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WHOLE HOG; Route to fine dining these days goes snout to tail, belly to feet

Boston Globe – Boston, Mass.


Date: Feb 24, 2010

Start Page: G.18

Section: Food

Until a few years ago, fine dining meant eating high on the hog. The phrase refers, literally, to the traditionally finer cuts of meat above the belly, such as the top loin, choice ribs, and “Boston” roast, which is actually the shoulder.

Then things began to change. To the shock of certain patrons, parts of the pig previously regarded as unfit for hot dogs (or so we are told) started appearing at upscale eateries. Pork fat with names that needed serious rehabilitation (lard, suet, fatback) started getting bigger play from celebrity chefs. New York restaurateurs Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, and David Chang paraded lard on TV and in their own kitchens.

Now, restaurants are asking patrons to dine conspicuously low on the hog. Really low. On the pig, it doesn’t get much lower than the belly. Chefs love using pork belly, and it can be amazingly delicious. After nearly a decade of hiding behind names like “fresh bacon” and “breast of pork,” the brash, outlandishly lip-smacking belly has, at last, come out of the closet. And a new public tolerance has paved the way for other oddly sexy parts: pig tails, ears, cheeks, and “lardo” (it’s cured fatback going by its Italian name). There seems to be no end to the range of quirky porcine menu items. Case in point: pork crackling truffles offered at two restaurants in the Berkshires.

Some chefs are buying their pigs whole from local growers with good reputations. Beacon Hill Bistro’s Jason Bond is taking all of this one step further. He’s rearing and slaughtering his own designer hogs.

From the beginning, the phenomenon seemed to pit chefs vying for snout-to-tail notoriety against daring diners. Chefs wanted to break a diner’s game face. Some of this is posturing and competition, but an undeniable outcome is to elicit an appreciation of pork’s origin and possibilities. “I tried to have pork trotters [pigs’ feet] on the menu, but they didn’t sell, so I fell back to pork belly,” says Phillip Tang, chef and owner of the new upscale fusion noodle house East by Northeast in Cambridge. Maybe next year pigs’ feet will be humdrum. In Paris they certainly are.

“Chefs in Boston and New York are crazed for everything pork, especially fat,” says Gary Strack, chef and owner of Central Kitchen in Cambridge. “I met a New York chef last weekend who has the word `bacon’ tattooed on his inside lip. He pulled it down to show us.” Jamie Bissonnette, executive chef at Coppa in the South End, has “Eat offal” with an image of a hambone tattooed on his arm. (The restaurant is named for a cured cut of pork; Bissonnette’s lardo with chestnut honey and black pepper is predictably fantastic.)

Like hackers “modding” computers, chefs of the snout-to-tail movement are hacking choice pigs in-house to produce custom cured meats and a lot of spare parts. Bond of Beacon Hill Bistro raised two rare woolly Mangalitsa piglets to their 300-pound slaughter size on a farm in Concord over the last year, using a strategic diet and an absurdly large free-roam pen that includes a forest and rotating grass lawn. The prehistoric-looking Mangalitsa is a high-maintenance Hungarian breed brought out of desuetude solely for the light, flavorful, and abundant fat they produce.

In the United States, all Mangalitsas come from a Seattle company that imports them from Austria. Piglets are neutered and shipped to customers from a handful of husbandry centers, giving a monopoly to the importer, and making a deeper carbon footprint than you would expect. “It’s all about the flavor, that’s why I do it,” says Bond, “and I feel good about what I am doing.”

His success is evident in the clean taste of the slightly rose-tinted white lardo from his first Mangalitsa, named Tan. All of Tan, from snout to tail, will be eaten. He cures the cheek to make guanciale, a bacon; the pork belly to make unrolled or “straight” pancetta; the loin to make lonza, a fragrant alternative to prosciutto that he seasons Greek-style with allspice and black pepper; the neck for coppa; the back for lardo; and all kinds of oddments for head cheese, which isn’t cheese at all, but rather a dense pork pate. That leaves jowls, offal, and blood. Plenty to use in fresh sausage.

Uninitiated diners may approach these dishes cautiously, but the adventure is full of rewards. East by Northeast’s crispy pork belly on mantou bread is addictive. A thin slice of perfectly fried salty pork belly sits on a traditional fluffy, white Chinese bun, which is made from wheat flour and lard, with a slice of crunchy daikon and a swipe of sweet bean paste.

At the other end of the spectrum is the tasty but quite challenging “confit and roasted tete de cochon au lait” at Craigie on Main. Diners in the Cambridge restaurant who order this are getting a baby pig’s head, roasted and halved down the center. “It freaks some people out,” says Carrie Cole, Craigie’s bartender, “but there’s great meat in the cheeks and in the eye sockets. You can get it out with a fork.” Ordering such a dish can give diners their very own foodie and macho cred. “Some people have literally licked the head clean, right at the table,” says Cole. If the head doesn’t interest you, perhaps crispy fried pigs’ tails might.

Eating low on the hog was once a necessity. European and Asian farmers who raised and slaughtered pigs kept the scrappiest pieces for themselves. They could get better prices for nicer cuts. At Cafe Polonia in Dorchester, the tasty, creamy lardo with bits of crispy fried pork and caramelized onion that come with your bread is not part of a trend. The Polish call it smalec, and it’s been an inexpensive alternative to butter for generations.

BiNA Osteria in Downtown Crossing recently removed from the table its “pig butter” creation, a sort of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Lard” whip of olive oil and lardo, which was for spreading on bread. Not porky enough to compete? At Pupuseria Mama Blanca in East Boston, the crunchy, salty chicharron, richly seasoned deep-fried pork skin, is served with tender and impossibly light yuca. And in Huron Village, the pig’s head scrapple at T.W. Food, culled from pigs’ cheeks and served with polenta, is a faithful, if slight, refinement of the shrink-wrapped Habbersett scrapple familiar to Philadelphians of modest means since 1863.

Chef Austin Banach of Rubiner’s Cheesemongers in Great Barrington describes his unique and popular pork-crackling truffles this way: “The cracklings add just enough salt, and savory, to the sweet white chocolate and the bitter cocoa nibs. You get a round, full, unexpected flavor. People really love them.” At home, Banach roasts pork belly, which he tucks inside tortillas with onions steeped in vinegar and rooibos tea.

While chefs are vying to update farmhouse (and other) dishes popular for centuries, home cooks seem to have no interest in the trend. Few Americans add pork fat to a dish; olive and vegetable oils and butter remain dominant. And when many people do cook pork, it’s the tame and familiar cuts of “the other white meat” pitched by advertisers. Prices for locally produced pork fats, and the odd bits local butchers once discarded – or saved for immigrant homemakers – could begin to rival those choice cuts.

Remember margarine and shortening? They were introduced by agri-scientists to replace pork fat after the Great Depression. Eager to feel wealthy, we ate them up. It turns out what we got from these hydrogenated products was less flavor, and loads of heart-clogging trans fats. Now many studies suggest that fat from well-raised pigs (which have no trans-fat) may be much healthier than its reputation (see related story, opposite page).

Yet these same food companies recognize the flavor pork fat can add. For instance, dried pork fat is added to boxes of Jiffy brand corn bread mix. If you’re making it from scratch, try using the real thing.

Home cooks, you were there first. Or at least your grandparents were: pigs’ feet, bacon drippings, and all. Put down the Crisco and pick up some lard and see what you think.

Living high on the hog is seeming so old-fashioned these days.