On Wednesday evening, I had the good fortune to be able to sit in on a pig butchering demo here at the shop. The demo was conducted by Julie, our in-house charcutière, and Jason, the chef at our South End location. What a pair they made! Jason did the butchering and Julie spoke about how she uses different parts of the pig to create her delicious porky products.
This demo (and the one happening this coming Wednesday) were a first for Formaggio Kitchen, inspired by Cochon 555 a pig-themed event that is happening in Boston today. It turns out that there are a lot of fellow pork lovers out there and we were overwhelmed by the response to the first demo we scheduled – so much so that we scheduled a second and still had a lengthy waiting list! Hopefully we will get to do this again soon! I even hear some buzz that we may do a similar type of demo with spring lamb… Stay tuned!
A lot of careful preparation went into the class. I happened to be working on the Sunday three weeks ago when Julie and Jason broke down a small pig from Falter Farm, MA in order to figure out how they wanted to organize their presentation. Julie subsequently used the cuts of pork from that practice session to make some delicious pôts of pork rillettes that went into goodie bags given out to each attendee at the demo. Also included in the goodie bags were scrumptious little sweet Italian sausages made from local, heritage pork and a little slab of bacon!
Julie started off the demo with a brief introduction and then passed the baton off to Jason who began breaking down the pig into its five primal cuts: loin, ham, belly (bacon), Boston butt and picnic ham. Jason handled the pig with a high degree of expertise – with 8-9 years of experience at East Coast Grill and a lot of home BBQ-ing behind him, he proceeded to break the animal down without a hitch, giving insight into his technique as he went. He touched on the rib traditions in Texas (his favorite – a dry rub approach!) as compared to South Carolina (which involves some initial simmering of the ribs), the merits of the Boston butt and cured vs. uncured bacon, to name only a few topics!
The pig Jason broke down was a pasture-raised, heritage-breed pig sourced through Savenor’s Market here in Cambridge. It was a cross between a Berkshire boar and a Chester White sow, between 4 and 5 months old and weighing roughly 110 pounds. Berkshire pigs are known for good fat content while Chester Whites tend to yield deliciously sweet meat. Most pigs that are butchered for retail sale are much larger than the one Jason broke down (clocking in at 200 pounds or more) but a 110-pounder was just about the perfect size for our space. As well, the smaller the pig, the more tender they are likely to be – much as one finds lamb more tender than mutton.
At every stage of the butchering process, Julie discussed how she might use each cut. Safety in meat handling was also addressed as were pork traditions in other cultures – from Europe to South America to Asia. A lot of great questions were asked by attendees, prompting discussions of the specific conditions needed to ferment sausages and dry cure pork products.
While all of this was going on, snacks were provided. Preparation of the food served at the class began two days in advance and staff members watched with curiosity as we saw changes in Julie’s usual routine: whether it was breaking down pig’s ears or crisping pig skin… The smells made us all hungry!
Wednesday evening kicked off with some sausage rolls – puff pastry encasing Julie’s sweet Italian sausage – and beer by Berkshire Brewing Company. Following on the sausage rolls were chicharrones, essentially pig-skin chips that had been brushed with lard, sprinkled with salt and roasted until crispy. A delicious posole was next; posole is a traditional Mexican pork soup and the posole-making process kicked off on Monday when Julie made a pork stock by slowly boiling the Falter Farm pig’s head with onion, celery and bay leaf. After simmering for a couple of hours, the head was tender and falling apart. Julie picked the meat off the head and added it back to the stock. She added some Native Harvest hominy that she had soaked and cooked. Also added to the pot were New Mexican chile peppers that had been ground with tomato, garlic, onion and cumin. This soup was served warm and, at the last-minute, was garnished with shredded cabbage, red onion and cilantro that had been tossed with olive oil, lime juice and sprinkled with a touch of salt and pepper.
The posole was followed by a salad, containing julienned pig’s ears. The pig’s ears were removed from the head prior to the above mentioned stock-making. Separately, they were slowly simmered until tender and then left to cool in their own stock. Julie subsequently sliced the ears into very thin strips and marinated them in a Champagne vinaigrette. At the last minute, the strips were tossed with celery, carrot, parsley, capers, lemon zest, green onion and red chili peppers. The ears provided a subtle porky flavor and the texture was really unusual – one attendee found it reminiscent of Asian seaweeds.
In my mind, the pièce de résistance was the final flight: Chinese-style pork belly accompanied by a simple slaw. Julie also began preparing this masterpiece of deliciousness on the Monday… The first step was to prick the skin of the belly with holes and then pour boiling water over it. Why do this, you may ask? Julie explained to the class that by pouring over the boiling water, the pores of pig skin and the holes that she had pricked would open up and, as a result, be more receptive to the rub that was the next step in the process. After drying down the belly, she applied a mixture of salt, sugar and spices. The belly was then allowed to marinate for two days on a rack (to allow any excess moisture to drip off) before cooking. The cooking process is a little bit unusual – the belly starts roasting at 450°F for fifteen minutes, it is then cooked for one hour at 250°F and one hour at 350°F before doing a final fifteen minutes at 450°F. Julie confided to me that she then gave it a final stint in the convection oven to make sure the skin was extra crispy! The pork belly is very easy to reheat – something that helped when timing the preparation of the class… Served with the pork belly was a crispy, fresh slaw – its acidity nicely cut the rich, delicious fattiness of the pig. It was a simple but tasty mixture of fennel, red chili pepper and cabbage tossed with a bit of rice vinegar and boiled cider.
The pig butchered in the demo was born and raised on a small 180-acre, family-owned farm in upstate Vermont – Vermont Family Farm in Enosburg Falls, a farm owned by Greg Finch. Mr. Finch’s pigs are allowed out to pasture as much as weather permits and they are allowed to root and nest according to their natural instincts. All of them are hormone and antibiotic-free and are fed an all-natural, vegetarian diet. The high quality of their care and diet is reflected in the flavor of their meat and it was no surprise to me that large portions of the pig went home with folks who attended the class! The remainder was split between Julie here in Cambridge and Jason in the South End… I look forward to seeing what they concoct next!