The opening line of our motto says: "Healthy, Heritage Hogs...", but just what does that mean - and how does it influence the flavor of the pork? In this blog post, I'll go over this topic in general, then focus on one of the breeds of heritage hogs we raise here on the farm. Subsequent posts will cover a few other breeds we have on hand.
Heritage hogs are a lot like heirloom tomatoes - they all taste much better than the store variety, but each breed tastes a bit different. And each breed has its own personality characteristics that were selected and bred for many, many years before hogs were kept in confinement houses. At our farm, we are trying to cross breed three stellar old breeds of hogs so that we can take advantage of their unique qualities while also realizing the benefits of hybrid vigor. It wasn't until the piglets arrived and I spent time observing all of the pigs on the farm before my breeding plan solidified and came into focus. One breed of hog that I had on hand, while a wonderful pig, will not be added to our breeding program. However, I fed up the two I had and they recently were the highlight of a well-regarded group of farm to table dinners at the Living Kitchen Farm and Dairy in Oklahoma. These two hogs were Gloucestershire Old Spots, or GOS.
I got these two gilts from my friend Kimberly, who has a farm just north of ours. She is a spotted hog whisperer; even her boar, Kermie, is a sweet teddy bear of a pig. These two had been raised on mama's milk, goat milk, pasture and some grain. They settled in right away and proved to be good grazers, taking some worn out fescue pasture that had been improved with lima beans, peas, squash, buckwheat and radishes down to the ground in no time flat. This was what I wanted, so that the fall and winter forages could get a good toe-hold. The big one, however, was a Houdini, or Hamdini, and would escape in order to steal food from the sows and their babies. No matter how often she got roughed up by protective sows, she was unable to resist temptation. That sealed her fate. She and the other hog, while sweet to me, were also kind of feed trough bullies. But they sure muscled up and fatted out just right, so off they went to Oklahoma.
So what's the big deal about a GOS? They are extremely rare, with fewer than 1,000 registered hogs in the US. Originally from England, the GOS were known as orchard hogs, because they would graze under fruit trees in the autumn and clean up all the fallen, bruised fruit. They are industrious grazers, for all that they have an easy-going, docile temperament that has also been described as "lazy". Not to be confused with the US breed of hogs known simply as "Spots" (actually a Spotted Poland China, a different breed of hog), the GOS develops a fat and bacon that is described as creamy, and the flavor profile of the meat is said to be Buttery, Porky, Complex, Fruity, Marshmallow, Stone Fruit, Sweet. Based on what we ate at the farm table dinner, lovingly prepared by Chef Lisa Becklund, the meat is certainly all of that, and more. It is moist, tender, succulent. The flavor was enhanced by what the pigs ate here at the farm, plus what their body does with it.
Old Spots became rare after the end of WWII, when industrialized pig production reduced the interest in the slower growing outdoor hog, and they almost became extinct. Now, through the efforts of the American Livestock Conservancy and farmers returning to a pastured hog raising system, the GOS is making a comeback. When consumers buy pork from someone raising these animals, or when they attend a farm table dinner such as the ones at the Living Kitchen Farm and Dairy, they are ensuring that old breeds like the GOS are being bred and raised in larger numbers - demand certainly does lead to increased numbers. And while I won't continue to add the GOS to our breeding program, I have a lot of respect for the breed and what it brings to the table. Kimberly certainly isn't having too much trouble raising and selling more and more of them; old Kermie stays pretty busy at her farm, at least when he isn't getting his belly rubbed.
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.