Learning about pigs in North Carolina

Mars, Michael and I got back yesterday from an absolutely fascinating and inspirational trip to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. We went to visit Cane Creek Farm, meet some pig farmers, and to learn whatever we can about sustainably, humanely raised pigs of different “heritage” breeds. We want to able to regularly offer this kind of meat, and felt we needed to understand it as well as we could.

Eliza MacLean, the owner of Cane Creek Farm, has been written about in the New York Times and in the book “Pig Perfect” for her efforts to steward the very rare Ossabaw breed of pig. The Ossabaw pigs are descended from pigs left on Ossabaw Island (off the coast of Georgia) by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s. This makes them the closest American breed to the prized Iberico pigs of Spain, which are considered the best pigs in the world for ham.

Ms. MacLean is both fascinating and nice, and explained to us at length how her farm works, and what the pigs require and the different methods of raising them. In addition to stewarding this rare breed, she’s also raising other breeds of pigs, and chickens, and goat, on a cozy and beautiful 11-acre farm about 20 minutes outside of Chapel Hill.

We also went to the Carrboro farmers’ market, where — in addition to running into an old friend (more on that later) — we met more very interesting people in the pig-farming world, including Dr. Chuck Talbott, who is also featured in the article and book (linked above). Dr. Talbott works with small farmers to help them implement sustainable agricultural practices while making sure they can make a living.

My understanding is, there is a lot of pressure from the large distributors that farms use “confinement” techniques, which are very hard on the environment and the pigs. Additionally, it seems that many of the farmers who work these confinement operations make so little for their pigs that they don’t make a very good living.

The benefits of these free-range pigs of heritage breeds, then, includes more humane treatment of the animals, sustainable use of the environment, better economic health for the farmer, and best of all — great tasting pork.

We had great meals in the Carrboro/Chapel Hill area — the fantastic produce we saw at the farmer’s market is clearly indicative of the quality of the food community there — and the pork was no exception. In fact, I think my favorite dish of all of meals was a Farmer’s Hybrid breed pork shank at Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill. (I believe Farmer’s Hybrid is the most popular breed among sustainable-ag pig farmers; it’s also one of the four breeds that Cane Creek raises). At the same restaurant we also had some amazing Ossabaw sausages with meat from Cane Creek.

Over the course of the trip we ate/drank at really good and interesting places. We had dinner at Acme restaurant, which was superb, with a very interesting menu combining Southern, Mexican, and “modern” ingredients. While we were waiting to get hungry enough to have dinner, we went to Crook’s Corner for a little Carolina barbecue, which is a dish I love. I heard good things about the food there, and I can say that the barbecue was delicious. Plus they had rye whiskey, which was a nice treat.

The next day, on the way to the farm, we stopped for lunch at Sandwhich, a great slow food sandwich shop featuring local ingredients, great bread, sustainably-farmed meats, and artisan cheeses. We bought some damn good sandwiches. We also had coffee at 3 cups, which is a *serious* coffee place. They have a great philosophy that their primary mission is to educate their community about coffee, so they only serve french press coffee, which is great and easy to do at home. That way, when you really come to appreciate the quality of that level of coffee, you don’t have to buy a thousand dollar espresso machine, you just buy a small french press. The coffee was, of course, really good, although sadly we had to get in paper cups to go ’cause we were late to the farm. I mentioned this later that day to my old friend Peter Giuliano, who was the old friend we came across at the Carrboro farmer’s market. Peter is the coffee buyer for Counter Culture Coffee (another amazing company, check the link), and provides coffee to 3 cups as well as many other places in the area. I note that on 3 cups’ website today is an essay explaining why we were philistines to take that coffee in paper cups. I know you’re right, friends, and I am properly shamed.

As a buyer for Counter Culture, Peter spends his time doing what we were just starting to do on this trip: visiting farms to better understand the production and quality of the product he buys, to understand the different methods used by each farm, and to establish personal relationships and communication with the people who are actually producing the food. He’s been doing this for (I think) a couple years now. It was enlightening to talk to him about this in the context of what we were doing.

This whole process of establishing relationships to individual farmers is very important to what we want to accomplish at the Linkery. We want to be able to bring people as close as possible to the production of their food, and to understand how the different choices made from square one affect the flavor of the food, our health in eating it, and the environment and society we live in. By us getting to know the breeds, feed, and people from each farm, we can understand this better ourselves and help our interested guests understand it, too.

For instance, last nite and tonite we will feature Ossabaw breed pork belly from Cane Creek Farms. These pigs are “finished” on barley. (My understanding is that the two most important factors in the character of the meat are breed and finish). We had it last nite and can say that this particular pork belly was defined by having a high fat to meat ratio — in many cases just one strip of meat alongside a thick layer of fat. This is contrasted with the Duroc we had last month, where the fat and meat interlayered. The Ossabaw fat simply melted in one’s mouth — it was the best tasting and textured pork fat I can recall eating. I found the meat to be richer in flavor and to have a consistency not unlike steak. Where the piece was just slightly charred from the grill flame, the flavors of char, fat, and meat came together perfectly.

When we’ve run through the Ossabaw, we’ll run a pork belly special with the Farmer’s Hybrid breed from the same farm, pigs also finished with barley. This will allow us to understand and appreciate the difference in character between these two breeds, at least with these cuts of meat. We plan to proceed down this path indefinitely, learning about the subtleties of what we’re eating while appreciating the quality and also supporting sustainable agriculture. And we intend that the relationships we’ve started with folks in North Carolina will allow us to bring you a really interesting — and very tasty — assortment of foods from that area which would otherwise be difficult to experience.

To finish the story of the weekend, at the farmer’s market we bought some great meat from Cane Creek and chomped on fresh sugar snap peas. Later that night the bunch of us, including the Linkery folks, the Cane Creek folks, and Peter, all went to Lantern, where we had a basically perfect meal, and really inspiring and fun conversation about food, farming, eatiing and living.

*Edited to add this note*: Obviously, a part of sustainable and environmentally-friendly agriculture is local-ness. Over time, we hope to be able to provide these same kinds of products grown locally. Learning how to do that, in fact, was part of our goal from this trip. In the meantime, however, we’re thankful to be living in a time and place where it’s feasible to get these things from afar.

Ossabaws at Cane Creek coming over to check us out

A few different pigs with the neighboring farm in the background

Carrboro Market
Selling free-range organic eggs and pork at the Carrboro farmer’s market

Crook's Corner
This pig had interior lighting

The bar at Lantern is nifty