Monday, January 11, 2016

Andrea Chesman: Starting the Year Farm-to-Table

An author greets the new year with a full freezer.

Pigs grazing at Understory Farm. Photo by Jessie Witscher
The year 2015, according to the Chinese zodiac, was the year of the sheep, and I did buy one — well, actually a whole lamb for the freezer. The new Chinese year, which begins on February 8, will be the year of the monkey, and well...yechhh. As I have just stowed away seventy-five pounds of succulent pork from Understory Farm in Sudbury, Vermont, for me and my family, this year will be the year of the pig.

After talking to a few different farmers at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market last August, I decided in late December to buy from Greg and Jessie Witscher, who by then could only offer me a half-pig share. While I doubt there is a local farm I wouldn’t want to buy from, I especially like the story behind my pig, a Tamworth (75%)-Berkshire (25%) cross. Berkshires are known for their excellent mothering skills and pleasant dispositions. Greg told me, though, that after many years he is leaning more and more toward Tamworths, which are known for their enthusiastic foraging skills, their ability to thrive in inclement weather, and their long skeletons.
Gregory Witscher. Photo by Jessie Witscher
I liked the idea that my pig was raised on pasture and woodland forage and fed non-GMO grain and high-quality milk. The milk was brought in twice a week from Animal Farm in a Vermont town called Orwell (I’ll pause here; get the joke?) where Diane St. Clair makes butter that is sold at the French Laundry and Per Se, two famous restaurants run by Thomas Keller. I’m name-dropping here but, in fact, St. Clair doesn’t use the milk her Jersey cows produce, only the cream. So the pigs make quick work of the milk, and I’ll make use of the pork.

When you buy a whole or half animal from a farmer, you are usually given a price per pound that reflects the hanging weight (the carcass minus blood, guts, skin). What you actually receive is about 75 percent of that, depending on whether you take the “nasty bits” or offal (liver, heart, head, trotters) and lard. My one hundred-pound half-pig yielded me seventy-five pounds of porky goodness; and the $6 per pound I paid for the hanging weight ended up costing me $8 a pound for meat. Yes, that’s a lot more money than you might pay at the supermarket — but I know that I am getting antibiotic-free, “clean” meat that is richer in vitamins D and E and omega-3 fatty acids. I also know that this pork, being locally sourced and raised responsibly on local foods and forage, had a small carbon footprint and thus a small environmental impact on the land.
75 pounds of pork. Photo by Andrea Chesman
It’s hard to envision what seventy-five pounds of meat means, but it mostly fits on two freezer shelves. I got seventeen pork chops, all cut at least one inch thick (any thinner and they’re easily overcooked, which renders the meat dry and tough), four pounds of ground pork, four shoulder roasts (the cut you want for barbecue), and one small tenderloin. I had the ham split and smoked to yield two hams, each weighing between four and five pounds. There are two very small racks of ribs, four large country-style ribs, and eight one-pound slabs of fresh pork belly, some of which I will braise and some of which I will cure to make bacon. There are also neck bones for a stew, smoked ham hocks, trotters (both will flavor beans), half a head, three pounds of leaf lard, and two pounds of back fat.

The meat arrived frozen, but I couldn’t wait to test out the flavor of a chop. I made a rookie mistake and didn’t make sure it was fully defrosted before it hit the hot pan — that’s why you don’t see a good sear on the middle. But the flavor?  Juicy pork goodness.
Pan seared pork chop with sauteed greens. Photo by Andrea Chesman

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