Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Italian Heavy Pig Production

Future Parma Ham - image from pigprogress.com

I found an article about producers of heavy pigs in Italy.

"Heavy pig" is an Italian concept[1]. Basically, the pigs have to meet certain weight and fat-quality requirements, as explained in this document. Having heavy pig standards allows Italian meat processors to reliably acquire large amounts of raw material suitable for making high-quality cured pork products at low prices.

We don't have such standards in the USA, so meat processors and chefs have a tough time lining up supplies of high-quality raw material. Of course, some like Johnston County Hams and Knight Salumi, manage to do it by working with a quality-oriented producer like Wooly Pigs.

The Italian (and the Spanish, German, Austrian, Hungarian, etc.) understanding is that the quality of the raw material is primarily a function of the breed, feed and age at slaughter.

Compared to the Spanish or Hungarians who raise some lard-type pigs, the Italians raise leaner pigs (more like American producers), which don't taste as good. In fact, Italian regulations would forbid them using foreign lard-type genetics that would improve their quality:
Breeding at Suingrass Apart from meat quality, there is one more essential element in pig breeding for Parma ham production. All animals have to be from Italian descent[2], and bred and grown in Italy.

Although they raise fairly lean pigs, to their credit, the Italians do feed the pigs right, and they raise them older than American pigs, resulting in products that taste better in a side-by-side comparison.

As the photos I've copied from pigprogress.com show, the Italians aren't raising pigs "naturally". They are using very modern methods to produce the most high-quality pork they can, just as the Spanish and Hungarian producers do.

This is one reason why you don't see many photos of Italian pigs; most people don't look at Italian pigs and think, I really want to eat a parma ham.[3] Just think about it: we hear so much about Italian cured products, but how often do you see pictures of Italian pigs (compared to say, Iberico pigs)? The reason is simple: most Italian pigs are raised intensively, and have been for a very long time. Yet it isn't pretty, so we don't see photos of it.

The Italians feed the pigs a lot of whey, a byproduct of cheese (e.g. Parmesean) production. Raising pigs intensively is a Po Valley tradition[4] because how else are you going to get all that whey into them? It doesn't travel well. Unless you pipe it directly into the pig area, you'll have high costs.

People who see the pictures of the Italian pigs and feel that they need to be set free to forage in the (now-deforested) forests want to turn the clock back approximately 150 years. I don't see anything inherently wrong with that, even though if people wanted, for instance, to return to 150-year old transportation systems or 150-year old medicine, we'd think they were extremists.

Meanwhile, in America, one often finds people positing (without providing any data) that raising pigs "naturally" makes them taste better.

For example, today I read an interview of Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle:
"When we started serving pork from naturally raised pigs more than a decade ago, we did it because we thought it was a better way to raise animals and it produced better tasting food," said Ells. "I visited a pig farm and it shocked me to see the conditions of the animals. That gave rise to our commitment to find better, more sustainable sources for all of the ingredients we use."

It may have been true when Mr. Ells did his experiments, but when I see these Mangalitsa, being raised indoors, I know they taste better than every scrap of meat-type pork that Mr. Ells sells - despite the fact that they are not raised "naturally".

Italian sows - image from pigprogress.com

I think it is interesting that Ells feels the need to conflate "being good" with "tasting good". If being good is so great, why not just talk about that? Why does he have to hook people with the "tasting good" angle?

My own suspicion: Ells understands that people, like pigs, like to eat things that taste good. In fact, they care about that (and price) more than they do about how "natural" something is.

Also, having an engineer's mindset, it isn't easy for me to believe Mr. Ells when it comes to eating quality - especially in light of the fact that Italian products generally taste better than American ones (where pigs are likewise produced intensively), and that the Spanish and Hungarian ones, which are produced just as intensively, taste better than the Italian ones.

This conflating of husbandry with tasting good reminds me of the Hagakure:
It is bad when one thing becomes two.
One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai.
It is the same for anything else that is called a "Way".
If one understands things in this manner,
he should be able to hear about all Ways
and live more and more in accord with his own.
Producing pigs that taste the best is different than producing pigs "naturally". Although there may be some similarities between the two ways it doesn't do any good to get them mixed up.

As an example of someone who has it mixed up, here's a post about people (supposedly) attempting to reproduce Spanish products, by doing what they assume the Spanish do. I laugh out loud when I read that!

Good enough to eat off the ground.

Just a few days ago, I tried some cured products from a small pork producer. They raise the pigs outdoors and feed them organic stuff. However, they don't feed their pigs anything special the last period of their lives, so their fat is (often) very rancid. I couldn't eat their cured jowl; the stuff was so rancid. I had to spit it out. I gave an acquaintance some of theirs and some of mine. He agreed that their stuff primarily just smelled rancid. Our stuff doesn't smell rancid. I know that guy loves our stuff: I saw him drop a piece of cured jowl on the dirty ground, and then I saw him wipe the dirt of the piece and eat it - because it tasted that good.

If your job is to produce stuff that tastes good, you need to focus on that, because that (and price) is what you'll be judged on. If your goal is to produce pork in a way that makes people feel good about themselves, that's what you'll do, even if it is worse for the animals, or even if it results in rancid cured products.

As a consumer, you should not expect that what is produced "naturally" is the best-tasting, just as you shouldn't expect that the "local" stuff is the best-tasting. If you want the best-tasting stuff, you need to seek that out.

[1] The German word is "Speckschwein" - the sort of pig that makes good speck, as opposed to fresh meat.

[2] Of course, the white pigs the Italians raise are derived from Danish pigs - but they've been in Italy long enough to be considered Italian.

[3] The Spanish system allows them to produce good-tasting stuff and take photos of it. Basically, almost all pigs live most of their lives indoors, but a fraction get to go outside for 60+ days. Judicious picture-taking allows people to feel good about their purchases, which are primarily motivated by taste.

[4] Just as raising Mangalitsa pigs in stalls is a tradition.

No comments: