A small band of farmers and purveyors thinks this obese breed, only recently returned from near-extinction, can become the next big thing for American food lovers.
Once upon a time, there were three little pigs — a Duroc hybrid, a Berkshire and an Iberico — that merrily settled in the great American house of pork.
“I shall mature rapidly and produce large litters and be the dominant commodity breed,” the hybrid said. “And I shall be the premier heritage hog,” the Berkshire said. “And my ham shall be touted by grand chefs as the most flavorful — and most expensive — in the world,” said the Iberico, with the slightest lisp, being from southern Spain, of course.
Suddenly, Mangalitsa, a huge woolly pig from Hungary, knocked on the door. “Three little pigs, let me in — let me in!”
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“Not by the hair on our chinny-chin-chins,” they replied.
“Then,” the Mangalitsa said, “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in!”
Well, maybe not yet. Mangalitsa — despite its unctuous, intense flavor — has a very long way to go before it can push aside the better-known porkers. But a small band of farmers and purveyors thinks this obese breed, only recently returned from near-extinction, can become the next It Hog in the great American pigout.
In a decade during which chefs and merchants have turned away from the overly lean and tasteless pork of mass-produced pigs, the curly bristled Mangalitsa hogs are the most corpulent and unusual in a parade of breeds that has found favor for their richer taste and fuller fat, including Berkshire, Tamworth, Red Wattle and Gloucestershire Old Spots.
But last year, buttery Mangalitsa (MAHN-ga-leet-za) pork made it onto the pristine menu at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Chef Paul Liebrandt has been offering a fragrant Mangalitsa strip loin at the refined Corton in Manhattan. “The flavor is intense, well rounded, balanced,” Liebrandt said. “It is wonderfully smoky.”
Increasingly, Mangalitsa is becoming available to ordinary pig worshippers, as both fresh cuts of pork and cured ham and other products. To produce their fabulous fat, Mangalitsas are raised for more than a year and can weigh over 300 pounds, more than fully grown Berkshires, for instance. Industrially bred pigs are slaughtered after no more than six months, at around 175 pounds. Only some 50 Mangalitsas are processed nationally each week — in comparison with more than 2 million pigs a week for all breeds, according to the National Pork Producers Council.
And Mangalitsas’ rolls of fat make them unsuitable for butchery in the American fashion, with a band saw. Mangalitsas benefit from more labor-intensive (and expensive) European butchery, where a carcass is broken down by its seams of muscle.
So Mangalitsa is pricey. In the New York area, a restaurant’s cost for a pound of boneless loin might be $3 for the cheapest industrial hybrids, $7 to $8 for Berkshire pigs, and $10 to $12 for Mangalitsa. Retail cost for Mangalitsa can be five to seven times as high.
And while there may be a place in the premium market for cured Mangalitsa ham, that’s not the only part of the pig.
“It has a long way to go to be a viable product,” said Ariane Daguin, the owner of the New York purveyor D’Artagnan. “The question is: What do you do with the rest of the pig? The sheer amount of fat is too much, and certainly lard doesn’t sell at the same price as loin.”
They’re easy to raise
A growing number of small-scale hog raisers around the country have found, though, that if they have the time, Mangalitsas are easy to raise. “Mangalitsas are very hardy, with their woolly coats,” said Michael Clampffer, who is raising 120 of them at his Mosefund Farm in Branchville, N.J., selling their pork to restaurants and offering chops, sausage, bacon and lard on Sundays at the New Amsterdam Market in Manhattan.
Dr. Erno Hollo, 52, of the Basking Ridge Animal Hospital in New Jersey, has raised Mangalitsas on five acres at his home for three years and says they have few veterinary needs. Hollo, who emigrated from Hungary 26 years ago, grew up with hogs. “They like the freedom to roam around,” he said. “They have the Hungarian spirit.”
“I used to tend to farmers’ animals, and I took payment in Mangalitsa belly,” he said.
Mangalitsas, which have charcoal-black coats, tan underbellies and twisty woolly tails, were historically raised for lard and prized for their mellow, silky fat. In an interview, the food writer and former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl called it “the single best pastry fat I’ve ever found.” Their popularity declined with the substitution of cheaper vegetable oils for lard, and the availability of hogs that were leaner, faster-maturing and less expensive, but also less flavorful. Purebred Mangalitsas nearly vanished until a Hungarian geneticist worked to revive the breed several years ago.
Auburn farmer was first
Heath Putnam, in Auburn, Wash., was the first farmer to be able to import Mangalitsa breeding stock and now has the largest herd outside of Europe, some 2,000. Bringing hogs from Austria for the first time, in 2007, was “risky, time-consuming and expensive,” he said. The Department of Agriculture imposed a nearly four-month quarantine that cost him $150,000. Of the 29 pigs he brought over, four were killed because tests showed they might have had bovine tuberculosis. “The risk is always that you could lose your entire herd,” he said.
Putnam has spent $600,000 so far on his Mangalitsas. “For the last several months we’ve made a profit,” he said, both on the sale of meat and on the sale of pigs to other farmers. (He’s neutered the pigs before selling them, to limit the competition.)
Morgan Weber in Yoakum, Texas, has a herd of 30 that he bought from Putnam. Weber will sell fresh cuts of pork as well as charcuterie at the new Revival Market in Houston.
Johnston County Hams in Smithfield, N.C., one of the best-known small-scale producers of country hams, has been curing Mangalitsa hams and shoulders for the last year. They discovered the pigs accidentally.
“A customer asked us for the curly furry hog, and we’d never heard of it,” said Rufus M. Brown, the company’s cure master. Brown contacted Putnam, and now Johnston County is curing more than 500 Mangalitsa hams from Putnam’s farm.
George Faison, a partner and the chief operating officer of DeBragga and Spitler, a meat distributor which sells Mangalitsa ham and fresh pork in Manhattan, has been campaigning for the breed. “We hope it can come to occupy a small, but significant and profitable niche,” he said.