eritage breed pigs are the old-fashioned breeds that were the norm before the industrialization of farming. They were handy animals to have on a diverse farm because they were natural garbage disposals, eating everything from table scraps to whey, the byproduct of cheese production. A few pigs can clear and turn a fallow field, to prepare it for sowing with amazing speed and efficiency. And when autumn came, the pig would give its last measure of devotion, and grace the family table with ham hocks and bacon.
As more small farms seek a return to the traditional ways, they turn to the old pig breeds - like the Berkshire, Tamworth, Red Wattle, Duroc, Landrace and Yorkshire. The modern pink pig has been bred for lean meat and for its ability to be reared intensively, in confinement. Not so the heritage breeds - many of them are unfashionably fatty, with temperaments suited only to spacious barn living, or open pasture. And they tend to grow slower than their commercial counterparts, which is not convenient to farmers in a hurry to sell commodity pork. Many of the heritage breeds came dangerously near extinction when their meat and lard were no longer desirable. But in the “eat them to save them” school of thinking, a generation of farmers has been raising these heritage breed pigs, often selling the pork at a premium through farmer’s markets.
At D’Artagnan, we source all our heritage pork from a cooperative of small farms at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. Each participating farmer agrees to keep traceable records of the breeding lines, feeds the pigs a natural diet of forage and supplemental corn, soybeans and rolled oats, with no hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, animal by-products or fishmeal. Most importantly, the pigs are given lots of space and sunshine, are allowed their natural piggy behaviors, raise their own piglets, and live outdoors with access to shelter. Pork raised this way costs a little more than the bland, lean, pale pork at the average grocery store, but to support the efforts of these farmers, and to preserve heritage pig breeds, we feel it’s worth it. So we pay our farmers a premium to adhere to these standards. And we think you can taste the difference in the final product.
Does Heritage Pork Taste Better?
Yes, we’d venture to say, heritage breed pork tastes better—offering a more nuanced, deeper flavor and more succulent meat. The rich, marbled fat and tasty meat of heritage pigs is becoming more appreciated by connoisseurs. At D’Artagnan we celebrate the Berkshire hog and sell plenty of cuts like pork loin, racks, chops and tenderloin. But heritage breeds sometimes offer up the tastiest pork when they are crossed; merging a characteristic like large size with another distinct trait like fine marbled fat can lead to a product like our applewood smoked, wet-cured hams.
The meaty hind leg (for that is what a ham is) of this heritage crossbreed is tender, juicy and full of flavor. When wet-cured, which is a process where raw hams are injected with a curing solution (usually with water, sugar, honey and some kind of preservative), or are rubbed or tumbled in the curing solution, they yield up incredibly succulent result. A wet-cured ham can be uncooked, partially cooked and smoked, or fully cooked and ready to eat. The D’Artagnan ham is naturally smoked with real applewood (no liquid smoke here!), and is seasoned with just the right amount of maple and brown sugar, making it slightly sweet, but still savory and salty.
Fully cooked, our applewood smoked heritage ham is an easy solution for dinner—all you need to do is heat and slice. Heritage ham is available whole, with the bone in, for an authentic and dramatic presentation at a family meal or friendly dinner, or boneless, for slicing ease. And for a small gathering, or just day-to-day use, we offer a boneless petite ham that tastes every bit as delicious as the larger hams. Simply apply a sticky honey glaze and pop in the oven to create the archetypical ham for a holiday meal. Or slice and slather with Dijon mustard to make juicy ham sandwiches for lunch. Ham goes well with eggs (just ask Dr. Seuss!), whether in an omelet or diced in a quiche. Chopped and added cold to egg or potato salad, this lightly-smoked ham is a great addition to many favorite dishes.