A year ago, Heath Putman was just a foodie with a serious hankering for the kind of pork he’d tasted in Hungary. Today, he’s raising an unusual breed of wooly pigs known for their fat and flavor and selling them to respected restaurants, including Napa Valley’s famed French Laundry.
He’s as surprised about it as anyone. “I’m not a farm person at all,” he says, throwing peanuts to a knot of Mangalitsa hogs rooting in a field just west of Spokane. He’s quickly had to become one in the past year as he and his wife settled on plans to import and raise Mangalitsa pigs from Austria.
The UC Berkeley graduate was working at a German bank where he wrote software for pricing and managing financial derivatives when he burned out and bailed. He and his wife, Zuzana, were traveling in Hungary when they tasted the sausage that would turn them into gourmet pig entrepreneurs.
While in Hungary, the couple stopped at the Pick museum. The Pick Company is famous in central Europe for the salami it has been making since 1869. While they were there, they tasted the most expensive salami in the store, the mangalica szalami.
They were surprised at the meaty and sweet flavor of the sausage. After returning to the U.S. they did their own taste test with the best salami they could buy.
“The American stuff, even the best American pork, just seemed really awful in comparison,” Putnam says.
That taste launched Putnam’s research into the Mangalitsa and, eventually, his new business called Wooly Pigs.
To food lovers, the Mangalitsa, or Wollschwien in German, could be considered something akin to the heirloom tomato of the pig world. The breed is a close descendent of wild boar and is prized for its lard.
These pigs look it. They’re not the smooth pink spring piggies of “Charlotte’s Web” fame. Dark wiry hair covers the hogs from ear to tail. On a sunny, crisp fall morning they use their sturdy snouts to tear up roots in a frost-touched pea and barley field. The largest hogs are huge – some closing in on 500 pounds – with jowls that promise the kind of lard that would make haute cuisine lovers swoon.
They’ve overturned every rock they could manage to move at the Rocky Ridge Ranch in Reardan, where the Putnams are raising the animals with the help of ranch owners Gary and So Angell.
“These pigs still have the genetics to make it on mostly forage,” says Gary Angell.
Pigs in the United States are classified as lard, bacon or meat hogs, according to “Bruce Aidell’s Complete Book of Pork.”
“Lard pigs, chubby creatures fed on a diet consisting mainly of corn, have a high proportion of back fat. Bacon pigs are bred to have long bodies with quite a bit of belly meat and little back fat. Meat pigs, developed for the American market in the 1930s, have large muscles, big hams and a moderate ratio of fat to lean,” Aidell writes.
After World War II, lard fell out of favor as the culinary fat of choice as consumers switched to vegetable fats such as Crisco. Lard-type pigs all but disappeared from the market. Putnam said he found very little information in English about Mangalitsas and details about how to raise them for the best fat and meat quality.
He and Zuzana returned to Europe, visiting farm after farm in Austria, where they learned as much as they could about the Mangalitsa pigs, quizzing farmers on how they were fed, bred, housed, killed, cooked and cured. They tasted the pork cooked by the farmers, their families and at Austria’s finest restaurant, Zum Weissen Rauchfangkehrer (literally “At the White Chimneysweep’s”), where Chef Manfred Stockner prepared several courses from Mangalitsa meat, including an appetizer featuring stark white whipped lard and his Hungarian salami.
“We ate a tremendous amount of pork, in all of its different permutations,” Putnam says.
The Putnams learned that the Mangalitsas are fed primarily barley, as opposed to corn, which is used to fatten hogs in the United States. They couldn’t find anyone in the United States or Canada raising the animals.
The meat compares to the famed Iberico pigs of Spain and Portugal, fattened on acorns, Putnam says.
As the Putnams settled on plans to import and raise Mangalitsas, they also decided to work with the Angells to raise them. They’d met the couple at the local farmers’ market after moving to Spokane. At the time, Putnam says he wasn’t eating much meat at all because he was having a hard time finding animals raised on sustainable farms.
“I’m a very fussy eater, and I really care about what I eat,” Putnam says. “I won’t buy the store stuff.”
After tasting the Angell’s grass-fed, natural beef and visiting the farm, he knew it would be a good place for the pigs.
“There was no point in importing these pigs and then raising them badly. The whole point is to go for the highest-quality meat,” Putnam says. “(Gary) really likes the idea that you can raise these animals in a sustainable, very low input way.”
With the accommodations settled, Putnam imported 29 Mangalitsas from Austria under the interim United States Department of Agriculture regulations. Since then, imports of such pigs have been banned. The animals arrived at the USDA quarantine in New York last spring, and that’s when things got wild for the fledgling pig farmers.
Putnam says they expected the animals to have to remain in quarantine for 60 days, but after four pigs tested positive for bovine tuberculosis, those animals had to be killed. The quarantine time for the remaining Mangalitsas was extended to watch for signs of disease.
In the meantime, the sows that had been bred in Austria began to give birth in quarantine. By the time they were ready to be trucked to Washington from the quarantine facility, Putnam’s enterprise had already expanded to 25 adult pigs and 60 piglets. Two more Mangalitsas gave birth to their piglets on the truck.
Despite the wild start, the animals arrived in Reardan in August in good shape. They ended up with the 25 adults and 80 piglets, including two boars the Putnams named Hans and Franz. At the farm he points out the boars and talks casually about their breeding efforts. Franz, it seems, has a high libido and has taken quickly to his role. They are cross breeding the Mangalitsas with Berkshire hogs, which Wooly Pigs is also raising. Berkshire hogs were imported to the United States from England and are known for their flavor and marbling.
Hans, however, is a bit of a “girly man,” Putnam says, although they’re holding out hope he’s saving his charms for the ladies in the dark of night.
“It’s very strange to have a business where all of this reproduction stuff is dollars and cents,” Putnam says.
Not only has Putnam had a crash course in importing and farming, he’s also had to create a market for his unusual hogs.
He approached chefs at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s famous Yountville, Calif., restaurant, with news of his animals. Keller is regarded as one of America’s best chefs and the Michelin Guide has given Keller’s restaurants, the French Laundry and Per Se, both three-star ratings. He is the first and only American born chef to have that honor since the Michelin Guide was established in 1900.
After taking a look at the Wooly Pigs Web site, chefs there agreed to buy two Berkshire hogs and a Mangalitsa. In an e-mail message to Putnam, French Laundry sous chef Devin Knell said they were happy with the animals they recently received.
“The Mangalitsa had fantastic flavor and fat development for being such a young animal,” he writes. “The Berkshires were great as well… really beautiful hams with a great cushion of fat. I can’t wait to taste the finished product.”
Here’s what they made, according to Knell, which will be served at the French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon: lardo (cured back fat), guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon made with pork cheeks or jowls), rosette de Lyon (French-style cured sausage), truffled cervella (brains), saucisson a l’ail (garlic sausage), bauchspeck (air-cured pig belly), cured and confit hearts, rendered lard, cicharon (fried pork skin) and a variation of French country-style pate and loin and sirloin roasts.
Wooly Pigs recently sold animals to five Seattle-area restaurants including The Herbfarm, Lark, Le Gourmand, Stumbling Goat, and Sitka and Spruce.
Chef Kevin Gillespie at Luna and Chef Adam Hegsted at Brix in Coeur d’Alene have purchased Berkshire hogs from Wooly Pigs.
Hegested says he’s always happy to find a locally raised animal for the restaurant. He’ll be featuring the Berkshire hog he’s ordered on his tasting menu.
“I like to get a product that someone invests a passion into. It shows in the final product. To get a chicken that tastes like chicken and pork that tastes like pork seems like it would be an easy task, but it takes people that care,” Hegsted says. “The Berkshire pig is the equivalent of Kobe beef in the pork world. It has an exquisite taste and texture with wonderful marbling.”
Wooly Pigs also is selling meat from its animals, including whole or half pigs and some smaller retail packages. The price of the meat depends on the weight of the animal and slaughter, butchering and processing costs.
The retail packages will include some loin, bacon, ham, sausage, ribs and assorted items such as hocks and bones. A 10-pound package will cost $49, 20-pounds for $89 and 50 pounds for $219.
For more information or to place an order, contact Putnam at Wooly Pigs, (509) 536-4083, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This recipe from “Bruce Aidell’s Complete Book of Pork” is not haute cuisine, but it’s a delicious winter dish for pork.
He writes: “I first came across pasta with radicchio in Friuli, the northeastern region of Italy that borders Austria and the former Yugoslavia … This area has a hearty cooking style influenced by its Slavic neighbors. Some versions of this combination had only radicchio and a bit of guanciale (cured pork cheeks) and sauce, while others added pork and/or sausages. Even without the pork cheeks the sauce is quite flavorful and makes a great topping for pasta. The orange juice in the recipe adds a subtle fruitness that complements both the pork and the tomatoes, but if it’s too weird or untraditional for you then omit it and replace it with white wine or water.”
Braised Pork Cheeks with Pappardelle and Radicchio
From “Bruice Aidell’s Complete Book of Pork”
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound pork cheeks (see notes) or 1 pound boneless country-style spareribs, cut into 1-inch cubes
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup diced pancetta
1/4 cup diced dry coppa or prosciutto
1 cup chopped onions
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped carrot
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 cups fruity wine, such as sauvignon blanc or Friuli Tokai
1 cup orange juice
1 cup Dark Pork Stock (recipe follows), homemade chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup canned diced Italian tomatoes
6 whole sage leaves
2 cups sliced radicchio (see notes)
1 pound fresh pappardelle, or other wide egg noodle
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Heat the olive oil in a large casserole or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the pork with salt and pepper. Put the pork cheeks in the pot and cook until browned on all sides, about 6 minutes. Transfer cheeks to a plate and set aside.
Add the pancetta to the pot and cook until it begins to color. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat and save to use for cooking the radicchio. Add the coppa, onions, celery, carrot and garlic. Lower the heat to medium, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes. Add the reserved cheeks, wine, orange juice, stock, tomatoes and sage leaves.
Increase the heat to high and bring the liquid to a boil, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cover the pan and transfer to the oven. Bake until the cheeks are very tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or longer. Transfer the pork to a plate and set aside.
At this point, you can continue with the recipe or cool the pork and sauce separately and refrigerate them for up to 2 days. Rewarm before serving. About 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve the dish, bring a large pot of water to a boil to cook the pasta.
Skim of and discard the fat on the surface of the sauce. Reduce the liquid in the pot over high heat until syrupy. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the reserved pancetta fat over medium-high heat.
Add the radicchio and cook, stirring frequently until wilted, about 4 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of the sauce and cook 1 minute or until the radicchio is tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.
Shred or chop the pork cheeks into 1/2-inch pieces. (Reheat the meat first if it has been refrigerated.) This step is not necessary if you have used country ribs.
Put the papardelle in the boiling water and cook until just tender. Drain. In a large heated bowl, toss the pasta, pork, radicchio and enough of the braising sauce to moisten the noodles sufficiently. Sprinkle with the cheese and serve.
Notes: Save any extra sauce to serve over pasta – its expecially good with ravioli or cook up a sausage or two, slice and add it to the leftover sauce.
Pork cheeks, because they have lots of collagen, become quite tender and silky when cooked with slow, moist heat. If you can’t find pork cheeks, then boneless country-style ribs or Boston butt are good substitutes. You may need to decrease the cooking time to 1 to 1 1/2 hours because they become tender more quickly.
Instead of radicchio, you can use Savoy cabbage or kale.
Yield: 4 servings, with lots of leftover sauce
Nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.
Dark Pork Stock
From “Bruice Aidell’s Complete Book of Pork”
4 pounds pork shanks, sawed into large pieces, or 4 pounds neck bones or a combination of any meaty bones
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large yellow onion, unpeeled and quartered
1 celery stalk, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 large carrot, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.
Put the pork shank bones in a large roasting pan and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Put the pan in the preheated oven and roast until the pork is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Turn the bones once or twice so that they brown evenly.
Transfer the pork to a large soup or stock pot and add water to cover them by about 2 inches. Drain and discard the fat from the roasting pan, then put the pan over medium heat. Add 1 cup water and scrape up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Add this deglazing liquid to the stock pot. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Skim and discard the fat and foam that rises to the surface. Add the onion, celery, carrot, bay leaf and thyme sprigs to the pot and continue to simmer for 2 hours, adding additional water as necessary to keep the pork covered.
Strain the stock through a fine mesh sieve into a large storage container; discard the solids. Set the stock aside to cool completely, cover and refrigerate for 5 days or freeze for up to 3 months.
Yield: About 6 cups