10 Things That Might Surprise You About The Wild World Of Heritage Pork

First of all, to clear the air about what exactly heritage pork is, it's the meat from a distinct breed of pig — whose presence can be traced back to the time before industrial farming. Meaning, these pigs were the original "free range" back in the time when all animals were. Some heritage breeds have become rare and even close to extinction, so over the years there has been a push to bring them back. And as for the flavor, the most appetizing aspect of these animals? In a world where all pork products taste similar, heritage pigs rise above the rest. Here are 10 essential things to know.

1. Pigs have been here a long time

A long time, as in 40 million years. Fossils have been found in Europe in Asia that indicate that wild, hog-like mammals roamed forests and swamps during that period. Domesticated swine showed up in Chinese history from around 4900 BC, and then later in European farm lore from around 1500 BC. It's safe to say that by our modern standards, these ancient creatures would have been considered heritage animals.

2. You can't farm heritage pigs in mass

Traditionally, heritage pigs are animals that were allowed to forge in the wild, eating bugs, seeds, nuts, fruits and other plants. They endured all types of weather and for that, they were made strong, hearty and lean, yet still retained good stores of fatty tissue. It was actually industrial farming that made this type of domestic pig lose the ability to survive in the wild, albeit the controlled wild. This is why these animals cannot be contained in factories and must be allowed room to roam in order to survive.

3. There are 10 main heritage pigs in America

According to The Livestock Conservancy, there are 10 heritage breeds in the country today. "When we created the term 'heritage,' it was intentionally left loosely policed so that raisers of the breeds on our Conservation Priority List could use it for marketing their animals," says Ryan Walker, the organization's communications manager. "In recent years, several breeds such as Berkshire, Mangalitsa and KuneKune have started using the 'heritage breed' term in their marketing, but according to the heritage swine definition, they technically wouldn't be included."

Of the ones rightfully dubbed heritage, you have the red Tamworth, which descended from the wild boars that roamed the forests. Then the burnt-umber colored Red Wattle, which comes from the South and is the only type of swine to retain a wattle, that fleshy part hanging from the neck, an accoutrement that is entirely useless to the animal. There is the rare Large Black, whose numbers have dwindled into the hundreds, as have those of the American Mulefoot, a breed that gets its name because its feet are uncloven. The lovely Gloucester Old Spot is a tasty, black and white spotted pig that's a cross between multiple now-extinct breeds. Aside from these you also have the Choctaw, Ossabaw Island, Guinea Hog, Hereford and Saddleback.

4. Berkshires are the most popular

Chances are you haven't heard of many of the aforementioned breeds save for black Berkshires, though these aren't technically heritage pigs. Still, lately, meat from this pig appears on all sorts of menus, whether it's Berkshire bacon, pork chops, loin and so on. But why this pig? One simple reason: it tastes pretty darn good. The pink, marbled flesh proves tender with a superb juiciness. Also, it has a lot of succulent fat, making it great for high-temperature cooking. Then, there's the taste. "Berkshire pigs have a different diet, eating richer foods and therefore yield a richer tasting meat," says Matt Tilden, chef and owner of Brooklyn's SCRATCHbread. Tilden solely uses this type of pork at his artisan "fast food" eatery, and he is not alone. Chefs all over the country stick to Berkshire when dealing with pork. It's so good that in factory farming, scientists will splice some genes of this heritage breed with the commercial pigs when the run-of-the-mill meat starts losing flavor.

5. Heritage pigs are endangered

Even though we have been seeing a push to use these breeds on the table, they are not in abundance. According to The Livestock Conservancy, Large Black, Mulefoot and Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs are critically endangered. The Tamworth and Red Wattle are faring a little better, and only warrant the "threatened" label. But it's the Choctaw Hog we should really be worried about as there are only around 100 left in the entire world. Currently The Livestock Conservancy is trying to bring their numbers up by running a conservation breeding program.

6. Pigs can taste like what they eat

In a way, pigs are the poster child for the phrase "you are what you eat." After all, you can literally taste the pig's diet in its flesh. This is why the acorn-loving Spanish Ibérico ham has a nutty flavor and why some farmers love to feed their hogs milk. In the end, do you want a pork chop that tastes like old dried corn and dirt à la a factory farm? Or, would you prefer one that has nuances of hazelnuts, fresh grass, honey or even beer in some cases? The short answer is the latter, and this, along with humane farming, is why many food-lovers prefer heritage breeds.

7. The Spanish brought pigs to America

True, most of the heritage pigs we are familiar with — Berkshire, Yorkshire and Gloucester Old Spot — hail from England. However, the first pigs were brought to the United States to Florida by the Spanish in the 1539. The man behind the fated voyage was Hernando de Soto, who carried over 13 hogs to Tampa Bay. Sadly, de Soto died three years after he brought the animals, but by then his original modest herd had grown to around 700 — give or take 100 due to escapees and ones deemed dinner.

8. You can see heritage pigs on TV

According to Walker, the pigs featured on that British historical drama series Downton Abbey are Tamworths. These reddish hogs are direct descendants of the native pig stock of northern Europe, so there's actually a historical aspect to the show that rings true.

9. Each pig has a unique flavor

Though factory farming has made us think of all pork as a singular flavor, the truth of the matter is that each breed offers a unique taste. The Duroc gives a well-balanced, not-too-lean-or-too-fatty meat, similar to the slightly leaner Yorkshire. Berkshires have a luscious, buttery flesh, whereas the Red Wattle tends to be on the earthy side of the spectrum, with meat that tastes a bit like beef. Every type of hog is also prized for individual things like back fat, marbled shanks and juicy meat.

10. There used to be a lot more heritage pigs

"In the 100 years between 1835 and 1935, we lost 14 swine breeds to extinction in America," says Walker. This includes the Bedford, Byfield, Irish Grazier, Suffolk, Big China, Jersey Red, original Duroc, Red Guinea, Spanish Red, Portugese Red, Curtis Victoria, Davis Victoria, Cheshire and Essex.

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