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September 2, 2008

I'll post this from the Toronto Star as a public service announcement. The Berkshire is grown locally and is available at Sanson all the time.

Heritage pork gets a good grilling

Keith Gordon cooks up 4 varieties of pork for a taste test. Aug. 26, 2008
Blind tasting settles meaty question: Which pig really is best?
Aug 27, 2008 04:30 AM


I keep hearing about "heritage pork," prized varieties that escaped breeding experiments aimed at producing low-fat, fast-maturing swine. Berkshire was the first "heritage" star. There's also Tamworth, English Black, and other strains of French, Spanish and Italian swine. Some are fed special diets, herbs, or grains. All are touted as the ultimate in tasty, textured, succulent meat.

Are they really?

I decided to take the porcine challenge: Get the same cut (a butt chop, in this case – the perfect grilling cut, beautifully marbled, bone-in for sweetness and moistness) from as many varieties of fancy pork as I could track down, and gather friends with good palates for a "pork-off." A blind taste test, without mouth-watering descriptions of breed history or the friendly, caring farmers, might separate hype from the actual morsel on the end of a fork.

Four types were assembled: Berkshire, the first "rock star" pork, which is smaller in size and praised for its intense flavour, healthy marbling and dense, darker flesh. Tamworth, the oldest varietal pig, is also small, and prized for its ample belly and unrivalled quality of bacon. Whey-fed is a feed-based variation first brought to prominence in Italy. Genuine prosciutto di Parma is so darned tasty because the pigs are fed whey from Parmesan dairies. In Millbank, Ont., Monforte Dairy feeds a herd with whey from organic sheep's milk cheese. Rounding out the field, I add organic pork from Field Gate Organics in Zurich, Ont., a Tamworth/English Black cross that doesn't boast a fancy pedigree.

Recruiting tasters is easy. The response from Julian Jozsvai, a legendary grill master who works in the renovation trade by day, was typical. "I'm there," he said, before even hearing the time or place. (He dates a vegan, mind you.) Stage and production manager Hilary Unger, a former Kingston restaurateur, was loving the fact all the pork was locally raised. Artist/gilder/gourmand Liz Hunt feels a good dinner is only her due having endured my many meat-related ravings.

So there we are. Early evening light glistens off the chops on the butcher's block. The meat, lightly salted and peppered, hits the grill, and fire takes care of the rest. A flask of white wine kept at hand prevents flare-ups (butt chops need watching – the fat that makes them tasty can char them in a flash and this night pinot grigio works nicely). Each chop carries a coloured flag. Only I know their secret identities. It's time for guests to sing for their supper, and rate for initial taste, texture, aroma, appearance, and overall enjoyment.

They do so with gusto. Good food, it's said, kills conversation. On this night, little is heard except the odd "Oh! My! Lord!" as we sample each offering and scribble notes. Chops are ranked first through fourth, and given an overall score from 1 to 10. Salads and side dishes are reserved for later. Nothing interferes with the pure pork taste except spoons of wild grape sorbet as a palate cleanser between bites.

The winner? Closing strongly, it's Tamworth. Our oldest breed still has the legs to carry flavour and texture to victory. Close second is the whey-fed pork, rated a consistent first for initial taste and moisture, but less strong on the finish. Fieldgate pork comes third, in a contested heat with Berkshire, which some find superior for texture and overall pork flavour, and others find tough (oops … that would be firm), and a little thin in taste.

Refreshments cover a wide range. Hilary brings vinho verde to the table, an excellent, crisp accent. The pinot grigio sparkled at the grill, and in the glass. Julian favours Hollick, a robust Australian cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend. Late arrival Mike swears by beer (Amsterdam blond). With quality meat, any good drink suffices, bearing in mind the vintners' motto, "Life's too short to drink cheap wine."

Was the test fair? Well, remember the conditions. Naked chops, just salt and pepper, on a hot grill. Pork performs differently according to how it's cooked. Sauces and marinades change the equation, as do heat and timing. Berkshire (still my favourite) is unrivalled at soaking up the flavour of a sauce.

Any way you cut it, it was a fun, fabulous meal. Try it for yourself, with beef (grass-fed vs. grain fed), fowl, or seafood (Atlantic salmon? Chinook? Koho?).

As for pork? The verdict is in. Go with the Tamworth.

Keith Gordon slings meat at The Healthy Butcher.

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