By Morgan Hensley
The taste of pork from the Mangalitsa Old Spot Cross conjures to mind words such as marbled, tender, versatile, exquisite and rare. Very rare. In fact, you can only find this heritage-breed pork at Gentle Harvest in Marshall, Virginia, Sandy Lerner’s latest venture on the farm-to-fork front.
Just what is the Mangalitsa Old Spot Cross — dubbed the “Kobe beef of pork” by Wilhelm Kohl, an expert of all things porcine — and why should you be excited about its availability so close by?
There are many reasons. Perhaps the most obvious and applicable is the tremendous flavor. While sampling the cuts, I struggle to find the perfect word to describe the taste. Apparently, the proper word is “unctuous.”
The term captures the impressions, both overwhelming and minute, of this savory, fatty, perfectly balanced mixture of saltiness and umami. The flavor profile is complex, a welcome requiem to the bland, overprocessed bacon we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on supermarket shelves.
This depth of taste derives from a combination of the pigs’ genetics and Ayrshire Farm’s humane practices. The breed’s cultivation is far removed, in place and time, from the bustling Main Street of Marshall, Virginia.
In the 1830s, Hungarian farmers crossed their pigs with wild boars to increase the swine’s lard yield, which was commonly used for cooking and as shortening. The result was the corpulent, curly haired Mangalitsa. When combined with the Old Spot, a larger, equally flavorful breed, the result is mouthwatering.
More recently, irresponsible mass-farming practices have leaned pigs. In the process, we lose not only that precious flavor, but also the polysaturated and monounsaturated fats that have been linked to lower cholesterol, increased blood circulation and improved brain functioning.
“Farming really made me pay closer attention to where my food comes from. I missed that, so when we heard about Ayrshire, my wife and I said, ‘Virginia, here we come!’ ”
“More fat, more flavor,” says Katrina Carroll, large livestock assistant at Ayrshire Farm. Ayrshire seeks to breed these benevolent fats back into pigs, and they are succeeding. The 800-acre farm in Upperville, Virginia, boasts 140 piglets and 32 sows of this unique crossbreed (the only known kind in the world) and two pure Mangalitsas, one sow and one boar.
Ayrshire Farm was the first humane-certified farm in the Commonwealth of Virginia, with a litany of organic and sustainability certifications to emphasize this commitment to the environment as well as to consumers.
Rather than sequester the pigs in cramped, inhumane warehouses, Ayrshire allows their pigs to roam freely and forage, a favorite pastime of pigs. Chestnuts, grubs, apples, black walnuts, acorns — the Mangalitsa Old Spot Cross is not a picky eater. This diverse diet of foraged flavors is stored in the plentiful fat cells of the pigs, and a discerning palate can detect these myriad flavors like a sommelier detailing a wine’s terroir.
These varied notes are deftly explored and highlighted by a series of hors d’oeuvres from chef Lawrence Kocurek. Kocurek is a native of Austin, Texas, and a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City. His resume includes working in the kitchens of Michelin-caliber chefs such as Roy Yamaguchi, Pierre Schutz and Tien Ho.
After earning his stripes in the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, he returned to Austin, where he opened Kocurek Family Artisanal Charcuterie in 2009, before the trend of artisanal cold cuts exploded. He closed the business to refocus his attention on being a full-time chef and moved to a farm in Danville, Kentucky, a few miles outside Lexington, Kentucky, where he and his wife raised their own livestock.
“A pig that you’ve raised tastes differently,” Kocurek says. “Farming really made me pay closer attention to where my food comes from. I missed that, so when we heard about Ayrshire, my wife and I said, ‘Virginia, here we come!’ ”
He has whipped up a smorgasbord of dishes centered around the Mangalitsa Old Spot Cross: bacon-wrapped sausage and cheese-stuffed peppers; steamed pork belly bun with cilantro and pickled carrots; pork and mushroom pot stickers; pâté de campagne with cornichons; pickled shallots and dijon; house-smoked kielbasa with grain mustard; and pork rillettes with apple butter on toast points. The dishes combine his passion for charcuterie with his Polish heritage and pan-Asian restaurant experience.
Hope Penn, the future general manager at Gentle Harvest’s Winchester, Virginia, location (which is scheduled to open in late spring or early summer of this year), pairs the dishes with beverages. The milk stout from Lost Rhino, an Ashburn, Virginia, brewery, is the perfect complement to Kocurek’s culinary creations.
“A full-bodied pork belly needs a full- bodied stout,” Penn says.
All of this — the humane treatment of animals, the local ethos, the innovative cuisine, the unpretentiousness — summarize Gentle Harvest’s mission: working with Virginia farmers to save family farms, encourage sustainable agriculture, preserve open space, rebuild heritage breed-stocks and deliver the highest quality foods directly to the consumer at a fair price.
Housed in the former Marshall National Bank & Trust Company building, Gentle Harvest is the perfect addition to Marshall’s burgeoning foodie scene. Inside Gentle Harvest you’ll find a butchery, a bank vault refurbished into a wine cellar, a 14-seat Wi-Fi café, old-fashioned soda fountains, a lounge and now, Mangalitsa Old Spot Cross bacon that you literally cannot find anywhere else.
OK, I’ve written enough; it’s time to pig out. ML