That pig will do, sir, that pig will do
Margaret Webb, March 9th, 2009
Margaret Webb visits farms outside Stratford and Acton in search of the perfect heritage porker
July 12, 2008
STRATFORD, ONT. -- As Stratford makes much ado about Shakespeare, just west of the city, along a little-travelled county line, the pork's the thing at perhaps the ultimate takeout joint in Ontario.
Many cookhouses dish up ribs with four or five sauces, but Perth Pork Products serves up juicy, tender meat from five different breeds, including rare heritage lines. Among its many fans the place counts some of the biggest names in Ontario cuisine: chefs Jamie Kennedy, Anthony Rose of the Drake and Mark Cutrara of Cowbell fame.
I arrive at 10 a.m. after a pleasant two-hour drive from Toronto - the last stretch along pretty Highways 7 and 8, which wind through the lush farmland of Perth County. The 40-hectare family farm is open for tours - just call ahead - but I am the only one here.
Farmer Fred de Martines strolls up from the barn to greet me. Clearly, this place remains a secret even to many serious porkophiles, perhaps because placing an order entails a hike to the back of the farm. There, I meet the dish of my porcine dreams - face to snout. Yes, the ribs, as you might have gathered, are still very much part of the pig.
The Globe and Mail
While the farm store sells frozen racks and other cuts to go, I came here to buy the whole beast, enabling me to pack my freezer with luxury pork (it keeps about six months) for about $3 a pound, a little more than the retail price of bland supermarket chops.
As we round the corner of his barn, this sight greets us: three pastures full of happy porkers living what amounts to a playboar's life, rooting and rutting among alfalfa, clover, barley, wheat, peas and even Jerusalem artichokes. Clearly, these are well-cared-for babes.
At a neighbouring farm, de Martines keeps a herd of Berkshires, the revived heritage black pig that has had Toronto chefs swooning over swine for the past few years. The sweet, dark meat, marbled with the fat of their ecstatic existence, is closer to beef than the lean chicken that is industrial pork.
But I have set my sights on an even more exotic dish: the exceedingly rare Tamworth - de Martines says he has the largest herd in Ontario, with just 20 sows. The red-haired, long-backed porkers, common on our pioneering farms, were dubbed bacon pigs for their succulent bellies. But they did not take well to the get-fat-fast demands of big farms, taking a year to reach market size compared with just six months for a white pig.
But some consumers are finally realizing that the tastiest and healthiest meat comes from a well-raised animal. That market allows farmers such as de Martines to resurrect yummy heritage breeds and even custom-raise animals; for example, Hillebrand Winery restaurant supplied icewine for de Martines to feed to two lucky swine - until they ended up as the main course of an icewine festival dinner.
He still keeps about a thousand white pigs in a barn, but his heart is clearly with his thriving heritage pork business. "If people want cheap food, you have to raise pigs cheaply. But it's a different life for a hog that lives outside."
Indeed. At the back of the farm, a herd of wild boar, smaller than a white pig and covered in black fur, graze year-round in a wild setting, which results in dark, beefy meat - in 2½years. But I'm happy not to be buying wild boar on this trip: The spring piglets have scampered into the bush, where they watch us from the top of a hill, hedgehog-cute.
In the next field is another result of de Martines' porcine experiments: a cross between the Tamworth and wild boar, resulting in the Iron Age pig, prized in England and now by Toronto's Healthy Butcher.
As we walk to the Tamworths, de Martines tells me that he belongs to a co-operative of seven heritage pork farmers, Black Bow Farms. "We cook up our chops at culinary festivals, and we always wear white shirts and black bow ties. It's classy dress for classy pork."
Well, "classy" is not the first word that comes to mind when I see these red hogs rooting in the mud after a summer rainstorm. Unfortunately, neither is "dinner." The Tams before me have all been spoken for, de Martines says, though he guarantees me one for next summer with a $100 down payment.
But with a little Internet sleuthing, I discover another farm raising Tamworths that I'm thrilled to support: Everdale Organic Farm & Environmental Learning Centre, just north of Acton. Along with organic vegetables and chickens, the husband-and-wife team of Gavin Dandy and Karen Campbell also run an on-farm store and offer internships in farming, workshops in sustainable living, school visits and Saturday tours.
The two University of Toronto graduates, both city-raised, learned farming "by trial and error," Dandy says. "I had one hand on the rototiller and the other on Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower. But 10 years later, we're pretty good."
The 20 hectares of rolling, treed farmland seem to pop out of a storybook, with a few cows, workhorses, a walking trail and picnic tables overlooking a pasture of free-ranging chickens that don't seem to mind being chased by children.
A short stroll away, we come upon nine pigs roaming a lush pasture. A farm intern offers to introduce me to "pig" - which I have been calling my animal, as my father, a pragmatic farmer, always warned us kids not to name our groceries.
Still I hesitate. I know I am helping the re-emergence of a heritage breed - paradoxically, by eating one - but these nine-month-old snorters are so darn cute! And friendly! They run to greet us, and one flips over on his back, begging us to scratch that luscious bacon belly.
I'm thinking my next visit will be to bring pig back to the city, dressed out by a butcher to about 180 pounds. Friends have already lined up to buy some, which is when I will
contemplate a few pet names for pig - like pork chop, bacon and ribs.
Margaret Webb is the author of Apples to Oysters: A Food Lover's Tour of Canadian Farms (Penguin, Spring 2008).