What had I gotten myself into? Just before our friends arrived, I pulled the meat out of the braising liquid. It jiggled like jello. I hope Heath Putnam is right, because this stuff appeared to be almost entirely fat. And here we were going to serve it to friends and call this dinner.
We have been obsessing about Heath’s Wooly Pigs bacon since it showed up at the U-District market last winter, but we had yet to try the pork belly that everyone has been raving about. How could any pork be worth $25/lb? Well, we wouldn’t know without trying, so last weekend we were determined to bring some home from our weekly market run.
When I told Heath that we wanted some of the Mangalitsa pork belly, he rifled around in the coolers and pulled out a package of belly and ribs. I was about to pay when he said, “You know, if you like pork belly, you should really try the jowl. I think it’s even better than the belly.” I paused. “Ok, I’ll buy some jowl instead.” I paid up, and as I was leaving, he said, “You’re brave.” Brave? What was that supposed to mean? He said that apparently most people are squeamish about this sort of thing. I have never cooked with jowl or any of his Mangalitsa pig products, so I had no idea what he was talking about.
He sent me away with instructions to cook it at low temperatures to avoid ruining the pork and said that I could cook it the same way as pork belly. The recipe I had in mind was the belly recipe Rebekah Denn wrote about at the Seattle P-I.
We prepared the jowl, along with some tiny Brussels sprouts from the market, and carrots. While the jowl was crisping in the oven, we had a roasted endive salad with orange segments, from The Herbfarm Cookbook. Then, it was ready.
It turns out that this pig is worth every bit of hype that’s been surrounding it. What incredible flavor. The stuff is tender, moist and just melts in your mouth. It is insanely rich and I can’t recall a more flavorful meat I’ve ever eaten. Just amazing.
What makes these pigs taste so different from other pork? Heath has a very unique thing going here. He imported the heirloom breed of Mangalitsa pig from Europe, raises them on a special diet (including access to herbs in the pastures), and slaughters them humanely.
He only started selling these pigs at the end of last year and has already created a ton of buzz, even in national publications. A couple months ago, Saveur magazine started a new feature highlighting one U.S. state each issue. The premier state was Washington, and Wooly Pigs was on the list of ten food items not to miss. We are lucky because you can’t buy this pork outside Washington at the moment since it’s prohibitively expensive to distribute it. But Heath is starting to partner with farmers in other states, and has just sold some piglets to a farmer in the Bay Area who will be raising and selling them there.
To complete our locavore menu, we ended with a rhubarb crisp topped with crème fraîche ice cream. The first rhubarb of the season was at the market on Saturday, and we wanted to try an ice cream recipe from my new Perfect Scoop cookbook. We picked up crème fraîche, eggs, and raw milk from Sea Breeze Farm, and when we stopped for our morning crêpe from Anita’s Crêpes, she suggested we add some vanilla bean to the recipe. We figured that a graduate of the CIA who formerly worked at the French Laundry would know what she’s talking about, so we did so. It was a nice ending.