Ossabaw pig legs ready for the eatin’

Posted in Eat Out by Eat Out on July 14th, 2009 at 6:15 pm


Guest blogger Liz Thorpe, author of the forthcoming book The Cheese Chronicles and Murray’s Cheese guru, gives you, dear readers, her latest rumination for the Feed. Read on for delicious details on the Ossabaw pig, and where you can try it in NYC:


Heritage pigs have been on my mind. A few weeks ago I hosted a double pig roast the day before my wedding. The 60-pound practically piglets were raised at Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and were selected for their Tamworth bloodlines. As they roasted over an open fire, the air smelled of bacon and the meat dripped pink juices. (Jeremy Stanton, who did the honors, will bring Berkshire-area pigs to NYC and roast them here.)


So when George Faison invited me over to the dry-age rooms at DeBragga and Spitler to talk Ossabaw pigs, I was game. Most U.S. pigs are genetically engineered for lower fat, fast growth and a “mild, approachable flavor” (i.e., no taste). A few breeders, however, are maintaining and slowly growing the gene pool of heritage breeds. Ossabaws are thought to be the descendants of what is today called the pata negra, or black-footed, pig used for the celebrated Spanish jamon iberico and jamon iberico de bellota. The name Ossabaw comes from the island off the coast of Georgia, where these massive swine were dropped by Spanish explorers more than 400 years ago.


These days, in West Virginia, Nick Heckett and Chuck Talbott are cultivating Ossabaws the Iberian way. Only a few Mennonite farmers agreed to industry-defying lunacy: raising these pigs in the open, and finishing them on acorns, beech and hickory nuts. The six-week autumn feast lays on an incredible layer of burnished yellow, nutty-tasting fat. At 250 to 300 pounds each, 40 Ossabaws are slaughtered each autumn, and the parts sent off to people ready to accord them due reverence.


The back fat was doled out to a who’s who of four-star and locally focused enclaves. Everyone from Craft andCraftsteak, Aureole, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Gramercy Tavern, Café Boulud, and Four Seasons, to Savoy, A Voce, Tao, Tabla, Morandi and Commerce got their slab. Salumeria Biellese takes the bellies for pancetta, the front legs for coppa (thanks, shoulders) and the trim for cured salami including sopressata and cacciatorini.


And the prized back leg—the hams—are sent to pioneering smokehouse Broadbent in Kuttawa, Kentucky. Family-owned since 1909, Broadbent cures the legs out and finishes them over hickory smoke. I’m pleased to say that Murray’s (full disclosure: my employer) got five legs out of the 80 produced (and these are from ’07, mind you, as they need more than 400 days to cure).


Faison sent a lengthy letter to industry folks last week. The gist was:


We asked farmers to raise animals differently, more expensively, more slowly, anti-industrially.

But in tough economic times, everyone is cutting back. Cheaper meat here, lesser dairy there.

If we don’t support these producers with our dollars, they will disappear.


Quickly. If you need to rationalize your desire, no, duty, to eat good pork, here it is.—Liz Thorpe