The highly anticipated futuristic saga hits theaters March 23, but our tournament of survival begins now as Michael and Bradley strategize how to tame a 200 pound hog they have never worked with in the kitchen before: the Ossabaw.
I’m speaking of course of their upcoming entry in the Cochon 555 competition, hitting Miami on April 1 at the Four Seasons Brickell. To satisfy my curiosity about the main ingredient all of which they must use to wow 20 judges and a ravenous crowd, I rang hog farmer and owner of Black Hill Ranch, Felix Florez, a sommelier by trade, but now passionately converted to raising seven breeds of hog, with the perfect hog in the works, on his 10 acre ranch in Houston, Texas. His family had always been into cattle ranching, but it was his work in the restaurant business since about 18 years old that ultimately led him to his calling.
“Because I’ve been in restaurants so long one of the things I noticed is how much product we were bringing from outside, and it never made sense to me why we weren’t using more that was local,” he explains. “So I made up my mind to get a piece of land and put animals on it and do what the best ranchers in the world were doing. I did a lot of studying what they were doing in Spain and Iowa.”
That reality at first was what sounded to me like a grueling daily routine that began at 4:30 a.m., tending to the animals, repairing fences, and doing invoices, and continued at the restaurant from 1:00 to 10:00 p.m., when he would leave and start the cycle all over again back at the farm.
Now four years into the operation, he raises about 200 pigs, including Birkshire, Meishan, Ossawbaw, English Large Black, Red Wattle, Hereford, and Mule Foot, all of whom hang out together in pasture and under shelters, except for the breeders, which are separated. He has also added a few contractors around the Houston area, about 15 different farms. He raises exclusively for restaurants nearby, with special exceptions like the folks at Revival Market (an amazing little grocery and marketplace doing their own charcuterie and pickling, among other things, which my friend Paula Nino of Mango & Lime shared with me on my recent visit to her new home in Houston!) This is only his second Cochon 555 competition, which he supports for obvious reasons – raising more awareness for small farms and heritage breeds – most recently donating a pig for the New Orleans event.
So about the Ossabaw, the hog chosen for us by “The Reverend,” the quirky cohort of competition founder Brady Lowe.
“It’s a very special breed, from Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia,” he says. “Some were brought to the mainland in the 1980s, and now it is prohibited to take any more pigs off the island.”
Felix went onto explain that when the Spaniards came to America in the 1400s, they brought Ibercos with them and left some in Ossabaw so there would be a population waiting upon their return. The Iberico crossbred with feral hogs, and this pig resulted. They developed Insular dwarfism; living on a tiny island, their bodies adapted to require very little to keep them alive. As a consequence, their growth rate is slow; in fact, they take longer to grow than any pig on Earth. From a 6-ounce baby to 200 pounds hanging weight takes two years. Felix explains that they are not as fatty as the Mangalitza, but it’s a very good charcuterie pig, for hanging and curing. One of the best. And for braising and sous vide. But it’s firm, sometimes too much so, when cooked fast.
“I drove all across the U.S. to pick up different lines of breed stock when I was starting out,” Felix goes on. “I got the Ossabaw in Knoxville, TN. I have a waiting list 15 chefs-long. I process about one a month.”
As you could have guessed, they are well cared for. Feed starts out with a soy, rice, sunflower seed, and cracked corn diet when they are little and he is trying to boost growth rate. Then they go to barley, soy, wheat bulgur, and some corn and rice. The hogs are finished with barley, acorn, a maple syrup and red wine reduction, and good old fruits and veggies. Sounds like the perfect pig right? Think again.
“With all the research that we compiled, as well as tasting notes, we are developing the perfect pig, and even have a few litters going,” he says. “A three way cross with the fat from the Meishan, the flavor and size of the Large Black, and the growth rate and the motherbility of the Poland-China, which consequently has nothing to do with neither Poland nor China.”
So Michael and Bradley are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their Ossabaw. Is it a good pig for a chef to work with? Sure. But four days in advance of competition? That remains to be seen! Buena suerte gentlemen!