Better Cured Meat Begins On the Hoof at Home

At Black Oak Holler Farm, pigs roam fields and forests, dining on pumpkins, acorns and other natural food. The diet is designed to make their fat softer and sweeter.
At Black Oak Holler Farm, pigs roam fields and forests, dining on pumpkins, acorns and other natural food. The diet is designed to make their fat softer and sweeter. (By Mary Annette Pember For The Washington Post)
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

FRASIER'S BOTTOM, W.VA. -- In 2001, Nic Heckett laid out plans for a new business: selling artisan bacons, salamis and dry-cured hams. What he didn't realize was that to do it right, he'd have to become a pig farmer.

The steady decline of the dollar upended his original plan to import top-quality prosciutto from Italy. And the Other-White-Meat-ization of American pork meant he couldn't find meat with enough fat and texture that he could cure himself.

And so two years ago, Heckett, a 44-year-old businessman who lives in Clifton, struck a deal with Chuck Talbott, a professor of animal husbandry, to raise hogs specifically for cured meats at Talbott's Black Oak Holler Farm, nestled in the rugged hills of Appalachia. The pigs, a cross of fattier, pre-industrial breeds, live outdoors. They roam 50 acres of forest and flat valleys, or "hollows," where they eat rape, barley, sunflowers and pumpkins. In the fall, the pigs forage for acorns and hickory nuts that give the meat, and the fat, an intense, woodsy flavor.

Their company, Woodlands Pork, sold its first meat this month to restaurants in New York and Washington. "For the first time I'm seeing the same kind of pork we had in Italy," said Massimo Fabbri, executive chef at Tosca in downtown Washington, after receiving his first delivery. Heckett hopes to open his own curing operation and to begin turning out what he calls "seasonal, regional" bacon, guanciale (cured jowls) and hams in the next 18 months.

Heckett's quest makes him one of a small but obsessive band of pork pioneers who aim to create distinctly American cured meats that rival the famed salumi of Italy and charcuterie of France. Over the past several years, cured meats have experienced a renaissance on American menus, thanks in part to the popularity of traditional, less-fussy techniques and regional cuisines. And chefs and artisan producers such as Berkeley-based Fra' Mani, founded by former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli, and Seattle's Salumi Artisan Cured Meats, operated by Mario Batali's father, Armandino, have rushed to fill the demand.

But without the right pigs, great products are difficult to achieve. "Cured meats are 95 percent pork and 5 percent salt. If you get the pork wrong, you're in trouble," said Brian Polcyn, chef at Five Lakes Grill in Milford, Mich., and co-author with Michael Ruhlman of the 2005 book "Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing."

Along with Heckett, the new generation of producers includes Heath Putnam, a software engineer in Spokane, Wash., who saw the light on a trip to Hungary. The salami he tasted there was so good that he spent the next year -- and about $150,000 -- importing Mangalitsa pigs, renowned for their high fat content and sheeplike woolly coats. And Herb Eckhouse, founder of Iowa-based La Quercia, this year launched what he calls the Acorn Edition. He's pre-selling whole acorn-fed Berkshire hogs to restaurants and individuals including chef Mario Batali and wine critic Robert Parker.

Heckett did not know much about raising pigs when in 2005 he first met Talbott, then a professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technological State University. But Talbott, one of the stars of Peter Kaminsky's book "Pig Perfect," which recounts the author's quest to breed great pork, did. Better, Talbott owned a 270-acre farm in West Virginia. The property, purchased for $75,000 in 1978, is set in one of the largest oak and hickory forests in the United States. "Joel Salatin calls himself a grass farmer," Heckett says, referring to the Virginia farmer featured in Michael Pollan's bestseller "The Omnivore's Dilemma." "We're tree farmers. We don't look at the trees as wilderness but as productive units." He has hired a consultant to help maintain and improve the forest and is considering reintroducing the American chestnut tree to the area.

The trees are important because what the pigs eat in their last months affects the meat's flavor and the high fat content, essential for good charcuterie. (The famous Iberian black-footed pigs' diet of acorns is what, at least in part, justifies the sky-high price -- about $96 per pound at -- for bellota ham.) In the fall, after the pigs have spent months eating acorns and nuts, their fat is softer and sweeter. And the exercise of rooting for them helps develop meat with firm texture, not the almost mushy consistency of industrial pork.

Farmers maintain that the way pigs live is key, but breed is also important. The pigs at Black Oak Holler are a cross of several so-called heritage breeds, including Duroc, Large Black and Ossabaw Island, a pig that is believed to be a descendant of the Iberian hog. The Ossabaws were brought to the American South by Spanish colonists nearly 400 years ago but were abandoned on an island off the coast of Georgia, where the breed and its feral qualities were preserved. "The closer we get to wild, the better it is," said Polcyn, who is in discussions with Heckett to consult on cured meat production.

Berkshire or Kurobuta pork, the in-vogue breed often seen on restaurant menus, is excellent, too. But although its meat is fattier than the industrial stuff, it's not as marbled as in the new European and hybrid breeds others are raising, Polcyn said. Its popularity is due to the temperament of the pigs, which are far less ornery than their wild cousins.

Another breed with potential is the Mangalitsa, an Eastern European "lard pig" that has long been bred to make speck and Black Forest ham. Mangalitsas can be raised to have as much as 79 percent fat, the highest ratio ever recorded, according to Putnam, who sells his meat under the brand Wooly Pigs. The fat is so soft that Austrian chefs sometimes warm it and whip it like cream. "These are fat pigs, and you taste the flavor in the fat," Putnam said. "It's like Kobe beef, where the fat is the good stuff."

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