Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Speck - Most Details Don't Matter

Foods in Season started sampling and selling our speck* to their chef customers. So far, everyone who got samples said they'd buy more. I've seen the same thing in Seattle; most chefs or foodies who eat the stuff want more. Mangalitsa experts like Bryce Lamb and The Herbfarm's staff think our speck is very good; those guys are very demanding and fussy, and they have a lot of personal experience processing Mangalitsa pork into cured products.

There's indications our speck will be a hit. In Seattle, a bunch of speck fans have convinced the manager of the Madison Valley branch of Bill the Butcher to stock it for them.

If you want to buy some and you don't live in Seattle, you can call 573-486-2086 and give your order to Pam.

Despite this being our first batch of speck, it probably is the best-tasting speck you can buy in the USA. It isn't unreasonable to think that; our processor wins awards for their other products, speck isn't all that different from their other products, and Mangalitsa pork typically beats all other pork on all organoleptic metrics.

Ham works the same. Hence, I'm confident that when people taste the Mangalitsa hams from Johnston County Hams, they'll rave about them. There's every reason to think they will be the best hams produced in the USA.

Speck (and ham) has fat, salt and meaty flavors. As the meat dries out, proteins break down, naturally producing flavor-enhancing chemicals.

Cured Mangalitsa tastes good enough that one can go through withdrawal, and some people become fiends.

Pigs fiend for sugar.

I noticed these experiences in myself on my first Mangalitsa-related trip in Austria. I've since seen these things in America, so I know at least some people can relate. The pigs gobbling the pears have that sort of primal reaction.

I'm not the only one who thinks Mangalitsa is special. A chef who has taught at the Culinary Institute of America, and who knows a lot about pork wrote me:
I'm afraid that you might be right after all and Mangalitsa pork is nonpareil -at least your's is.
I asked him to clarify, and he wrote (emphasis mine):
The impetus for my earlier comment came tonight while I was making dinner. I made a fritatta that employed lardo that I made from a jowl from a Mosefund pig. Of course, I sampled the fat while I was cutting it and at various stages while it rendered and could not help but compare it to other pork fat. Just like the fat from the bacon that you sent me the texture, taste and aroma was in every way superior to any other fat from a North American raised hog.

I recall a statement that you made a few months ago to the effect that Mangalitsa pork was intrinsically more flavorful than pork from other breeds and that this assertion had been proven" after a blind tasting. At the time I thought this claim was spurious at best and at least, bullshit. But now I'm starting to think that there might be something to it.
My understanding: he ate his cured jowl and had tremendous feelings of elation. He'd never had similar feelings from other cured jowls. Now he knows, in the most basic way possible, that Mangalitsa is superior. He's a convert.

If you put down a mixed plate of cured pork products in front of him, he'd know to eat the Mangalitsa products first. Pretty much anybody who has eaten a bunch of cured Mangalitsa products thinks the same. There's Mangalitsa, and then there's all that other stuff.

Now that we've got products and have shopped them to chefs, we're getting questions. E.g. what's the smoke? Do you use nitrites? Is the stuff organic? Free range?

As someone devoted to making the best-tasting stuff, I find these questions a little alienating. Heath Putnam Farms sells raw material (to some of the USA's most demanding consumers). We control the variables that determine quality, so our stuff tastes the best and makes the best cured products.

The details of our speck process don't matter much, and to the extent you focus on that stuff, you are missing the point: if you use our raw material and a different process, you'll probably make something tasty. If you use our process with inferior raw material, you'll make some inferior products.

That's why I appreciate chefs like Paul Liebrandt, and distributors like De Bragga. When our product was all frozen and quite expensive (like the Iberico imported from Spain), they didn't mind. What matters to them is that our stuff makes dishes that taste the best.

When people ask about the recipe, I'm reminded that I don't have it handy, and nobody else has it handy either. We aren't safeguarding it, so if there's a fire, we might easily lose it. However, as a practical matter, if we lost the recipe for our speck today, it wouldn't matter - because the raw material is what matters.

Similarly, I can remember asking the Wiesner's for their speck recipe. They didn't know the details. They just told me to read this book, because they took it from there.

Anyway, our customers are asking for the recipe, so I've asked our processor to get it. I ought to have it in a few days, and I'll post it.

* When I say "Speck", I mean that in the Austrian sense. "Speck" is a German word that means "bacon", aka "cured and smoked pork".

Producers in South-Tyrol, annexed by Italy in 1918, make and sell a lot of what Austrians call "Schinkenspeck" (ham). It gets marketed all over Italy, apparently under the name "speck". Many Americans who've eaten stuff called "speck" have had the Italian stuff, and associate the word with the Italian meaning.

This creates confusion. The speck we sell would be called "Bauchspeck" (belly) and "Godaspeck" (jowl) in Austria. It is very fatty. Here's what Schinkenspeck from meat-type pigs looks like:

Obviously our speck is totally different. While Schinkenspeck is almost all lean, our Bauchspeck is almost all fat. If you want a relatively lean cured Mangalitsa product, the ham and shoulder is what you want.

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