Now that I've written it, I'm already feeling bad for the pig
November 23, 2007 4:13 PM   Subscribe

How do you buy good old fashioned, "heirloom" pork?

When I was in London, I had great pork roast, like pork used to be before they bred all the fat out and it just became dry white meat. I want to cook a pork roast for Christmas dinner and I want tasty pork. I'm in Los Angeles, so where would I get this?
posted by joaniemcchicken to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Try local harvest: Where I live you can buy it at the farmer's market or directly from farms, but it is also possible that a specialty grocery store might have it. Look for specific breeds. The most common I see is Berkshire, which I have bought directly from a farmer.
posted by melissam at 4:23 PM on November 23, 2007

You want an independent butcher shop or a gourmet grocery, most likely. I don't have exact local suggestions, but I'd bet that the pork at some of the carnicerias is more like what you want than at the Safeway...
posted by pupdog at 4:25 PM on November 23, 2007

The Whole Foods at 3rd and Fairfax has a really interesting meat section, with butchers who know their stuff. If they don't have heirloom pork and can't order it for you, they should know where to get it.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 5:05 PM on November 23, 2007

Try finding a butcher through the Eat Well Guide. You should be able to find much higher-quality meat there than you would through your regular grocery store.
posted by Dasein at 5:06 PM on November 23, 2007

Possibly the pork reviewed here? (I realize that's a restaurant review, but he does go on about the pork, and mentions where you can buy it.)
posted by anaelith at 5:07 PM on November 23, 2007

Googling "heirloom pork" brings up a wide range of producers with websites who promise to ship the frozen pork packed in ice overnight to your door. My local producer doesn't ship that far away, so I can't recommend them to you, but the websites of some of the ones on the google results page look pretty similar to where I get mine. I'd suggest calling them up and asking some questions, rather than just ordering blind, to make sure that they seem, well, kosher, as it were.

Also, most local farmers' markets have one or two vendors who sell meat (usually lamb, sometimes beef or chicken) -- they would probably know who locally is producing good pork, if you asked them nicely.
posted by Forktine at 5:16 PM on November 23, 2007

i was struck and bemused by your question, particularly the "heirloom pork" which i have never seen before, even though i ordered a parma prosciutto ham from this summer with complete satisfaction. i'm gonna offer a slightly different suggestion for heirloom pork: you're in el lay, surrounded by the santa monica mountains and other areas infiltrated by feral pigs, which 1) are a non-endangered, non-native species which cause problems for the native species, 2) enjoy a diverse diet including acorns, fruits, etc. which will make their meat tasty, and 3) are readily available to hunters who know where to ask, with a variety of different hunting instruments. i've had properly roasted california young wild pig, and it's absolutely marvelous.
posted by bruce at 5:57 PM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

A couple of months ago I got an issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine in the mail as a sample. It was mostly about pork, and had a long article about heirloom pork. Interestingly, in side-by-side blind taste tests every single one of their tasters preferred supermarket pork to heirloom pork, and they spent a long time talking about why this was (more fat in the meat, stronger flavors, different butchering that left more fat on the edge) and strategies to deal with it. They also talked about a lot of heirloom pork suppliers.

Unfortunately I don't have the issue to hand but if you know anyone who subscribes (or if you want to go to their website for a free trial you might be able to find the article. I'm sure it would answer a lot of your questions. There was also a great chart of the various primal cuts of pork and which ones to look for and use for which purposes.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:31 PM on November 23, 2007

Here is an informative article comparing Gloucestershire Old Spots (wikipedia) to supermarket pigs, and that led me to the British Pig Association. An inquiry may be of use to you.

I have met an Old Spot, in Vermont, and found him to be a friendly fellow.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:24 PM on November 23, 2007

To follow up on what ikkuyu2 just said, specialty pork can be dryer. We just got a chunk of special pig, and it's definitely leaner than supermarket pork. Is there any way to find out what you ate in London, so that you can more easily look for something similar? I'm guessing Berkshire, so you might want to look for that.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:33 PM on November 23, 2007

in side-by-side blind taste tests every single one of their tasters preferred supermarket pork to heirloom pork,

As a veteran of local/naturally raised/organic tastings, I can say that people's preference for milder, less offensive flavors is fairly common. I've seen it over and over, and it's baffling, but true. Most palates are accustomed to accepting and expecting less flavorful food. When you like flavor, though, you like heritage breeds (and that's the term you should search on -- "heritage" usually refers to animals, while "heirloom" generally is used with plants). The fact that most people generally prefer the safer taste doesn't mean that the things that don't taste plainer aren't good. They are incredibly good. The heritage turkey I cooked yesterday was shockingly turkey-flavored compared to Butterball - everyone noticed the difference.

The suggestion to work through Local Harvest is good. Also get in touch with your local chapter of Slow Food USA, and email them to ask about sources.

Locally, naturally raised heritage pork is definitely a LOT better tasting than store pork. If you like things to have a taste, that is.
posted by Miko at 10:13 PM on November 23, 2007

Yorkshire is also a good guess for what your English pig may have been.

Local Harvest: Heritage Pork

Slow Food Los Angeles
posted by Miko at 10:18 PM on November 23, 2007

These weren't random people picked off the street for their averageness, Miko. It was the Cook's Illustrated tasting panel. They are not a bunch of indiscriminate slobs, and the writer spent a good page and a half on why the panel departed from the expected in this case.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:28 AM on November 24, 2007

ikkyu2, I'm a Cook's Illustrated subscriber, and I can't find anything about heritage pork. Any idea when this appeared, or other keywords to try?
posted by Miko at 11:17 AM on November 24, 2007

OK, I found the tastings for 'enhanced' pork, pork chops, and country hams, but can't find much about heritage breeds. I'm sure it's in there, but not findable with my search terms.

The thing is, I don't always agree with Cook's Illustrated's assessments, and certainly not this one. Though their panel is quite serious and scientific, they are still aiming to please a less-than-adventurous American palate and seeking to get consistent results with every recipe. They did do a tasting recently of heritage turkeys, and weren't overly impressed with those, either. I was surprised, sure. But then on the other hand, they mail-ordered the turkeys frozen from some distance, and the ones they didn't like, they didn't like because of their strong taste or meaty texture. Meanwhile, I got my (heritage, naturally raised) turkey at a farm 45 minutes away, killed that day, and it was fantastic - way moister and tastier than a Butterball. Glad I didn't listen to Cook's on that.

There will be differences in the taste and texture of naturally raised meats from farm to farm and from farmer to farmer - that alone is something Cook's doesn't like. The scientific approach of the magazine doesn't welcome variation. With naturally raised animals, from farm to farm, feeds are different, grasses are different, climate is different, age at time of killing is different, the season of the year animals are raised in is different, the method of processing is different, the amount of fat and marbling is different, the selection of breeds is different, and so on. With heritage breeds, you sometimes need to adjust your cooking methods to older-fashioned ones, because you don't have meat with saline solution injected into it to make it moister (as most commercial pork does). So it's more sensitive to the way you prepare it, less "foolproof." That means you have to roast it correctly, watch the temperature, and even judge whether you've got a cut that will roast well or would be better for braising or smoking, for instance. And freezing makes a difference in meat texture, too.

There is also a nomenclature difficulty when sourcing meats from smaller suppliers. Great pork can be the same breed as the generic stuff, but if naturally and/or organically raised, taste a whole lot better. It can be a heritage breed with its own unique qualities - some heritage breeds are known and bred for the quality of their proscuitto, or for thick rib meat, etc. No single pig will be the most fantastic choice for every cut or preparation. Pork can be naturally raised and incredibly delicious without being a heritage breed; heritage breeds just don't have as many of the industrially standardizeable qualities that the most common American commercial breeds have - leanness, paleness of flesh, high texture density, and quick weight gain.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what Cook's thinks, it matters what the person eating it thinks. I've found a lot of Cook's equipment review assessments excellent, because good equipment is good equipment, but I really don't agree with their food assessments all the time.

For the last two years, during my involvement with Slow Food, I've eaten a whole lot of locally, naturally raised meats (some of them this guy's, he's in my region), and I can say with complete confidence that in every case they have vastly outshone grocery store meats for flavor. Now, I also hate bullshit, so to make sure I'm not being swayed by the elite value we put on naturally raised meat today, I watch other people eat it when they don't know what to expect, and the looks of surprise and intrigue are notable. Flavor. Chicken that tastes like chicken. Beef that tastes like beef. Yes, it's different from what we've mostly become used to, but some of us really, really like it - the OP's experience is a great example of the surprisingly powerful taste of really well-raised meats. Does everybody like it? No. And maybe Cook's panel chose a couple losers for their tasting selections. Maybe if they'd gone down the road in Vermont where they are and arranged to have cuts from a locally raised animal delivered the day after processing, they'd have a different experience. Or maybe they still wouldn't like it. Either way, there is a difference, and if you like it, you like it. Most of the chefs I know are really embracing this stuff and working with the stronger flavors happily, and also reviving the arts of charcuterie, curing, and so on to take advantage of whole animals...because they think the flavor is superior. I think if you try both and you just prefer milder, moister, more consistent commercially raised meat, then great. But you've got to try some decently raised meat to get a sense of what the differences are.

Rick Bayless: "However, . . . if you taste naturally raised pork from a heritage breed, slow-cooked to just the right doneness, you'll be smitten. Pork might just become your favorite meat in the world."

Slashfood: "If you haven't tried any of these new, old breeds of pork, then you are in for a treat. Once you taste it you will have a difficult time going back to the other stuff."

Ignacio Mattos: "Sometimes people freak out when they see the amount of fat on the heritage pork, but it's my favorite meat. The complexity, the creaminess, the depth — I don't know how anyone can resist it."

Mario Batali "...recently placed a standing order for 20 heritage pork shoulders a week, for the rich braises and ragus he serves at Lupa. Chefs say the heritage meats fit their sustainable, know-your-producer food ethic -- and bring exciting, old-time flavors and textures back to the table."

So, lots of opinions out there. I think I see what you're suggesting -- that the flavor qualities of heritage pork may be overrated, according to the Cook's Illustrated tasting panel, who didn't care for their samples. But in my own experience, it's far better tasting, just stronger, more varied, and fattier than many people are used to. I see no reason to privilege the Cook's panel's preferences over those of my own palate or that of people I know. And while many people don't enjoy the more prominent flavors and qualities of naturally raised/heritage meats, many people do, like the OP here. He noticed the difference and liked the difference very much. De gustibus non disputandum est.
posted by Miko at 12:43 PM on November 24, 2007 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I take Cook's with a grain of salt. They have some good stuff occasionally, but it caters to the Alton Brown crowd rather than the Alice Waters. It's all about science and efficiency. Sometimes that is good, but a lot of times it can miss the point.

I kind of doubt this article exists though. If it does the heritage producers I know must not know about it. Because if they did...yeah, they would be complaining about it. The Ethicurean and other food blogs would probably also pick it up.

That said, heritage pork is an entirely different animal. It may require tweaking your cooking technique. Scout out a restaurant that serves it and figure out who their supplier is. I've done that before and it is worth it because you get to see what professionals can do with if it turns out bad you know who's fault it is.

Get to know the producer. They'll also tell you tricks about cooking it and about seasonal differences in flavor ... and about what made them chose a particular heirloom breed.

Not every heirloom breed will have the qualities you are looking for. You have to shop around.
posted by melissam at 1:03 PM on November 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

meeks, it came in our mail in July or August. I don't subscribe; it was a promo issue, I think, and for all I know it was a reprint of something older. The issue's centerpiece (where the staples are visible) was a big pictorial chart of all the different primal cuts of pork, rated by cost, tenderness/fattiness, and flavor.

The reason I brought it up is not because Cook's totally slagged off heritage breeds (it didn't) and I wanted to warn everyone off them (I don't); I brought it up because it contained a really thoughtful analysis of how the two kinds of meat differed and how the thoughtful cook should approach these differences.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:35 PM on November 24, 2007

That's true, they really are different. And not to get too pedantic, but it's even more than two kinds of meat - it's more like eight or ten (corn-fed? grain-fed? yogurt-fed? one of the 8 major breeds? a heritage breed? pastured? barn-raised? organic? etc.)

Knowing and talking to the person who raises the meat is definitely the best way to get a sense for how it's best treated.
posted by Miko at 6:47 PM on November 24, 2007

I'm a fan of Niman ranch pork, but I can't say whether it is "heritage" or not. In my experience it is juicier than your average pork.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:15 AM on November 25, 2007

I found that isse of Cook's. Oddly, there was no month or year, even on thet masthead; it is the edition with persimmons on the cover.
Tasting: Modern versus Old-Fashioned Pork

We purchased center-cut pork chops from New York farmers who raise heritage breeds the old-fashioned way (the animals roam free and are fed wholesome, natural diets) and tasted them alongside supermarket chops. Tasters had an interesting response to the farm-raised pork, noting that while it was juicy, with significantly more fat than the supermarket chops, it also had unusual "mineral" and "iron" flavors. Some tasters also fond that the extra fat in the old-fashioned pork left behind an unpleasant coating in their mouths. Surprisingly, most tasters favored the more familiar supermarket meat. A few tasters thought that the old-fashioned pork was delicious but definitely an acquired taste.

We wondered just how fatty this old-fashioned pork was and so sent a sample pork butt to a food laboratory to be ground and analyzed for fat content. For comparison, we also sent a supermarket sample of the same cut. As we expected, the old-fashioned pork butt had significantly more fat - 50 percent more - than the supermarket butt. Old-fashioned pork chops had 210 percent more fat than the supermarket samples, but this sky-high fat level was probably due to differences in the way the two kinds of pork were trimmed; supermarkets tend to remove most external fat; pork farmers who raise heritage breeds do not.
Apologies to ms. mcchicken for the derail; hope the extra info was useful.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:38 PM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks, ikkyu2! I wonder if that was a special compilation promo issue.

Very interesting, and kind of what I guessed - that the 'acquired taste' was too much for some who prefer the 'other white meat' style pork.
posted by Miko at 2:16 PM on December 1, 2007


I tried emailing you but your email doesn't work. I was trying to answer your question about getting sick a lot.

I was having the same symptoms of getting sick after exercise. Went to some doctors, found out I was hypothyroid and vitamin D deficient.

Look into your vitamin D count!

posted by ReelMuse at 7:14 AM on August 2, 2008

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