A while back I did a post about the glories of the acorn-fed black footed pigs of Spain and the hams and charcuterie that arise from them. Soon after, I received an email from a gentleman named Woody explaining that he was a chestnut farmer/breeder and had recently been raising some pigs on the chestnuts he had been farming. While at this point he is not producing the pigs for sale so I couldn’t buy them, he explained that he would happily give me some for sampling if I was interested and would give him feedback. After entertaining the idea that he might be related to the wine guy at A Voce or some other restaurateur I have been less than nice to, I decided this would be quite an elaborate ruse and that maybe this guy was on the up and up.
Last week, right before my Alba trip, a Styrofoam cooler box filled with dry ice and some pig showed up (so it is worth noting all this meat spent 10 days in my freezer before the tasting). There was a tube of ground pork, a pork liver, an Iowa chop, and some bacon. In the interest of giving good feedback and running this meat through its courses I decided on three tests:
First test – Bacon. For the bacon I went over Pichon’s and did a side by side comparison with what I felt would be a competent competitor. For the other bacon we chose Seriously Good bacon from the guys at the Greenmarket with the Seriously Good Bacon sign.
To be fair, the Seriously Good bacon guys had no idea they were entering a competition, but there was a drastic difference between the two bacons physically. Woody’s bacon was striated with fat while the Seriously Good bacon was more a fat cap next to meat. Both types possessed almost a one to one ratio of meat to fat, the Woody bacon however had its fat spread throughout, while the Seriously Good bacon was more two distinct sides.
We went with two methods of preparation: microwave for its exactness and lack of human error, and pan-frying, because it tastes better. Each preparation was done separately, so as not to commingle flavors. The pan-frying was performed by Pichon in two pans, the microwaving for four minutes at half power in two waves.
I don’t know how much of these results were due to cut and how much were the chestnut raising, but texture does not seem a fair point of comparison. Woody’s won hands down. The fat on the Seriously Good was just getting limber while the meat was already too tough. The Woody pig, however, benefited from its fat being distributed in striations so that crisp was crisp rather than crunchy. This carried even into the tasting – as you chewed the Seriously Good bacon the sensation was of freeing trapped salt from the limber fat, while Woody’s was uniform enough to be perceived as one thing.
As for flavor, in order we preferred the Woody bacon in a frying pan, the Woody bacon in the microwave, the Seriously Good bacon in the microwave, with the Seriously Good bacon in a frying pan bringing up the rear. We tried desperately not to use the word “nutty” to describe the flavor of the Woody bacon. The best alternative we could come up with was when Ringwald noted its faint aromas of roasted winter squash, which did make some sense of the flavor. Sadly, as clichéd as it sounds, the fat of the nut-raised pigs was nutty, wonderfully nutty. Both bacons were salt cured, though the salt notes were far more pronounced in the harder fat of the Seriously Good bacon.
I chose Seriously Good bacon because I love it and wanted as fair a competition as possible. Going in, Pichon absolutely declared he doubted one bacon could be better, or even very different. But side by side I may have designed an unfair competition. Whether we admit it or not, bacon is about fat and the fat of nut-raised pigs just tastes better, more interesting, more complex, more pastoral and in general just more. Hands down the victor of this round was Woody’s bacon.
Second test-was actually an experiment. For the liver I decided we should try to recreate the sofritto Nettasdad made when we roasted the pig in October. I had tasted Nettasdad’s sofritto but was too busy with pig roasting and wine drinking to see him make it. What we had to go on was that awesome old hand Italian cook thing where he mumbled the recipe as: “the liver, the heart, some pork meat, some tomatoes, some garlic, some wine, some peppers oh yea and some peppers.” With this in mind, the gift liver seemed a fair excuse for me to test my hand at some-some-some.
As the garlic started to brown I added the pile of meat and spread it around evenly. I moved it a little too much, I think, because in the long run the meat more grayed then browned. (Next time I will brown the offal first, then the meat).
Once everything was uniformly grayish brown I added some twists of salt, black pepper, and a couple shakes of chili flake.
Then we threw a large fistful of rough-chopped vinegar peppers in and let it simmer for about fifteen minute with about four glugs from a bottle of a California Cabernet Sauvignon we were drinking (‘97 McKenzie Muller to be exact).
The first taste lacked a certain acidic zing so I added a couple more twists of salt, a couple more twists of pepper, a few more shakes of chili flake, and about a quarter cup of the vinegar from the peppers.
Then Pichon remembered that Nettasdad had said tomatoes so we added about a half cup of chopped tomatoes and their liquid and let that cook down for another fifteen minutes. This added a different and sweeter acidity, rounding the dish out nicely.
Was it as good as Nettasdad’s? Who knows? (Like I said, I was Busy drinking and roasting while he made it.) It was very good and I think I can make it better next time. I would happily serve it to friends as well as enemies as was. How much of the credit belongs to Woody’s pig meat and liver? At this point I am willing to split credit, the worst critique we got was “that’s awesome” and that was from a sober person. If I am sure of anything it is that great cooking may cover mediocre ingredients, but just as much when fooling around in the kitchen trying to reproduce someone else’s good results great ingredients will give you a huge amount of leeway which I definitely enjoyed.
Third Test-For the chop I decided to take my hands out of the prep. Not many people make a pork chop so well that the New York Times reviewer dedicates the title of a review and a whole paragraph to explaining how he was close to getting it on every visit to a particular restaurant. Joey Campanaro is such a chef, so I called Little Owl to see if Joey would play along. I asked that he take my chestnut-fed Iowa chop and one of his now famous chops into his kitchen, prepare them identically, and come out and eat them with me and Pichon, not telling us which was which.
I gave the chop to Joey wrapped hoping he would be able to mask from me which was which; sadly this could not happen. So I never saw it uncooked. On the plate, though, Woody’s was a more traditional chop and obviously different from Joey’s very thick one so I decided to turn the tables, cutting them down to bite-sized morsels and presenting them to Joey and one of his waiters blind, both of whom preferred the house chop.
Again, this was an expected outcome. Joey, his recipe, and his chop have come together over time to be a pretty special combination and just throwing Woody’s chop in deprived it a fair evolution. There is no doubt, though, that Chef Campanaro was fair in the kitchen; both chops were the same hue of pink in the middle, the Woody chop a little more succulent and the Joey chop toothier, apparently by nature.
Once the four of us had tasted, the consensus seemed to be:
-- that the fat on the Woody chop scorched on the grill, giving it an acrid note. We figure that this cut may be better suited to roasting or some other longer, lower heat aplication.
-- that the fat in the Woody chop really adopted the fennel and black pepper notes of Joey’s marinade, so much that some bites were a little overpowering, and that the aroma of these lingered far longer with the Woody chop.
So what have we learned? First and foremost, it may be bad to accept candy from strangers, but pork should always be welcome. Second, that a diet of nuts makes for far more interesting pork. I don’t know what it will take for Woody to move from the fooling-around-raising-pigs-on-the-nuts-left-over-after-the-humans-are-taken-care-of phase to the pig-raising phase, but I hope it happens soon. This meat was amazing, seriously reminiscent of the greatest pigs I have had.