Where the Belly Meets the Plate

By John Martin Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ten years ago, the only place you might see the words "pork belly" was in a stock market report. Today, it's hard to find an upscale restaurant that doesn't offer its version of the underside of the hog.

Sales of such fatty cuts of pork and bacon have increased dramatically in restaurants in the past few years. And the meat is increasingly coming from heritage breeds of hogs that are naturally raised to have much more flavor and texture than "the other white meat" of industrial pig production. This pork often comes from small local farms and old-fashioned butchers the chefs have spent time "sourcing" -- industry lingo for the intense shopping they do.

Many chefs have found that for the best flavor and value, buying whole hogs is the way to go.

Chef John Manolatos of Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan says his offering of fattier cuts and offal coincided with a new appreciation of comfort food on the part of customers, who years ago started reacting against overly stylized preparations and came looking for coddling, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks. "We're a neighborhood restaurant, and our customers trust us," he says. "When we offer them beef heart or liver, or pork cheeks, or any tongue, they eat it and enjoy it."

Belly has long been featured in traditional dishes such as China's red-cooked pork with greens and France's cassoulet. But the popularity in contemporary restaurants of formerly eschewed cuts of meat is not as much about the parts themselves (though they can be delicious) as it is about the politics. Chefs en masse have adopted the fresh-local-natural mantra, helping to stabilize some dying breeds of plants and animals by fostering their production at area farms. Menus boast their sources, having become veritable road maps of farming communities and heirloom fruits, vegetables and livestock breeds.

Besides contributing to biodiversity and helping small farmers, though, buying whole animals makes financial sense to chefs. (Manolatos gets a whole hog for $3.50 a pound, compared with $8 a pound for premium cuts like chops.) Moreover, the strategy gives chefs more to work with and, therefore, more to offer customers.

Frank Ruta, chef and co-owner of Cleveland Park's popular Palena, has featured pork belly and other less-familiar cuts on his menu since he opened more than six years ago. He began offering pork belly as his own fresh bacon but also uses it as seasoning meat for a variety of foods such as lentils, to make pancetta (salt-cured Italian-style bacon, often rolled into a sausage shape but not smoked), and to make dry-cured slab bacon for BLTs or to top a burger. "Pork belly tastes good, albeit a little rich," Ruta says. "From the diner's point of view, it seems to be just decadent enough." Other parts go onto his charcuterie plate.

Ruta gets Berkshire and Duroc hogs from a small farm in Pennsylvania's Franklin County, where he says the animals eat whey from the goat-cheese operation, are fed stale bread and grow to full maturity and full fat. "They taste better," Ruta says. "A little less dry."

A former White House chef, Ruta cooked for 18 months in northern Italy, where 20 years ago he was immersed in culinary traditions that embrace the fat of the hog. But even in Italy, where prosciutto crudo (salt-cured ham, the best hung for two years), salume (air-dried sausage), lardo (salted pork back fat) and strutto (lard) are traditional ingredients, the fat-laden heritage breeds had until very recently become almost extinct because of the anti-fat movement and the hegemony of factory farms.

Brent Zimmerman, an American who has been farming in Tuscany for 16 years, is raising the celebrated Cinta Sinese breed, big black-and-white hogs that fell out of favor in the commercial market for having too much fat and for taking too long to grow to market size. Tuscan-style lardo, traditionally made from the Cinta Sinese, was one of the first of the fat-celebratory dishes to appear on American menus, and its popularity was instantaneous. Zimmerman, like Ruta, is convinced that a slow growth rate, exercise and a natural diet vastly improve the flavor of the meat, because the hogs are allowed to develop their natural fat. As with beef, the more richly marbled with fat, the more flavorful the meat.

Breed is important, but "grow-out" methods affect flavor even more. Zimmerman's hogs are allowed to rummage for chestnuts the last couple of months of their lives, which might account for the fully developed dark flesh of his pork.

Maryland farmer Bryan Kerney, who in season sells his vegetables and pork at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, allows his hogs into his vegetable fields to forage in the fall before slaughter. "They eat what we do: turnips, potatoes and greens." His sows are Tamworths, an endangered breed; he feeds them corn to fatten them up after they give birth, just before he releases them into the pastures.

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