I made a date last month to visit the Keedysville, Md., farm where Jeanne Dietz-Band raises Mulefoots, a rare heritage breed of hogs that the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has placed on its priority list.
In the meantime, fate intervened in the form of a stunning five-pound, four-bone rack of Berkshire pork loin calling my name from an Alexandria butcher’s display case.
What made the loin roast so irresistible, other than the marbling of its bright, rosy flesh, was what was still attached: the skin, and under that, an inch-thick cap of back fat. I was in the market for a dinner-party showstopper, and I’d found it.
I told the butcher I planned to brine the loin, dry it, put a rub on it, score the skin and smoke it on the grill over indirect heat.
“Rub vinegar on the skin,” he advised. “That’ll make it extra crunchy.”
Oh, was he right.
I wasn’t exactly sure how the roast was going to turn out. I wondered whether there would be sufficient time, as I had envisioned, for enough of the fat to render and the skin to turn to cracklings before the meat reached an internal temperature of 145 degrees (pink and juicy).
Waiting to lift the lid off the grill when a big piece of meat is smoke-roasting is akin to a child’s anticipation on Christmas morning; peek and you’ll be in trouble. The grill’s temperature drops precipitously, making the final cook time much longer; that’s why I use a remote probe thermometer.
As it turns out, I did have to trim some fat from the roast. But the meat was rich and succulent and had a fresh, clean flavor — the exact opposite of the outcome we’re used to from factory-raised grocery store pork.
The next day, some detective work revealed the pork was Berkshire and came from Craig Hagaman’s High View Farms in Berryville via White House Meats, a collective middleman of sorts that buys pasture-raised beef, lamb and pork from carefully chosen Virginia farmers and makes it accessible to chefs and the public. (It sells whole animals to the former and 10- to 15-pound meat shares to the latter, with shares delivered to A.M. Wine Shoppe in Adams Morgan on the first Saturday of each month. Hagaman also sells his products directly to consumers, as well as at farmers markets.)
So a couple of weeks ago, I doubled my porcine wish list: Mulefoots and Berkshires.
The two farmers responsible were not far apart, either in distance or life experience. Both came to farming as “next chapter” pursuits and subscribe to the theory that raising animals humanely, on pasture and in a stress- and chemical-free environment, is morally and culinarily correct. The quality of an animal’s life correlates with its value as a foodstuff.
Born and raised in Kansas, Dietz-Band has a doctorate in molecular biology and genetics and worked in that field in the Gaithersburg-Rockville corridor until 11 years ago, when she and her husband made a quality-of-life decision to get their then-teenage sons away from the city and have one parent stay at home. The goal was to have their 40-acre Many Rocks Farm pay for itself, and it does, primarily from goat farming. The pigs didn’t come until last year.
Googling “meat,” she found that in 2009, SlowFood USA and the ALBC had taste-tested several breeds of heritage pork. Mulefoot ranked No. 1 in flavor.
“The rarity of the breed cinched it for me,” says Dietz-Band. “Creating a market for their product helps them stay on the planet.”
Mulefoots, so named because unlike other breeds, they have mulelike, uncloven hooves, were grown heavily in the Corn Belt in the 1800s until about 1930, explains Dietz-Band. “They are known for their excellent hams and their lard, but the lard industry crashed in the ’30s and, coupled with the advent of factory farming, Mulefoots all but disappeared.”
Save for the efforts of farmers like herself, they might have. As of 2006, fewer than 200 purebred hogs were documented, according to the ALBC, mostly derived from the preserved herd of one farmer in Michigan. Dietz-Band’s source is in Michigan, where she bought her starter stock last year. She keeps two sows and one boar as breeding stock and now has 12 she’s growing for meat.
The hogs are woolly, mostly black, with ears that flop forward. They are docile and easy to raise, are good mothers and want to be outside. Dietz-Band feeds them soy and a corn-based meal enriched with vitamins and minerals that is ground at a local mill. On top of that, they get lots of fruit, vegetables, goat milk and whey.
Mulefoots are considered a medium-size hog, with mature males at 600 to 800 pounds. Dietz-Band grows hers to about 180 pounds, which takes six months. She has the animals processed at Horst’s Meats, a USDA facility in Hagerstown. She sells whole animals to a couple of chefs; she sells parts (which triples the processing costs) at the Silver Spring farmers market on Saturdays and in Baltimore on Sundays. (She’s taking March off to attend to her goats.)
I left Many Rocks Farm laden with whole fresh hams, ham steaks and pork belly, picturing that hog leg on my grill as I drove to High View Farms.
Hagaman’s story is similar to Dietz-Band’s, though his operation seems to be growing at a faster rate. He is 65, having semi-retired nine years ago as a general contractor. He bought his 199-acre farm in 1996 and moved there two years later from Loudoun County, where he had lived most of his life.
He got into raising pork three years ago, inspired by the natural growing methods set forth by food writer Michael Pollan in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and by well-known Polyface farmer Joel Salatin.
Asked how the meat from his hogs tastes, Hagaman gets emphatic: “It has a flavor, is the first thing,” he says, by way of rejecting factory-raised, chemical-laden products.
Research led Hagaman to Berkshires (also known as Kurobutas), recommended to him by area chefs. He cooked Duroc and Berkshire breeds side by side and found the latter superior.
“The meat was darker and more marbled and had a lot more flavor. It was moister and juicier,” he says.
Hagaman buys piglets from a farmer who raises registered Berkshires in Martinsburg, W.Va. Once he gets an infrastructure built (a place to keep breeding stock), he would like to breed his own Berkshires. He has 18 animals now and will buy 35 at the end of the month. He sold 60 last year and would like to get to 100.
Berkshires are an English breed known for fast growth and high-quality meat, characterized by lots of marbling and a thick band of back fat. They are black with white hooves and snouts and large, erect ears. Hagaman grows his animals on pasture. They eat grass and hay, supplemented with grain feed. He has them processed, either at Horst Meats or Hoffman’s Quality Meats in Hagerstown, after six months, when they’ve reached 250 to 300 pounds.
“With their wide backs, a one-inch thick pork chop weighs about 14 ounces,” says Hagaman. “Once I get someone to try my chops, they come back for more.”
After cooking some of them, I understood. I quick-cured and pan-fried them, along with some Mulefoot ham steaks. Both were bold and toothsome. I smoke-roasted one of Dietz-Band’s ham butt roasts (a hind leg) the same way I had prepared the Berkshire loin, to greater effect. The leg took twice as long to cook, so more fat was rendered. When I lifted the grill lid, the ham leg was cross-hatched with black diamonds of crunchy cracklings. A sight to behold.
The roast was so juicy it hardly needed the intense, coffee-colored apple jus its drip pan yielded, along with several cups of rendered, smoky pork fat. This was, in my chef’s eye, a perfect dish.
It had better be, given its $100-plus price tag. (Dietz-Band sells it for $10.99 per pound.) It could easily feed 14 people, but my dinner party wasn’t that big. I was happy to make smoked pork sandwiches the next day and use the bone for soup.
Chunks of Mulefoot pork belly tenderized in stock, then sauteed to crispness and caramelized, became centerpieces of an Asian minestrone.
The Mulefoot and Berkshire meats were lush and luxe, with the latter being perhaps a tad richer. My palate, apparently, isn’t refined enough to discern a huge difference in flavor between the two breeds.
I guess I’ll just have to keep trying.
Hagedorn’s Sourced column appears monthly. He will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.