One day, a couple years back out on Wadmalaw Island, after a big afternoon meal at the Wadmalaw Supper Club, McCrady's Chef Sean Brock foreshadowed the coming pork revolution of the Lowcountry. The dinner that Wednesday at the "club," an informal weekly gathering of old salts and farmers at Shawn Thackeray's farm, was a sprawling feast of heritage pork and fresh Thackeray Farms heirloom tomatoes.
After supper, Brock grabbed the nearest food writer and took him careening down a dirt road in a pick-up truck, loaded with a few gallons of souring milk, a six pack of beer, and numerous buckets of organic kitchen waste. Squealing out the open window, Brock ground to a halt in front of a low electric wire fence and jumped out of the truck. He was quickly surrounded by piglets. They were crosses of Yorkshire and Duroc, and as he dumped vegetable scraps into a pile that was eagerly devoured, it was clear that Charleston's food world was changing.
Brock doted on those pigs like a fawning grandma over the young'uns and then promptly described the delicious sausages and hams he'd make out of them when they grew up to meet the business end of a cleaver.
There is the kind of pork that you buy in the grocery store, raised in horrid containment facilities, and then there is heritage pork, old varieties bred for flavor and resilience rather than economy and yield. One bite will be all you need to know the considerable difference.
"The first time I realized there was a difference," says Brock, "was when the Berkshire craze first started back in 2000, 1999. That's a beautiful pig. One of my favorites."
The Berkshire is laced with intramuscular marbling. All of that fat makes for great flavor and, when well-raised, the Berkshire is often noted to possess a nutty flavor. It's a standby on local menus, where cured artisan pork has gone from illicit handoffs and shadowy back-room operations to a full-blown trend, inspected, well-regulated, and headlining events around the country like Cochon 555 and Primal.
Since the Berkshire renaissance a decade ago, antiquated porkers have made quite the comeback, and by now local diners will recognize quite a few of the more popular monikers — Tamworth, Kurobuta (the Japanese name for Berkshire), Ossabaw. They accent dish descriptions at high-end restaurants as commonly as local farms are now attached to the produce they grow.
"The heritage breeds have more characteristics and flavorful fat," says Cypress Chef Craig Deihl, an avid butcher and charcuterie artisan. "If you start with a better product, you'll end up with a better product. And that goes for any cooking process."
A dozen years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find anything but "the other white meat" in Charleston. Factory pork was the norm, and pigs were bred for economy and low fat, which, as all foodies know, is a recipe for blah.
"Just like we engineered tomatoes to become a tasteless plant, we did the same thing with breeds of livestock," says Brock. "We've domesticated and engineered it to what we've got today: these enormous animals. Some are 900 pounds. Heirloom breeds take longer to grow, almost twice as much time."
Slow-growing heritage pigs have their own characteristics, which lend themselves to different degrees of tenderness and unique flavor. "The Berkshire pig is a better pork chop, but a Tamworth is better for bacon and belly," says Deihl. "And Tamworth hams have turned out better than any other ham flavor-wise. Do I know why? Not necessarily, but I know that what the farmers raise and what they feed them define the characteristics of those breeds."
Local farmers looking to diversify small farms have found heirloom pigs to be capable and delicious partners in the agricultural enterprise. Grá Moore started raising Berkshires about 10 years ago on his land in Pamplico, S.C., but decided to change his focus to an heirloom breed that needed help. And he found that breed in the Carolina Guinea Hog, which is on American Livestock Breed Conservancy's critical list along with the Choctaw, Ossabaw, and Red Wattle, among others.
The Guinea Hog is small, about the size of a lamb, and is therefore easier to handle in the kitchen. Legend has it that the original stock came over from West Africa with the slave trade and then were interbred with English varieties that came down with Appalachian settlers. The resulting pigs were highly adaptable to small homesteads and could forage for their own food and clear the yard of snakes and rodents, making them a favorite backcountry breed. As with all of these types of pigs, they fell out of favor when industrial agriculture swept the 20th century and are only now beginning to be rediscovered and saved from extinction.
"I thought it would be a good fit being as I was in the South on a small farm," says Moore. "Six years ago, Guinea Hogs were even more rare than they are now." Moore started raising them for breeding stock and decided earlier this year he had enough in his herd to sell them to restaurants. His pork made its local debut at a Slow Food dinner at Cypress last February.
"That dinner in Charleston really catapulted an interest in them," says Moore.
"What he's doing is pretty special," says Deihl. "And we want to keep his product staying pretty special. The chefs that use it have to understand that there is so much fat that they shouldn't buy a Guinea Hog if they're not going to use the fat."
But for chefs like Deihl and Brock who do use the entire hog and make their own sausages, pâtés, and terrines, the Guinea Hog has all the right characteristics. "It's really beautiful," says Brock. "It's really my favorite pig right now. [Moore] is a great grower who is really passionate about growing pigs and corn."
These days, heirloom hogs are rotated onto harvested fields, providing natural tillage and manuring and also producing fine sides of bacon. In the winter, these hogs can be let loose in woodland forests, where, according to research done by professor Charles Talbott at North Carolina A&T, they help to sustainably manage the forest understory.
"I have two acres of woods with acorns and persimmons," says Moore, "and an acre field where I plant peas and corn and I feed them off of that. In winter, I plant winter peas and turnips and oats. I supplement with corn grown on my father's farm. I get pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and peanuts from nearby farms. Once in a while, I'll have to feed them commercial pellet feed — with no antibiotics — but 90 percent of what they get is grown locally."
Chefs and farmers swear that what the pigs eat inform their flavor. Brock is currently working with a pig from Oregon that is fed hazelnuts during its last 90 days, which gives the meat an amazingly nutty flavor. Moore says his pigs have a nuttier, richer taste because of their diet of acorns and peanuts. "Certain things you feed them do influence the taste," he says. "Corn is one of the worst. And fat from pigs fed on corn is proven to be bad for you, while fat from pigs fed acorns and nuts and alfalfa hay has the consistency of olive oil."
The challenge for chefs is not only getting their hands on these fat little pigs — high demand and slow growing rates mean heritage breeds can be hard to find and expensive to buy — but educating the public about their importance.
"The Ossabaw tells a great story," says Brock. "It's the most genuine and pure form of pork, period. That's the way pigs are supposed to look. The difference is almost like the difference between an heirloom tomato and a tomato you'd find on a sandwich at Wendy's."
The Ossabaw might be the most delicious of the bunch too. A freak of nature, its history as a feral occupant of its namesake Georgia Sea Island created some very interesting characteristics. Because of a unique climate that limited access to food for part of the year, the Ossabaw developed a natural form of insulin resistance that enabled it to store huge (and we mean Kobe-beef huge) amounts of intramuscular fat. After being discovered by diabetes researchers at the University of Georgia, it didn't take long for someone to figure out that all that fat made for some tasty chops. You can order your own Ossabaw (for a pretty penny) from Emile DeFelice, who raises them at Caw Caw Creek farm in St. Matthews.
"To me, Ossabaw is the real pig," says Brock. "That's what pigs are supposed to look like and taste like."
The fatback on an Ossabaw is no joke. "That fat is outrageous," says Brock, who sprinkles it in herbs and spices and buries it in a Pappy Van Winkle whiskey barrel for a year of curing. "It's like candy."
But that fat can also be a challenge when it comes to selling it on a menu. "If I put [a Guinea Hog pork chop] on a menu and try to sell it," says Deihl, "I'm going to get a common complaint: It's too fatty. But that's the nature of it. That's what makes it a better pork chop and tender, moist, and juicy. You're not going to get that on a market hog unless you raise it to a considerable size, but then it won't be tender."
Currently, there are a handful of hog farmers growing heritage breeds around the state, but advocates are working hard to foster growth in the agribusiness industry. The Coastal Conservation League, in addition to creating a central market on Morrison Drive for local farm products, is planning to construct a mobile abattoir within the next year, bringing a USDA-inspected slaughtering process within reach of even the smallest farmers.
The Lowcountry Local First's Growing New Farmers Incubator Program also promises to inject new blood into the industry, training people to be agricultural entrepreneurs, which might just give local food production a fighting chance. In a place where the average farmer is approaching the age of retirement, renewed culinary interest often creates more demand than supply.
For chefs, finding a continuous source of heritage pigs can be a challenge. Moore currently has a small herd, and Keegan-Filion Farm in Walterboro has 19 sows and is trying to get the breeding herd up to 25.
"Heritage hogs have a smaller litter than conventional," says farmer Marc Keegan. "We're getting eight to nine pigs per sow. Our litter size is smaller, so I need to run a larger herd."
The sows also hold onto the piglets for a couple weeks longer, which increases the time it takes to get a pig. At Keegan-Filion, a scorching hot summer impacted breeding this year, with the boars not performing as well in August and his sows going into heat all at once. That means Keegan has 80 pigs right now that won't be ready until January or February, a notoriously slow time of year for area restaurants.
The Tamworths that the Keegans raise in Walterboro show up frequently on menus at plenty of local restaurants including High Cotton, the Glass Onion, Monza, and Carolina's. The Tamworth is a baconer. An old English/Irish breed, it is the leanest of the heritage hogs, producing a fine textured meat and a very thick side that makes excellent bacon and pancetta. Its red coat helps prevent sunburn, and good mothering instincts make it a prolific breeder. The lean meat provides good chops, and its robust size means there's lots of it.
"Our customers love the quality of the meat," says Keegan. "It's redder, not like the 'other white meat.' It has actual fat that marbles through the meat, and more marbling means a better quality piece of meat."
Former Muse chef Jason Houser is using Tamworths to make some rather extraordinary bacon and sausage every week at his Meathouse Farmers Market booth. He gets his weekly hog delivery from Steve Ellis at Bethel Trails Farm in Gray Court, S.C.
"I like full-blooded Tamworth," says Houser. "Their bellies' fat-to-meat ratio is perfect for my bacon, and I find the marbling in their loins to be great as well."
To diversify his offerings (and stock his larder), Deihl looks to a variety of farmers. Recently, he bought a Red Wattle from Brick House Farms in Gaffney, S.C., where this critical breed is being raised big and fat. "It had three inches of back fat at 375 pounds," says Deihl. "It was just so much fat."
Deihl has recently bought some barley-fed pigs from Eden Farms in Iowa and is always anxious to get his hands on one of Moore's Guinea Hogs and Keegan-Filion's Tamworths.
Brock also sources pigs from around the country and works closely with farmer Bev Eggleston, a friend from his home state of Virginia who runs Eco-Friendly Foods, raising Ossabaw/Berkshire pigs and supplying much of New York City with heritage pork. The batch of piglets Brock raised on Wadmalaw are currently hanging in the curing closets, and the chef has moved on to his next project: creating his own crossbreed.
"The Brockawattabaw is what we're thinking so far. We haven't even started the process, all the contractual phases, where are we going to put them. It's going to take a while, but it will have genetics of Red Wattle, Berkshire, Ossabaw, and Duroc. Those are all my favorite pigs, and it's different what I like about each one. The muscle-to-fat ratio, the size of shoulders, meat on the belly, meat on the head, the trotters."
For Brock, breeding his own cross is more than a vanity project to supply his restaurant. It's a mission to save these breeds from extinction. "If nobody wants these pigs, then the breed just fades away," he says. "The Ossabaw is a 500-year-old breed. We can't let them fade away. They tell an incredible story of American history. We can't let that pig die."
A Taste of Heritage
Pork dishes you can sink your teeth into
Caw Caw Creek Suckling Pig Confit at FIG
232 Meeting St. (843) 805-5900
Chef Mike Lata gets a baby Spotted Poland China from Emile DeFelice's Caw Caw Creek and then makes a confit out of the little bugger and serves the succulent meat with sautéed young greens, roasted beets, mustard jus, and smoked bacon. It's a taste of pure heritage pork. Lata also does amazing things with pig trotters from Caw Caw Creek, crisping them up into a small cake that's topped with a sunny-side-up farm egg and a marinated heirloom pepper.
Porktoberfest at Cypress
167 East Bay St. (843) 727-0111
A Pennsylvania boy, Craig Deihl has been working on a classic pork and sauerkraut dish just in time for cooler temps. The Porktoberfest menu will replace the pork schnitzel with housemade bratwurst, smoked bacon, and hams that have been curing for several months. "We're taking hams we've saved up and putting a quick smoke on them and then braising them in sauerkraut with beer, mustard, carroway, and juniper." Of course, you won't want to pass up the charcuterie platter at Cypress, which is where you will find much of the fat from those Guinea Hogs.
Duo of Pork at McCrady's
2 Unity Alley. (843) 577-0025
Pork shows up on lots of plates at McCrady's, from the bar snack offerings to the chef's tasting to the market fresh menu. A classic way to experience chef Sean Brock's love of pork is with the duo. It's usually pork belly paired with pork shoulder confit, which has been slow cooked in lard and then seared before it goes on the plate. You can also find terrines made from tails and trotters, which should not be missed.
Bacon at Meathouse
Charleston Farmers Market. Marion Square.
Jason Houser makes all types of sausages and even sells chops and shoulders from the Tamworth pigs he butchers. But it's the bacon you should try. Smoky and fatty, it's the ideal of the form. Houser's at the Charleston Farmers Market every Saturday from 8 a.m.-2 p.m., but the bacon usually sells out fast, so get there early.