently risky and expensive to import live animals. It was ridiculously foolish to have imported so many pigs in one load - but there is no "Animal Importation for Dummies" yet.
It was a lot of fun to have Rebekah and Meryl out to the farm. The only bummer was the Meryl got attacked by a nasty Berkshire sow, who knocked her really hard in the knee.
Seth Caswell, Executive Chef at the Stumbling Goat, sent me this email about how he used the gigantic Berkshire hog we recently delivered to him:
Here's a dish we served Saturday night at the Stumbling Goat. In the forefront is a country pate with tenderloin inlay garnished with pickled fiddleheads. Next to that is a pork and sage rillette with wild watercress and cranberry mustard. From the belly we made rillons with housemade plum jam and toasted ciabatta.
That looks simply delicious. I'm impressed with the tenderloin inlay -- that alone would get me to order it.
Monday, April 7, 2008
Here's a customer describing how eating Mangalitsa has changed his outlook on pork:
Mangalitsa is, of course, very special. We expect that as more people get to eat Mangalitsa (either by buying from us at the U-District or West Seattle Farmers Market, Monsoon or Le Gourmand), they'll agree.
Heath is a really nice bloke to chat to. I asked him “so what made you switch from software engineering to raising pigs?” He handed me the short rib and belly, and said - “you will see”.
He was right. I have the biggest bloody problem on my hands now. Heath’s stash is expensive. And rightly so. His care for his animals is amazing, and his attention to detail is, well, software engineerish. He deserves to charge a high price. The problem I have is that I have no idea how I could eat any other pork now. There would be no point. It wouldn’t be as good.
Matt Wright's experience was like our own. After we ran out of our first Mangalitsa salami, we got frantic. It sunk in that unless we imported the pigs and started raising them, so long as we lived in the USA, we'd never be able to eat pork as good as what we could get in Europe. The fact that we'd gone out of our way to do a side-by-side comparison of Mangalitsa salami with the best American stuff we could get only made us more depressed.
When we made our trip to Austria to see the Austrian producers, we ate a lot of Mangalitsa. After the visiting was over and we spent more time in Vienna, we both got depressed at the prospect of not being able to eat Mangalitsa, even in Vienna. We went through a kind of "Mangalitsa withdrawal" syndrome.
I ate some leftover roasted Mangalitsa meat (from the roast pictured above), and then I ate all the fat (on bread). When it was all gone and it really hit me that I would not get to eat the stuff for a long time.
The fact that we were having such intense feelings (possessive, greedy and downright piggy) about Mangalitsa made us think that importing the Mangalitsa to the Americas was the right thing to do.
1. As we were to later find out, the Pick Mangalica Szalami that so moved us isn't even the best. The big Hungarian producers don't use the best raw material for their cured products, unlike the micro Austrian producers we visited later. The Hungarian firms (like the Spanish) are good at producing a huge amount of affordably-priced Mangalitsa (or Iberico).
Saturday, April 5, 2008
The gravies obtained from the melted bacon are a favorite article of food with the lower classes ...
That's why I was happy to find this document from Google Books - which comes from 1890 - a time when the Mangalitsa was the typical pig breed in the Kingdom of Hungary (which was a lot bigger than Hungary today).
The hog business has completely changed since 1890: back then, hogs were produced mainly for their fat, which was a valuable commodity (not a waste product). Plant oils (margarine) and synthetics (WD40, grease) hadn't displaced lard. Synthetic fertilisers didn't even exist - so pig manure was important enough that people built railroads to haul it away:
Although the document includes some neat stuff about pig breeds (including the Mangalitsa), there's too many tables of figures, and no photos. But at the very end there's stuff that sounds quite funny now (and makes me wonder how it sounded back then):
The gravies obtained from the melted bacon are a favorite article of food with the lower classes, while the refuse so obtained is used in the manufacture of soap.Anyway, getting serious, this report reminded me of one thing: today's Mangalitsa is essentially the same lard-type pig that it was a long time ago - while other "heritage breeds"(for better or worse) aren't.
If we could resurrect Vice-consul Louis Gerster and show him our farm, he'd recognize our swallow-bellied Mangalitsa pigs. But our Berkshires would throw him for a loop, due them being so much leaner than they were in 1890.
That's something I find very interesting about the "heritage breeds disappearing" issue: one way that breeds disappear - other than just dying out - is via transformation into something completely different. Of course, when a breed (like the Berkshire) goes through so many changes in response to changing consumer tastes, saying you want to preserve the breed requires saying which version you want to save.
At this point, it is important to emphasize that although Wooly Pigs thinks breed preservation is generally a good thing (in case we need the genes in the future), we exist to produce pork that tastes particularly good. So although we really like the Mangalitsa, we are only raising them because they taste fantastic.
If we mainly cared about breed preservation, we wouldn't be raising Mangalitsa; we'd be raising endangered breeds like the Guinea Hog that don't have an economic niche anymore.
Despite being rare (especially in the Americas), the Mangalitsa has a niche: it (along with some other breeds) is used to produce some of the best pork in the world. So as long as some continue to demand the best, it will continue to exist.
Friday, April 4, 2008
There's a nice article about Le Gourmand's renovation. It mentions Wooly Pigs and our Mangalitsa pork. I'm guessing he'll have Mangalitsa on his menu for a few weeks.
If you'd like to eat some Mangalitsa in the near future, you can buy some from us at the U-District Farmers Market (Saturday) or the West Seattle Farmers Market (Sunday). Or you can visit Monsoon or Le Gourmand in Seattle and perhaps try it there.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
If you've sent me email, I haven't received it. We've got a new telephone number: (253) 833-7591.
There's been a lot going on -- Mr. Oak took delivery of his Mangalitsa pigs. When he's ready, we'll let people know more.