The pig first evolved in Asia around two and one half million years ago before extending its habitat north into Russia and Japan and west into India, Mongolia, Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and eventually into Europe. Fossil remains of the earliest swine indicate there existed both pigs with a vegetarian diet and those with a decidedly more omnivorous palate, which sometimes included carrion and humans. This unscrupulous scavenging undoubtedly contributed to the pig’s unfortunate reputation even at the dawn of civilization—although they existed in Ancient Egypt, there are no paintings of pigs to be found in Egyptian tomb paintings—and subsequent banishment from the Jewish and Muslim diet. The pig, a member of the Suidae family, encompasses 16 species of pigs and hogs in eight genera, including the modern domestic pig—Sus scrofa or Sus domesticus. Generally, pigs are divided into two races—the white, so-called Celtic pigs, which include all of the familiar northern European and American pigs, and the black such as the iberico. The fat of the black pig is naturally rich in monosaturates and when fed the right diet combined with exercise, it develops a lot of intramuscular fat which makes for tasty meat. White pigs lack this propensity for both intramuscular fat and monosaturates.
Despite popular conjecture, snout-to-tail eating (that is, utilizing all parts of the pig for food) is not something that current locavores, slow foodies, the environmentally conscious set, or the new generation of farmers have recently discovered. Ancient Romans were joyous ingestors of pig; some bits (no account of patrician Roman banquets fails to mentions these) are still too racy for today’s porcine renaissance. Ancient Greek culinary repertoire indicates the allantoupoles or specialist prepared dishes like roast suckling pig, fattened on grapes and stuffed with herbs that are quite similar to modern charcuterie. The modern meat eating world of post-industrial America can lay claim to the ignominious fact of being the first of several generations disdainful of whole pig (or cow or sheep or goat, for that matter), opting for luxury cuts of chop, cutlet, loin, round, brisket, butt—cuts cited as least flavorful.
Snout-to-tail eating, championed by several American chefs, favors a world view that is one part environmental and one part economical; obscure cuts are less desired, and thus less expensive. “Pork fat rules: “The Chinese call pig belly the ‘five layers of heaven’ because it is meat-fat-meat-fat-skin.” Roasted pig bellies are really popular in some restaurants such as the Country Inn in Krumville, according to chef Spencer Mass. Chef Rei Peraza, executive chef at the Rhinecliff Hotel, loves pig fat for its flexibility. “Cure it, slice it paper-thin, and serve it over anything, warm toast,” he says. “Pig fat’s melting point offers great mouth feel in pates and sausages. Braised pork belly has awesome richness and depth of flavor.
Historically, pigs were essential for providing fresh meat, meat for curing, and versatile pig fat to preserve meat or make soap. “New trend? Hardly,” “The rest of the world has been eating the whole animal for centuries. Only gluttonous Americans have the luxury of eating the chops and not worrying where the rest of the animal goes.”
“Complete pigs offer such a variety of flavors, textures, and techniques, making for a true gastronomic experience,” says Peraza.
The pig parts are jowls, trotters (the forearm or foot of the animal) ears, hearts, bellies, and cheeks. Chef Peraza is currently working with Ossabaw, a breed that is a direct descendant of the black Spanish pig that was introduced to the Americas via the Mid-Atlantic coast. The pig’s debut in the New World can be traced to Christopher Columbus’s second voyage (1492-1496), via the ship’s manifest that lists eight iberico offloaded in Cuba. (The pig arrived on the North American mainland in 1539 when Hernando de Soto commenced his explorations through the southeast with 13 animals that he’d rounded up in Cuba.) Peraza’s menu has included warm chicory salad with fingerling potatoes, pickled pearl onions, bacon vinaigrette, and crisp pig ear confit. Another dish, pig’s foot en gelee with horseradish and black truffle foam, is made by “braising the pig’s foot in Gewürztraminer.
”Peraza’s favorite way to eat pig? “Serrano ham, straight up,” he says. “Just bread, ham, and olive oil and pernil [a small whole pig or, more commonly, a leg marinated with garlic, cumin, onions, and sour orange juice and slow roasted in a pit].”
At Elephant, the board says “Swine is Fine.” The swine of the week features a changing selection of Spanish and local charcuterie such as chorizo, lomo embuchado and jamon serrano, which can be ordered singly, doubly, or as a triumvirate and served with Spanish marcona mustard, black fig jam, pickled cucumbers, and Spanish almonds dusted with Moorish spices.
Now Americans are discovering the new flavours of the off-cuts of pig.