Rich Silvia was clearly smitten. Right there in front of God and everybody, the White Horse Tavern’s executive chef eloquently professed his undying devotion. He noted her intersting family history and the traditional manner of her upbringing, rare and refreshing in today’s world. He recalled the first time he looked into her eyes and imagined their shared future. The object of his affection remained quiet during this emotional outpouring, due in large part to the conditions under which she found herself in the company of the gathered celebrants.
Chef Silvia’s poetic musings were directed toward the silky golden nutty fat of an acorn-fed Tamworth pig raised at the Swiss Village Foundation nearby. SVF is a privately funded non-profit facility dedicated to the collection and preservation of genetic maqterial for endangered heritage livestock breeds. Our country’s shift away from small family farms raising efficient, regionally adapted animals to a standardized industrial model focused on a small number of breeds has greatly reduced the genetic diversity of our food supply. Heritage breeds retain important fitness traits like mothering ability, parasite resistance, heat tolerance and forage utilization that have been lost in the race to maximize milk and meat production. They also taste better due to slower growth rate that results in deep powerful flavor and the “terroir” of the land, making them the choice of many chefs committed to the resurgent farm-to-table movement.
Located on 45 rolling acres in historic Newport, SVF maintains a globally unique cryopreservation “seed bank” (frozen embryos and semen) and conservation plans for 40 rare breeds of cattle, goats, sheep and hogs that could be lost to our descendants. The star of this evening’s dinner highlighting SVF’s important work was a Tamworth raised by herdsman Nick Bowley in the bellota style of the famous Iberico hogs fattened in the oak forests of Spain’s western provinces. A jamon from one pata negra could easily set you back a couple or three car payments. Our pasture-grown pig’s diet had been supplemented for 5 months with white oak acorns which are low in bitter tannins and produce a soft fat prized for its low melting point and sweet complex flavor. Acorn-fed pork is high in healthy mono-unsaturated fats and oleic acid. It has been called “olive oil on four feet”.
The Tamworth, developed in England as a forest grazer, displays natural forage efficiency and maternal instinct well suited to small farm production. Most commercial hogs can’t care for their own young and sometimes eat them due to high stress levels common in the shameful confinement facilities that deliver the vast majority of our country’s pork. Pigs are highly intelligent and social animals that need to access pasture and woodlands in order to thrive. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are studying Tamworths as a candidate for reintroducing these important survival traits and group dynamics into commercial herds before they are lost forever.
Chef Silvia’s team prepared a triumphant 5-course snout-to-tail meal that celebrated the noble swine in all of its myriad preparations. Each course was paired with a wine that complemented the taste notes of the dish. We started with a perfect first bite – a slice of head cheese (or terrine if you prefer). The come-hither flavor of the head and neck meat speckled with luscious fat partnered with a classic port wine syrup and pickled golden raisins – fruit and pork are best of friends. Next came a masterful little sammy – shredded cured country ham on brioche kissed with the earthy sweetness of truffle honey – a delight. Croutons basted with that nutty golden clarified fat negotiated a happy truce between a light Ceasar salad and the dark power of a country pate. The beautifully composed entree was cleverly presented as “Three Little Piggies” – crispy braised belly, pan-roasted loin & rillete with root vegetables. Finally dulce de leche ice cream was crowned with chicharrones dusted with sugar and cinnamon.
You can experience this same incredible meal at the White Horse Tavern. Due to high demand, an encore presentation made from the same animal has been scheduled for December 4th. Tickets cost $135 each (plus tip and gratuity) and can be purchased by calling (401) 849-3600 or visiting www.whitehorsenewport.com. You can learn more about efforts to preserve heritage livestock breeds at www.svffoundation.org or www.livestockconservancy.org.