Report: A Celebration of Heritage Meats

pigs.bmp“I didn’t know that you needed to saw down the teeth of the males so they didn’t tear into the sows when they 'want it',” admitted Matt Rubiner, Leader of Slow Food Berkshires, as he introduced a panel discussion and tasting of heritage meats held on August 20th at the French Culinary Institute. The gruesome anecdote opened a wide-ranging discussion that ran the gamut from organic farming to the social and gastronomical benefits of raising and eating heritage meats to menu-writing.

The event was put on by Slow Food USA, the American extension of the international movement to preserve and promote regional cuisine and local food products.

Heritage meats are like four-legged versions of the heirloom tomato—old strains of rare breeds that are being cultivated anew by independent farmers using traditional methods, free of hormones and chemical pesticides.

Featured speakers also included Tom Gardner, Director of the New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy, and Garret Oliver, Brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, which provided bottles of its Octoberfest during the tasting. Mr. Oliver waxed, "I'm old enough to remember when pork gravy was like crack!"

The star of the show was farmer Dominic Palumbo, who raises Large Black pigs at the Moon in the Pond Farm in the Berkshires, Massachusetts. Mr. Palumbo first started working to save the “Large Blacks” (as he called them) seven years ago.

The Large Black breed is over 100 years old, developed in England from a combination of regional pigs with French and Chinese derivation. The pigs are omnivorous, eating roots, vegetation, bugs, grubs, and the “occasional chipmunk,” said Mr. Palumbo. On his farm, they also are fed grain, milk, and “garden slop.” The diet includes a heavy dose of minerals from the dirt which the pigs habitually dig through to find food. At six months, they grow to 200 to 250 pounds and can reach a full weight of near 1,000 pounds. They range free, foraging for food. “They need to root, dig, and wallow,” Mr. Palumbo explained. The result of all this, Mr. Palumbo pledged, was great tasting meat that is nothing like the commercially raised pork produced on industrial farms. [for an excellent discussion of the health and environmental issues involved in commercially-raised beef, see Michael Pollan's 2002 article from the New York Times Magazine]

The discussion lasted for about an hour before the tasting began. It was eight o’clock by this time, and although my stomach was starting to rumble, all of the talk about live animals, pictures of cute pigs, as well as the speakers' frequent semantic slips between using preferred words like “harvesting” into un-pc ones like “slaughtering” started to dampen my appetite. Luckily, an excellent Baltus beer from New Jersey, offered up before the speeches started, relaxed my mood, and any latent vegetarian tendencies (I have been a meat-eater all my life) were quickly beaten back with the arrival of food.

Dan Barber, Chef and Co-owner of Blue Hill, presided over the tasting menu of a Large Black, which included sausage, braised belly, and roasted shoulder.

The sausage was made completely from meat from the head of the pig, simmered in a spiced stock. “We don’t use the eyes,” Mr. Barber noted, which was comforting. We were each given a small slice on a toast round. The flavor was very mild, but what was unusual was how incredibly tender the meat was.

The shoulder was excellent—rich and extremely moist, but the surprise was the belly, almost entirely composed of fat. Both were dry cured with spices for one to two days. Mr. Barber apologized for the fact that some of the pieces of belly coming out of the kitchen were just fat and that others had a more marbled composition of meat and fat. "That’s the nature of heritage meats," he declared. "You’re not going to have a uniform product."

I took a bite of the opaque hunk of glistening belly, which did not look particularly appetizing. But the taste and texture were like nothing I had ever had. The cut was incredibly creamy, with a distinctly nutty flavor. There was no greasy sensation whatsoever, and one of the panelists even claimed that the belly was a “healthful fat” because it included many free radicals and nutrients. The sensation of eating the belly was in such a contrast to its unpalatable physical appearance that I can only compare it to the experience of eating an oyster for the first time.

From Politics to Purchasing
As the evening winded down, a brief debate focused on what some in the audience called the federal government’s “co-opting” of the organic movement. Many farmers who pioneered the organic movement before Washington began to regulate organic farming are now feeling left out and even reject the official organic label. “What we need is a nomenclature,” opined one audience member, to identify those farmers like Mr. Palumbo.

From the political to the mundane, the event concluded with a basic, but confounding, question: Where can you get this stuff? The consensus on the panel was that the only place to find heritage pork was at the Greenmarket at Union Square (most likely frozen before shipping). "But what if I want a pork chop on Thursday" (when the Greenmarket is closed), one man objected.

"Well, you might need to just adjust your schedule and wait until Friday when it's open," offered Chef Barber. "That's why they call it 'slow food'," Mr. Rubiner chimed in, to laughs.

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In addition to Large Black pigs, Mr. Palumbo also raises Jersey Dairy cows, Scottish Highland beef cattle, Dorset sheep, Lineback oxen, Pilgrim geese, Narragansett turkeys, King pigeons, and chickens. Personal tours of the Moon in the Pond Farm can be arranged by appointment. For a reservation, call 413-229-3092. Meats are available on a seasonable basis. Bring a picnic cooler to take them home.

[For more reading about pork and pig farming, see the 8/12 post at Saute Wednesday].