Sunday, December 16, 2007

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!


bob mcgee said...

I'm truly bummed that I won't be able to swing up to Seattle's U-district market this Saturday to pick up some of your goods. Am getting ready at the deli for holidays. Hopefully, you'll be back there again soon. It'll be well worth the wait. Any hopes of seeing any fresh bellys for sale?

Heath Putnam said...

I have some frozen hams and frozen sides. To make a side, you take a half and detach the arm and the leg. From that side, you could get the loin and the belly (and the tenderloin).

Frozen meat isn't the best for making cured products - more salt enters the product compared to unfrozen meat.

Chefs I've talked to about frozen meat have told me that it is fine for sous vide or roasting. Essentially, if the cooking method involves cooking meat to death, the marginally lower water holding ability of the meat isn't important.

I haven't found a top-notch chef who will cure frozen meat - so I've been advising all customers who express interest in curing their own meat to use chilled meat. That means they need to be buying a half or a whole from me - but the sort of guy who cures his own hams or bellies isn't very far away from that anyway.

Anonymous said...

Hi Heath.

I'm the fellow who dropped by and give you my card; I'm looking at raising different breeds of pigs on my farm in everett. I bought several pounds of loin and two pounds of bacon. I also bought bacon from two other stalls there at the market, and had a blind taste test of the three different producers bacon saturday evening.
In a seperate frying pan I fried 4 slices of each producers bacon. I then cut the bacon into identical pieces (as nearly as possible) and had people rate the overall appearance, smell and flavor. Skagit valley farms rated highest; generally speaking yours, of the offerings at the market, rated lowest.

the main commment was that your the bacon cooked down into very small pieces (smaller than other offerings), and that the flavor just wasn't as good; the other bacon was sweeter or more smoky, more savory.

I did this without revealing the price of the various bacons; but yours, at twice the price of other producers, was the most expensive.

My opinion is that whomever did your bacon cure isn't as good as they could be, and that it may be worth your while to find a better cure solution for your products. The meat itself was fine, and all three of the producers got higher marks than costco premium dry-cured bacon (which we offered as a comparison).

I'm interested in purchasing some mangalitsa meat for comparison purposes as well.

Your lion product compared favorably with other lions -- so much so that the vote was pretty evenly split. So the problem wasn't with the raw product -- just the cured.

Heath Putnam said...

bruecki - Did you perhaps cook my bacon too much?

I'm asking because of your description, "the bacon cooked down into very small pieces."

The people who cook my bacon too much typically complain that it shrinks too much and the remaining meat gets tough.

If you cooked the bacon to the point of being crispy, you almost certainly overcooked it. If the bacon didn't have loose fat attached when you were done, you probably overcooked it.

We tried to warn everyone that bought our bacon not to overcook it. The same is true of the hams - I have to tell people that they are ready to eat, and don't need cooking.

I really don't understand how the processor could be responsible for the bacon being this way. If you have moreinformation about how the processor can be responsible for what you've described, I would appreciate you pointing me to it.

We did have our custom butcher make bacon from the hogs. We observed the same phenomenon with his bacon - if one cooks his bacon (from our hogs) too much, the meat cooks down into small, tough pieces that don't taste good.

Heath Putnam said...

bruecki - also, if you do purchase any Mangalitsa, I hope you follow my preparation suggestions - slow and low.

Mangalitsa doesn't cook like most pork. If you cook it the way people generally cook normal pork, you'll get very bad results.

Nearly every Mangalitsa producer in Austria has a horror story along those lines. A chef spends a lot of money to buy a Mangalitsa (having heard how great it is). He tries to cook it the way he cooks normal pork, and has failure after failure. Usually he blames either the farmer or the breed.

Wagyu producers have similar problems, as do grass-fed beef farmers.

If it is true that you overcooked the bacon we sold you, I'm very sorry. If you have any left, I suggest you cook it to a temperature of 160F or so, and then eat it. Hopefully you'll get better results.