Heritage pork: A swanky swine to dine

USA Today : January 25, 2007

But today, diners can find Berkshire pork chops in Kansas City, Red Wattle pork-shoulder meatballs in San Francisco, Tamworth pork chops in New York City and Yorkshire pork prime rib in Minneapolis. Such heritage breeds increasingly are capturing the imagination — and stomachs — of a new generation.

Heritage pork is nothing new. These breeds were popular before World War II, when pigs were raised outdoors on mixed-use farms. Because of the exercise they got and the fat they needed to get through winters outdoors, heritage breeds produced pork that was darker, meatier, more tender and more marbled than what is commonly available today.

Ignacio Mattos, chef at New York City’s Il Buco, is one of the new wave going whole hog with more unusual breeds. He uses Tamworth for his specialty porchetta alla Romana and dried Italian sausages, or salumi. And he occasionally cooks with a rare breed of once-feral pig from Georgia’s Ossabaw Island.

“You get a totally different product depending on the animal you use,” he says.

The darker, redder, wilder meat from an Ossabaw pig imparts an intensity to his salumi that he can’t get any other way. On the other hand, when he roasts the well-marbled Tamworth, pockets of sweet fat make the meat creamy as custard.

“Sometimes people freak out when they see the amount of fat on the heritage pork, but it’s my favorite meat. The complexity, the creaminess, the depth — I don’t know how anyone can resist it.”

But many people did during the low-fat diet revolution.

“When pork was losing market share, they bred out the fat to make it ‘the other white meat,’ ” says Tony Bettencourt, chef at suburban Boston’s Tomasso Trattoria. “But after years of tasteless meat, people realize the fat has to come from somewhere. You can drown tasteless pork in cream sauce, disguise it with barbecue sauce or stuff it with cheese to give it some fat and some flavor. Or you can go back to the real thing.”

That’s what Michael Yezzi, proprietor of Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York, does. A supplier to Mattos and other chefs, he raises some of the world’s rarest breeds of pork.

“People’s first instinct is that it’s the genetics that make it taste so good,” Yezzi says. “And that’s partly true, since the marbling, the intramuscular fat, hasn’t been bred out. However, the taste mostly comes from the way we raise them: slowly, outdoors, with great respect. They’re outside getting exercise, getting minerals from the soil, getting fresh air and clean water, and they live without stress. All that combines for flavor.”

Historically, all hogs were raised outdoors and ate farm waste. Outdoor pigs regulate their body temperatures with a thick layer of back fat. This fat, for centuries one of pigs’ most valued traits, was considered a liability once animal-fat consumption became associated with human health problems. New breeds were developed with as little fat as chicken; hence “the other white meat.”

Without its back fat, a pig must live indoors. This led to industrial confinement operations in which pigs never move and are fed endless antibiotics. Many green-minded consumers are opposed to this approach and have embraced heritage pork as a rough equivalent to organic. This worries true heritage producers.

“We fear that people don’t understand that heritage breeds are just the same breeds that lived outdoors on every farm in Iowa,” says Bill Niman of the Niman Ranch, a marketing operation representing 600 family farmers raising livestock humanely.

Most industrial pigs also have a heritage pedigree. They typically descend from the Landrace, Hampshire, Yorkshire, Duroc and Berkshire breeds. The most aggressively marketed is Berkshire, also known by the Japanese name Kurobuta.

“But a purebred Berkshire raised in confinement is no better than any other industrial pig,” Niman says.

Unlike industrial pork, heritage pigs can be traced to an individual farm.

“It comes beautifully dressed; you can see that they’ve shown respect for the animal,” explains Erik Cosselmon, the chef at San Francisco’s Kokkari. “Commodity meat arrives in those Cryovac bags of blood, and you can’t tell anything about it.”

Cosselmon grew up in Michigan, raising animals himself. “That gave me an understanding of how important the well-being of the animals is in the quality of the meat,” he says. “The people who are most excited about the pork are other chefs, which gives me a feeling that it’s going to catch on even more.”