Oct 25, 2012

Heritage Hogs

No, we do not actually milk these.  We eat these.  We also do our best to see others raise and milk these.  Let me tell you, they make good eatin', too!

Anyone who knows our family, either directly or vicariously through this blog knows that we love history.  When we moved to the farm we began spending time at Barrington Farm at Washington-on-the-Brazos.  Starting our own farm as we were, made looking at farming 1850's style fascinating for us.  Being "accidental farmers" meant that unlike many who move to the country in order to farm or "homestead", we had no idea that there even were such items as heirloom seeds (or that there was a difference) and the idea of heritage breeds of animals was equally new.

We learned that heritage breeds have a lot to commend them.  They are often smaller, as the smaller farms of days gone by had little need or ways of processing the exceptionally large animals that are often produced for commercial use.  They also did not need animals that grew quickly as many methods of curing meat took many months and having animals that reached butchering size quickly meant that food would pile up faster than could be processed--or consumed.  Heritage animals are also usually scrappier, able to thrive on less than ideal circumstances such as drought and limited feed.  They need less intensive care in order to stay healthy and reproduced readily.  The flavor often varies with the feed available by region and growing conditions but regardless, the flavor is usually a more intense, rich flavor, developed over time and without the need to cater to mass consumer markets that usually results in a bland, almost flavorless product.  Health-wise, the fat found in the rich marbling of naturally-raised heritage hogs is  a healthy, monounsaturated fat, free of trans-fats and one of the best dietary sources of vitamin D.

Hardy, largely self-reliant, healthy, delicious...why wouldn't everyone raise heritage stock?

Well, if the goal is to raise large amounts of meat quickly for a commercial market, heritage animals will not do.  They would likely do less well in the confinement agriculture commonly practiced these days--we have found our heritage animals to be too smart to be satisfied with less than their natural instincts!  We are a nation raised on homogeneous tastes, where the goal seems to be to appeal to the less discriminating tastes, giving offense to none.  Hence we have boneless, skinless chicken, designed, it seems, to merely be a canvas for the home chef rather than a taste element in and of itself and it's cousin, pork, "the other white meat".

The consequence of decades of eating white bread, white meat and over-processed milk that always tastes the same, with no characteristics of it's own and one portion is exactly like another means that the heritage breeds have fallen out of favor and, in many cases, risk extinction.

For our family, discovering heritage breeds has been akin to discovering history through living books and primary source documents, experiencing times through learning the songs and culture and clothing of the day as opposed to bland, sanitized textbooks.  To learn that one could own the same kinds of animals as Jefferson and Washington, that we could taste the same kinds of tastes as the pioneers pressing ever further West was intoxicating!  The fact that they would likely prove to have a greater ability to withstand the mistakes of beginning "accidental farmers" was a nice touch.

We got our first Ossabaw Island Hogs from Barrington, where we volunteered as living history interpreters for one gloriously hot summer in hoopskirts and long sleeves.  The hogs that we got from Barrington were grandchildren hogs of the hogs at Mt. Vernon.  Ossabaws are on the American Livestock Breed Conservancy list as being critically endangered.  These hogs are descended from those brought over by Spanish explorers and due to their island home, have remained genetically pure with no interbreeding in the centuries following.   Their rich and fascinating history  mirrors their rich and fascinating taste, and has been chronicled in the book "Pig Perfect" by food critic and chef, Peter Kaminsky.  At first the idea was that we would raise our single female to good size and, well, eat her!  This plan failed, however, when she began rolling over asking for her belly to be rubbed.  Sallie clearly was destined to be a pet, not a porkchop.  A few years later we brought home a male and a female that have been called "Mr" and Mrs".  Mr and Mrs have proven to be prolific breeders and we have been able to sell hogs to chefs and those skilled in the art of charcuterie.  It was not until this fall, however, that we finally bit the bullet and had two of our hogs processed.

And we have been living high on the hog ever since.

We sent two hogs to be butchered, a five month old and one and a half year old, both males, both un-castrated.  The un-castrated part was key.  We had heard that males that were not "cut" would be inedible, would have the dreaded "boar taint".  We had opted to not castrate these boys, primarily because responsibilities of farm and family had ensured that unnecessary and possibly unpleasant tasks would be postponed as long as possible.   We have since learned that there is a great deal of controversy on this issue, with many feeling that boar taint is inhumane, primarily a concern with commercially raised pork and is less a concern for traditionally, humanely raised animals.*  We needed to see the damage done to the meat by this decision prior to selling them for meat.  What we found was...nothing.  If anything, the older boy had more good flavor.  We do not claim to have educated palates in this area.  Basically we are your average, raised on McDonalds and Kraft Singles people trying a better way, not people raised on five star cuisine.  What we found when first preparing the meat was that it had a different smell when cooking than the generic porkchop or loin but not necessarily an offensive smell and the taste?   Unlike the bland, mild pork we grew up with, our boys had meat that tasted more like steak, a richer, deeper taste that carried itself well in pretty much any preparation.  It was wonderful, not only in the satisfaction of knowing that we raised this meat ourselves, but that we had a freezer full of meat that was not raised in confinement, given who-knows-what kind of medications and fed who-knows-what.  Our boys were raised foraging in our woods, clearing our land.  They had never, ever, been medicated in any way and they were primarily on acorns, spent malted barley from a microbrewery and lots and lots of whey and milk from the dairy.  And ample belly scratching.

Why don't more people do this?  Well, smaller hogs like ours take over a year to grow out.  This takes time and more money.  Because they are smaller, they provide less of the desirable cuts for the retail market, such as tenderloin.  Because there are so few of them (less than 200 on the mainland US according to the ALBC) and they take longer to raise out, they will tend to cost more to buy as meat or as a young pig to raise out for family use (although they tend to cost less to actually raise in our experience due to their excellent foraging abilities and need for less intensive management).

Our conclusion is that Ossabaws are the hog for us.  They do fabulously in our woods, they thrive on our goat cheese whey, they have proven to be gentle and docile and they taste great.  Our goal is not just to enjoy them for ourselves, but also to see the breed move from the critically endangered list to a more secure footing.  Although they make great pets, due to their gentle nature, intelligence and smaller size, this does not seem like a reliable way to secure long lasting appreciation of the breed.  Our goal is to develop an appreciation for the Ossabaws as meat, to increase demand which will, in turn, increase their attraction as profitable livestock.

If nothing else, we are assured of not running out of meat anytime soon.

* We are still undecided on the "boar taint" issue.  We want to be the most humane animal owners that we can, however we have found it difficult to sell intact males. The five month old hogs that we currently have for sale are intact.  The six week old boys (also for sale) may well be castrated.  We have the supplies, we are just still fence sitting.

No comments: