Heirloom produce and meats are showing up more and more on menus, but do you really know what it means when they tout Anson Mills Grits or Caw Caw Creek pork? In the food world, marketing terms tend to be overused and rendered meaningless (Angus beef anybody?), but when it comes to heirloom varieties, the name is so much more than a brand — it's a guarantee of history and quality. Here are some of the names you'll come across on Lowcountry menus and an explanation of what they mean.
Anson Mills Grits
In 1998, Glenn Roberts took it upon himself to recreate the taste of the old South. With the intention of growing, harvesting, and milling different grains and corn facing extinction, he started Anson Mills in a metal warehouse outside of Columbia. His whole endeavor began with grits. Once he found the famous Carolina Gourdseed white, a strain of corn dating back to the 1600s, Roberts became hooked on providing people with the ingredients necessary to make nutritionally sound grits, high in minerals, with the same creamy fill-your-mouth feel. Anson Mills now offers a variety of 100 percent organic grits like Antebellum Coarse, Rosebank Gold, and Whole Carolina Hominy made only from heirloom corn. A number of restaurants around the country have taken note of Roberts' endeavors, but you can still find his grits all around Charleston at places like Virginia's on King and High Cotton.
Legare Farms and River Run Farms Heirloom Beef
All the cows raised on Legare Farms on Johns Island are direct descendants of the eight generations of cattle that have grazed on the farm since it began in 1725. Each year, they reserve a few of their best steers for breeding to keep producing the most tender, top-quality beef. Their Angus and Herford cattle are grain-fed and always hormone and antibiotic-free.
Another local farm producing heirloom beef is River Run Farms. Although their cows may not have as impressive a family tree as Legare, River Run Farms stays true to the health conscious principles behind heirloom farming by giving their English Herford cows only grass feed. Owner Ray Oliver raises his cows the way nature intended. By giving his calves grass from the first day they are born, the cows at River Run Farms render meat that has 27 percent less fat than regular beef and is rich in essential Omega-3 and linoleic fatty acids.
If there is one piece of heirloom produce that has really taken off, it's the tomato. A handful of farms, like Joseph Fields Farms, are growing these funky looking fruits. Thackery Farms on Wadmalaw Island has even begun supplying their tomatoes to Whole Foods in Mt. Pleasant. Coming in an array of colors and sizes, each heirloom tomato looks different from the next and there are over 10,000 varieties; the Purple Cherokee and Goose Creek are among the few varieties native to the Southeast. With exceptionally thin skin and inconsistent growth patterns that cause cracking, a term known in the field as "cat-facing," producing and shipping these suckers is no easy task. According to Rita Bachmann of Rita's Roots, a small organic farm working out of Ambrose Family Farms, for every good tomato she harvests, there are about seven bad ones (hence the reason why they sell for about five dollars a pound). These pedigrees with personality may slightly resemble tumors with spider veins, but it's what's inside that really counts. Once you get a bite of these complex and juicy tomatoes, you'll understand that you get what you pay for.
James Island Red (a.k.a. Jimmy Red) Corn
Glenn Roberts and Sean Brock, executive chef of McCrady's, made a joint effort to preserve this endangered strain of corn local to the Charleston area. Due to the dangers of cross-pollination (a threat to all heirloom species) and the over-harvesting of Lowcountry soil for ethanol, Jimmy Red was facing extinction. Ted Chewning was single handedly responsible for keeping this native corn alive. True to heirloom tradition, Brock handed down some seeds to Bachmann, who is currently growing the corn that makes excellent red grits. After Brock saves the best kernels from his harvest to plant next year, he plans to use Jimmy Red at McCrady's.
Split Creek Farm
Split Creek Farm has been providing fresh goat milk products for three decades. Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Anderson, the farmers at Split Creek care for their award-winning Nubian goats with the same care and attention to detail as any heirloom producer. Nubians are known for their exceptionally high quality butterfat milk content, yet produce less cholesterol than dairy from a cow. Split Creek is also a self-sufficient farm. What started as three goats on a plot of grass has gradually grown over the years to support 750 goats. From feta, chevre logs, goat milk soap, and delicious goat cheese fudge, Split Creek farm is locally recognized for their handmade, artisanal quality.
Caw Caw Creek Heirloom Pork
Caw Caw Creek, a 90-acre farm near St. Matthews, S.C., has gone back to traditional methods of agriculture. Caw Caw Creek only cultivates rare breeds of pigs like the Spotted Poland China, Duroc, Large Black Breed, and Ossabaw Island Pig, a breed whose ancestors were brought to Ossabaw Island, Ga., by Spanish explorers over 400 years ago. These endangered animals, which are not only delicious to eat but beautiful to look at, are fed a diet of green peas, peanuts, acorns, hickory nuts, and Anson Mills grains. As the only certified humane farm and slaughterhouse in South Carolina, the pigs are allowed to roam freely in a naturally managed wild setting and "harvested" as peacefully as possible. What results from that tender loving care is stress-free red pork filled with intramuscular fat that provides a vehicle for the tastes and nutrients of the interesting food they eat.
"Our pork is succulent," says owner Emile DeFelice. "Where regular pork is a single note, ours strikes a chord."
You can try Caw Caw Creek pork at restaurants like FIG, McCrady's, and Carolina's.
Owl's Nest Plantation
With 95 percent of the fruits and vegetables they grow from heirloom varieties, the Owl's Nest Plantation in Cross, S.C., deserves a category of its own. Featuring Brown Turkey figs, Bulls Blood beets, Long Island Cheese squashes, Atomic Red carrots, and Edisto 47 melons, to name a few, this farm produces more strains of heirlooms than anywhere else we found in the area.
Owl's Nest Plantation owner David Howe says he grows heirlooms because he believes in the freedom of seeds. Because patented seeds are illegal for independent farmers to grow and sell, seeds have to be passed down from generation to generation or from seed exchanges. Baker's Creek is the seed catalogue Howe most frequents.
Heirloom products are less disease resistant and need to be grown in stable environments in modest sizes to ensure genetic homogeneity. Another technique called companion farming, in which different plants are strategically grown around each other, is also necessary in some cases to make sure the crops yield properly. "The flavors are more diverse than anyone expects," says Roberts. "Local farming is driven by flavor. It is worth all the trouble. With single variety items, people just start showing up. It is a magnetic attraction to taste the difference."
Due to the industrialization of agriculture, very few varieties of quality products are available on a wide scale. Without local heirloom farmers, diverse and nutritious food would disappear forever. So if you see any of these names, you know you're eating something special. It's the taste of a tradition.