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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Pork peaks in Madison restaurant culture
Serious pig
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Credit:Juliet Darken

Pork has become incredibly popular, both locally and nationally. At the center of this pork renaissance is the class of animals referred to as heritage pigs: larger, purebred hogs with a mass of bristles, many inches of back fat, and a distinct lineage. They are derived from farm breeds such as Duroc, Yorkshire, Hampshire and Berkshire; feral animals such as Ossabaw Island hogs; and rare breeds, such as Red Wattle, Guinea Hog, Choctaw, Mulefoot, Hereford and Gloucestershire Old Spot. With the emergence of curated pork dinners, an uptick in meat raffles and a handful of local restaurants that always serve high-quality heritage meat, pig is big.

Pigs in our past

Of course, there's nothing new about eating seared pork cooked over an open fire. Pigs appear to have been domesticated about 13,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, the "Fertile Crescent" between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq. These animals were descended from the wild boar in one of the most successful examples of animal domestication. There are about a billion of these even-toed ungulates spread out over our planet.

Yet North American forests were free of them for a long time. Hernando de Soto and other Spanish explorers brought the animal to the new world, where it ravaged an environment that had never seen their tusky like. They proliferated, and while some went feral, settlers kept others close to their farms. And no wonder: It's an extremely versatile animal, yielding cured meat preparations (charcuterie), ham, bacon and steaks of pork.

Waves of German and Scandinavian settlers came to Wisconsin forests and plains with pigs in tow. Free-roaming pigs were a common sight in the 19th century, even living under Madison's Capitol for at least 10 years under the supervision of Capitol builder and pig farmer James Morrison. "Breaches had been made in the foundation of this building and stray pigs would take refuge from the cold and storm therein. Sometimes in our discussions we were almost drowned out by the squealing of the quarrelsome animals," noted a draftee of the Wisconsin Constitution.

Ever since, Wisconsin farmers have loved their bacon, sausage and ham hocks, perhaps to a fault. Though Union troops were at that time prohibited from plundering Southern property, on Sept. 8, 1861, Capt. Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry nonetheless allowed his troops to roast pigs along the Potomac River on the Maryland side. "They declared that even the pigs were secessionists and they burned them at the stake for their treason.... It was impossible for me to restrain men who had been starved on salt-beef and hard tack, when they were scattered over four miles of territory and sneered at as Yankees by the people. The fact is I ate some pig myself," wrote Dawes in Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers.

Pig in Madison restaurants

While pig has been popular since the state got its name, 2012 was a particularly epic year for heritage hogs. "Restaurant-wise, there are so many places nowadays that are taking chances and experimenting with different preparations and making it fun for guests who are adventurous," says Tory Miller, chef of L'Etoile and Graze.

At both restaurants, heritage pig, with its superior marbling and fat, is the norm. "Anytime you see pork on our menus, it is a heritage breed," explains Miller. "We have so many great farmers here raising truly great animals, and the feed process, whether it's all pasture, or pasture and feed mix, is really benefiting the end product. The pork being produced here is really phenomenal, and the farmers are doing a lot of great work in the fields to make it easy on us cooks."

At Osteria Papavero, chef Francesco Mangano says, "Every chef around the nation is going back to using heritage pigs." The difference at Papavero is "we work with heritage pigs every week, every month. It's really not something new for us."

The Underground Food Collective folks, who have been practicing the farm-to-table ethos in Madison for years - even hold ing classes on how to butcher a pig - make their products available directly to the public as well as through their catering and restaurant endeavors. That means folks who want to add high-quality pork products to area dinner tables can do so by stopping by the Underground Butcher on Willy Street, or even ordering from them online. Its selection extends beyond typical cuts to specialty salami, Spanish chorizo and saucisson sec (a French blend of seasoned pork and other meats).

Lombardino's works an unusual pork preparation in its crispy pig's ear salad with mixed greens, red onions, house pickled banana pepper and fried egg splashed with a savory red wine vinaigrette.

Sometimes we forget about the more basic uses of pork, like the humble bacon cheeseburger. What a perfect sandwich. The 29 Burger at the Old Fashioned comes with Bavaria Sausage's hickory-smoked bacon. At AJ Bombers, the Milwaukee Burger comes with double Wisconsin Colby, onions marinated in Schlitz beer, and Nueske's bacon. Both are primal, satisfying bacon implementations.

At Williamson Street's A Pig in a Fur Coat, pork belly is served in maple syrup, sunflowers and butternut squash. It's fatty. Most of us have been trained to cut the fat away from a hunk of hog flesh, to be dispensed with as inedible. When eating heritage pig, the rich and buttery seams that line the meat proper should be considered part of the meal - the aspect to be most treasured, even.

Pig takes center stage

Chef Dan Fox is perhaps most responsible for pushing the heritage movement to the forefront of Wisconsin pig public relations. After training at the restaurant Everest in Chicago, he studied in Europe and eventually landed at the Madison Club, where he was, until recently, executive chef. He's now in the process of opening his own restaurant with Maduro bartender Chad Vogel.

Fox and Vogel began putting on pork-oriented pop-up events. In October 2011 they threw a massive party at the Madison Club that doubled as an introduction to heritage pork and dubbed it SloPig.

SloPig events feature lots of specialty cocktails for attendees to sip while taking in chef and bartender competitions. The main attraction is, of course, a huge variety of specialty pork dishes.

In 2012, SloPig was held in Milwaukee and featured about 50 pork presentations. It was a runaway hit. "Tory Miller did doughnuts fried in lard," recalls Fox. "The most decadent things you can imagine. A showstopper."

In 2013 Fox brought SloPig back to Madison, with a few new twists. "This year I gave half a heritage pig to the chefs quite far in advance so they could get creative with their charcuterie. Each chef got a different [breed of] pig, but this year we opened it up to whole baby goats and quarters of beef, including Angus and Waygu."

Fox becomes really animated when he gets going on this stuff. "This year we featured some different breeds, such as the Swabian-Hall pig, which came about in 1820 in Germany when a king wanted to tame down the wild boars and put more fat on them. So he brought in a Chinese lard pig for crossbreeding. Very interesting animal."

Bacon forever

These food trends go in waves, but no matter how many times the Internet collectively declares bacon to be over, it continues to evolve. Homemade bacon with crystallized maple sugar is now something people post pictures of to Facebook and Instagram. But there is a certain sense of burnout.

"Events like SloPig have been happening all over the country for years," says Tory Miller. "Organizations like Cochon 555 have opened the door to pairing a pig farmer with a chef and making it about local and sustainable hog raising. To be perfectly honest, the national culinary scene is tired of the pig revolution."

Still, it's a tasty wave to ride.

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