Getting Our Hands Dirty
Josh Lewin - September 23rd, 2013
There’s a lot to learn about pig butchery—specifically when it’s taught by the president of the Austrian Mangalitsa Breeders Association. Boston chef Josh Lewin reports.
Just a few years ago, I had an animal on my cutting board for the first time—a whole one, with everything attached. It was a Berkshire pig. I forget what it weighed. I hadn’t really learned to keep track of all the details yet. I do remember that whatever it weighed, I underestimated it. (My left knee still reminds me of that morning every once in a while.)
I was well versed by that time in butchering from primal cuts. I wasn’t totally confused by the notion of breaking an animal down by the seams, but something about two sides of a not-so-long-ago-living thing, still holding all of its lines from head to toe, was just a bit disorienting. I got out the books, and step by slow step, two halves of a pig became a big investment, cut down into (disappointingly few) roasting portions—a couple of big pieces for braising, a few boneless hams, and a lot of diced meat and fat for grinding.
I knew I needed some help if I was going to turn that unwieldy morning (and most of the afternoon) into a sustainable restaurant practice. I called a few friends who offered plenty of help and advice, the best of which turned into an enlightening field trip. I was advised to check out to Mosefund Farm in New Jersey, where twice a year they host Christoph Wiesner, the President of the Austrian Mangalitsa Breeders Association, and his wife, Isabell, for a weekend of pork processing, starting with slaughter and finishing at the plate.
Mangalitsa is a very special sort of pig—it’s big, it’s hairy, it’s full of amazing fat. It has a royal bloodline and is prized for charcuterie applications. (It’s also pretty cute.) I took the trip with my now good friend Rachel. We barely knew each other at the time, working together in passing a year or so earlier. Her chef, at Bondir Restaurant, was also responsible for recommending the trip to us.
It was early November, and fairly cold. I rented a car and drove us down. Rachel hadn’t gotten her driver’s license yet but acted as a trustworthy navigator. We drove pretty late into that first night, being the last to arrive. Branchville, New Jersey, is a lot different than Boston. Unmarked, unlit roads that are paved in circles…it was a long drive.
At 8 o’clock the next morning, we met the Wiesners and our fellow students. The participants were a pretty funny mix: a hunter or two, some fisherman types, a young “chef to be” who had reportedly recently been offered sous chef positions at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants. (A fairly clear white lie, but he was fun and enthusiastic.) Mostly hobbyists and a few enthusiastic wives. A couple of others from Boston also, which was a surprise, including the talented Jesse Hassinger, who took the accompanying photos.
Two and a half days of intense pork processing ensued. As a group, we killed six pigs, bled them (carefully reserving the blood), scaled them, and removed the hair, then hung them up to split by hand. It was a memorable scene, both visceral and beautiful. We looked on, tired, humbled, and proud.
The Wiesners cooked dinner that evening. I remember being skeptical when they walked into the kitchen with a huge pork shoulder at 4 p.m. and claimed dinner would be on the table at 5:30. They seasoned it, threw it into a hot oven, and it, indeed, was ready. And good. (Something to be said for just letting things happen without too much fuss.) While we waited, we enjoyed lardo, prosciutto, country pâté, salami, coppa, poached hams, and the crowd favorite: speck. The real prize of the Mangalitsa is in the drying and celebration of its fat. We shared a glass of wine and fell asleep that night at a nice rural 9 p.m.
Christoph is a fantastic teacher, and it was quickly apparent that his encyclopedic knowledge of the animal was his life’s work. While he walked us through the process of seam butchery from head to tail, Isabell would interrupt to feed us a breakfast of blood sausage, various creations centered around liver and eggs, and other offal. It was a full-flavored breakfast, to say the least. This continued into the afternoon, as we all got to know each other, and know our pigs, both on the cutting board and on the plates Isabell paraded through.
A third day took us through a hands-on discussion of processing, which involved a hell of a lot of dicing of lean meat and fat for grinding. The Wiesners are an efficient team, easily bantering with the class while their hands keep moving, keep cutting, and keep straight the mise en place for the five or six different types of sausage we made that day. There was also a healthy amount of husband and wife bickering throughout. In the end it felt as if we had spent two days as a family, preparing the larder for the winter. And essentially, we had.
I came away confident in my pork butchering, and so much more. I made a great friend, who became an inspiration and a collaborator in the year following. I learned that in order to teach a staff to butcher, they would have to understand what it was like to stand on the farm in the early morning, with hot coffee in your hand, and your breath hanging in the air, 20 feet away from six beautiful pigs that will be on your cutting board in an hour. I witnessed a model of education that included the community, and added value to the work of the butcher as he welcomed paying students to learn his way of life.
We look forward to Mangalitsa time now each year. A couple of our favorite local farmers, Pete and Jen, raise two of them just for us. One for the fall and one for mid-winter. I look forward to cleaning out the pantry and putting up the Mangalitsa after crowding in a few enthusiastic local fans and my staff, walking them through the processing and sitting down with them to an afternoon of rustic pork dishes to be shared, as a family.
An easy project: the cured coppa, or muscle from the neck. A good butcher should be able to help get your hands on one, or you can pull it out of the shoulder section on your own.
To flavor the coppa, you can take a number of different directions. I like this simple cure—the warm spices come through easily without overpowering. The following recipe will cure about five pounds of pork, but can be easily scaled using the percentages.
- 2,200 grams coppa
- 82 grams kosher salt (3.75 percent)
- 27.5 grams ground white pepper (1.25 percent)
- 6.6 grams ground cloves (.3 percent)
- 16.5 grams ground cinnamon (.75 percent)
- 5.5 grams instacure #1 (.25 percent)
Combine all curing ingredients and distribute evenly on all sides of the pork; cure the pork for 12 days, redistributing the cure every other day.
Remove coppa from the cure and rinse. Pat dry. Record the weight and hang for 4 to 6 weeks, or until the coppa has lost 30 percent of its weight.