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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Mighty Fine Swine

"Society" frowns upon beastiality, and with good reason. It's hard enough handling the usual nutjobs on the subway, but what if I had to share a seat with goat-woman or llama-man? Sure, I'd try not to stare. Maybe pretend not to notice the smell. And even offer directions to Times Square (when asked). But dollars to donuts, I'd be itching for the nearest exit.

That being said, some animals are hard to resist. Tops on the list? The fine swine sold by Flying Pigs Farm.

Let me back up a bit, about 2 years, to a fresh summer day. I was sipping lemonade, listening to that Jazzy Jay song and watching the world go by, when lo and behold Ms. Slab came home... with a pound of bacon. Yes, good reader, everything was coming up Slab.

Then I looked a little closer: 12$ a pound?! Adjusted for inflation, that's almost $12.74 in 2006 dollars... or 1/3 of what I sold my car for. Could any bacon justify this price? I fried up a slice to find out. And another. And another and another. And then I asked Ms. Slab where she found such ridiculously good stuff. Her answer? Flying Pigs. And so our story begins in earnest.

Flying Pigs may well have the tastiest bacon I've ever eaten. It is my most enjoyable splurge, the sizzle in my shizzle, an incentive to get out of bed. It also inspired The Porkchop Express to track these folks down, and chew the proverbial fat with some genuine flavor geniuses.

Flying Pigs Farm is Mike Yezzi and Jen Small, neither of whom looks the part: no overalls, no straw of "chewing hay," no corncob pipe, no quaint old-timey stories, and relatively smooth hands. In 1995, they bought an old farm in Shushan, NY. At the time, both held advanced degrees (in public health and law) and regular jobs (in healthcare and non-profit consulting). But they spent their odd time fixing up the property: a chicken coop, a couple of barns, and 150 acres of land. What to do with all that space? In 2000 they had an idea: head down to the Reynolds Brothers to buy a few hogs.

I've never met the Reynolds, but I imagine they do look the farmer part. And at 80-something years of age, they've certainly seen their fair share of business. So when Mike and Jen came asking for 10 swine, the Brothers were understandably skeptical. So skeptical, in fact, that they only parted with 3.

There's something to be said for pluck, and when Mike and Jen returned next year they were given a few more pigs for their pen. It was around then that they looked to broaden their audience, and started trekking (over 200 miles each way) to New York City to peddle weekend pork at the Greenmarkets. Which is where, by a delicious twist of fate, Ms. Slab happened across their bacon one fine afternoon.

To hear Mike tell it, starting a premium pork business is as easy as cajoling two old cranks into giving up a few hogs. But in truth, they learned alot on the job: about pigs (smart to the point of mischievous, especially in groups); about farming (feeding, nursing, housing); and about the business itself (how and where to pitch product). The first few years weren't cheap. Expenses outweighed profits, but they stuck with it. And in hindsight, they made the right move. You see, Mike and Jen were pork pioneers, some of the first to revive an increasingly popular trend: the production of heritage meat.

Heritage pigs–like the Tamworths, Large Blacks, and Gloucestershire Old Spots raised at FP Farm–are rare breeds whose numbers dwindled after the pork industry turned to sturdier, low-lard "cost-effective" breeds. These pigs generally derive from old American and European strains, and are renowned for terrific marbling, silky texture, and bright flesh. They are also a relative pain to raise: heritage breeds eat alot, need space to roam, and mature more slowly than their commercial cousins.

As Flying Pigs rightly notes, the survival of rare hogs depends on two things: farmers willing (and able) to rear them, and a public willing (and able) to buy them. As recently as a few years back, the odds were against. Especially for small farmers, who pay up to 8 times the cost of federally-subsidized feed, and lose out on kickbacks for things like manure lagoons (waste disposal pits known to contaminate ground water).

Flying Pigs weathered early storms, steadily building business with a loyal clientele of consumers and chefs alike. They also took some initiative, helping start the Farm to Chef Express in 2004. Funded with grants from Cornell and the NY Aggie Department, this program unites upstate farmers and metropolitan markets. The arrangement is mutually beneficial: it helps satisfy an increasing big city demand for "premium" heritage and organic foods; it brings money to less affluent, rural communities upstate; it sets prices and builds market share; and it helps small farmers (for whom the cost of transporting their products can be prohibitively high) distribute delicious foodstuffs throughout the northeast. (This is why you can find Flying Pigs araucana eggs at Murray's Cheese, and taste their delicious pork in restaurants from Vermont to Brooklyn.)

All this is well and good, and The Porkchop Express appreciates sustainable small farming to the fullest. But if it wasn't for the flavor, we might not be as enthused. After all, Flying Pigs really do taste great. Left to roam and root on grasses, wildflowers, and weeds, these hogs lead hormone-free, low-stress, Certified Humane lifestyles. All of which adds up to bright, silky flesh marbeled with wonderful fat. And although prices limit the audience, this is one item with (given the time, expense, and energy invested, and deliciousness returned) solid flavor-value.

But enough chat; time for the phat.

First up are pork chops: Tamworths (an old English breed and close relative of the wild boar heralded for its bacon); and Large Blacks (a droopy-eared English pig developed from Chinese livestock). At $14/lb. and cut to about 1 ½” thick, these will run you about 8 or 9$ a chop. The Tams were a bit bigger, and smelled like bacon when cooked. The Large Blacks (above), equally unreal and a bit more manageable, were rich like a great steak. But their intensity was different: mild and wild (you know this is Boar's cousin), handsome enough for the living room yet versatile enough for the kitchen. Cook them like we did above, in a little butter and olive oil. Make sure the heat is neither too high (the meat will tense up) nor too low (you want a nice golden crust), and undercook it just a bit. Let it rest a few minutes, and you wont be sorry. These were some of the juiciest, porkiest chops we've ever had, so satisfying that the sour cream & dill sauce I made with the drippings was unnecessary. Delicious, but unnecessary.

We were pretty amazed by the rich flavor of marbeled pig, so we turned to an especially silken cut next. Enter the "Shoulder Butt." These run 9.50$/lb., meaning you will pay for all that delicious fat. But it's a sound investment, one of my favorites of the taste tests.

Never tried a shoulder? No worries: here's a simple way to get your pork on, courtesy of The Porkchop Express. Brown the Butt evenly on all sides in a little oil and butter (over medium heat, taking care not to burn). Let it sit while you chop up your aromatics. We used fresh garlic cloves and greens, and sliced leaks. Soften these in your pot over medium heat with a little salt, then add sliced carrots and a bay leaf and toss. Add a little water or white wine to deglaze, then put that pork shoulder back in. Add hot water no more than halfway up the pork, cover, and put it in a low-and-slow oven. Count on at least 3 hours at around 300 degrees; the density of the fat means slow-melting and automatic braising. It's good to turn the meat every 30 minutes or so. And we added some English peas to the mix, some at the beginning (to braise) and the rest at the end (to maintain their color and shape). Grate a little lemon rind when it's done cooking, to perk things up and compliment those savory flavors. Serve it with mashed potatoes, or even cous cous. And when all is said and done, this is what it will look like right before that beeline to your mouth:

Not to beat a dead hog, but Flying Pigs Bacon is one of those things that, no matter how full I am, the minute it hits the pan is the minute I want some right away. This presents a logistical problem because bacon is best cooked with great care, slow and low over a small flame to render the fat without burning the meat.

No such painful wait for the riot-worthy "Canadian Style Bacon" ($18/lb). You know the old “Pavlov” experiment, where dogs are conditioned to come a-running? FP's CB rings that bell for me. Especially the fatty parts, which are typically (and conspicuously) absent in lesser cuts. I’ve been asking Canadians for years what they call this stuff, and to no avail. No matter, tenderloin-turned-bacon is as good as it sounds, and painfully addictive to boot.

Speaking of "tenderloin," FP's ($18/lb) is tops. We loved the ribbon of fat clinging to this fork-tender strip of goodness: it added immensely to the flavor, and helped keep the meat moist during cooking. We patted ours with salt and pepper, browned it in a little oil, tossed it in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes (the pork reached ~145 degrees), and let it sit. In the by, we added some shallots, white wine, and a little whole grain mustard to the drippings. When all was said and done, we served a few slices with fresh English peas sautéed in butter, leeks and Flying Pigs bacon ends.

So why are you still reading this? Get out there and give Flying Pigs a go... because that, my friend, is some seriously sexy pork!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

Where To Find
  • Contact and ordering information is online
  • Or check out the Greenmarkets at Union Square (Manhattan) and Grand Army Plaza (Brooklyn), every Saturday until around 2 pm
  • Flying Pigs also sells terrific araucana eggs (with the crowd-pleasing blue/green shells), lamb, sausage, and smoked hams

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Blogger jenblossom said...

It's really fantastic pork. I ordered some to send to my dad for Father's Day (chops, tenderloin, bacon and some of their delicious herb sausage), and he loved it, too. And Jen sent me a handwritten thank you note for ordering! How great is that?

2:07 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

no joke, they hook you with flavor and kill you with kindness. their christmas cards are great too, a few Tamworths frolicking in the snow...

8:48 AM  
Blogger ross said...

The flying pig is good, but this place maybe equally as good or better. http://www.maplewindfarm.com/

10:12 AM  

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