Sunday, February 14, 2010

Alberta Pork Essay

Alberta Pork recently sponsored an essay competition, asking NAIT students how they plan to use pork in their chosen careers. Here's my [Editor's Note: non-winning...] entry.

Alberta Pork: Home-Grown Snout-to-Tail Eating
J. Allan Suddaby

Pork is intimately tied to two of the leading contemporary movements in professional and home cooking, both of which stem from a desire for sustainable eating. The first is the local-eating movement, which attempts to decrease our reliance on food items shipped from across the globe, and by extension our reliance on the fossil fuels that transport them. The second is the “snout to tail” movement, which strives to reduce waste by using as much of a butchered animal as possible. It was in researching and practicing these ideas that I fell in love with Alberta pork.

This past summer my girlfriend and I ate locally for two months. Having never considered where our food comes from or how it gets to our plate, the weeks were filled with new discoveries. We found that highbush cranberries and beaked hazelnuts are native to our province. We came across grains, like wild rice from Athabasca, fresh heirloom vegetables, as well as craft products like bread and cheese. The most fruitful discovery, though, was Alberta pork: not simply for its quality, but for its countless applications, and how much I learned about my trade by working with it.

Eating locally is not just about ingredients: the necessities of the landscape often dictate the ways in which the food must be prepared. For instance, the long Albertan winter demands the preservation of large parts of the fall harvest, so our culinary heritage includes ways to keep foods for several months, such as canning tomatoes and fruit preserves, pickling cabbage and cucumbers, and dry-storing root vegetables. When speaking with my grandma about the farm she raised my father on, she mentioned that they would also make salt pork in the fall. I had never heard of this, but after some research I learned that most of the traditional ways of preserving pork can easily be done at home and in restaurants. This was a revelation, and it started an all-consuming obsession with charcuterie.

My first project was making bacon. I tracked down half a pork belly from a local butcher. It was thick, with perfect striations of fat. I dry-cured it for a week, then hot-smoked it on my barbeque. The result was a firm-textured, rosy pink, mouth-watering slab of bacon that I cut into thick strips and froze for later use. I now work at a restaurant that uses a similar procedure to make house-cured pancetta. With modern refrigeration, we no longer need to preserve pork by curing, but we continue to do it because it tastes so good.

Another major trend in cooking strives to maximize yield from our livestock after slaughter. This movement has increased interest in variety cuts, as well as in several practices that have not been common in homes or restaurants in generations, such as rendering fat and making sausage.

The pig is renowned for its bounty of useful parts. The French say that everything from the pig can be used in the kitchen, except the “oink.” Besides the premium cuts, such as the loin and the extremely versatile shoulder, there are several lesser-used cuts like the flavourful jowl and hock. Beyond these one finds offal, like the liver, which is used in traditional pâtés. The hog’s utility does not stop there: the fat, especially from the back and jowl, is used in several charcuterie preparations; the intestines become casings for sausage; and, while most North Americans find the idea unsettling, there is a millennia-long tradition of using the blood to thicken pudding and forcemeat.

My own journey into the lesser-known cuts of pork began with simply adding a trotter to a vegetable broth. Besides meaty flavour, the foot’s abundant natural gelatin added body to the liquid. The pinnacle came when I made sausage at home for the first time, transforming a tough, cheap cut of meat into a near-divine creation. Sausage-making is also a great technique to use in professional kitchens, where it can keep food costs down by using up scraps.

Working with Alberta pork is my way of exploring culinary traditions such as curing and smoking meat, and making sausages and pâtés. It is my way of exploring my province and meeting local producers. Pork has become a keystone in my kitchen repertoire, and will continue to be so throughout my career.

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