Autumn Olive Farms is a magical place. Hundreds of pigs roam wherever they like on a ninety acre farm and a seventeen acre forest of oaks, hickories, wild cherry trees, black walnuts, hackberries, and, of course, Autumn olives. Stand near the middle of the forest and, above birds chirping and the gentle ruffle of leaves, you will hear the sound of nuts giving way to the jaws of some of the happiest pigs on earth.
The pigs live under the care of Clay and Linda Trainum, who began raising them at the farm in 2010. Not long before that, the Trainums had actually stopped eating pork altogether after seeing videos of the treatment of mass-produced pigs. At their spacious farm near Waynseboro, Virginia, the Trainums were determined to do things differently. “Our pigs live their lives in an environment of things that bring them satisfaction and pleasure, like exposure to the warmth of sunlight, mud, and rooting for the underground forages they love,” says Clay Trainum. “Foraging on green vegetation, nuts, and fruits is deeply ingrained in their DNA, and they derive great pleasure from doing so.”
Caring properly for hundreds of roaming pigs is hard work: building triangular “houses” throughout the farm for their shelter, maintaining good bedding, sustaining fields with diverse forages for year round ground cover, and catching pigs when it’s time to move them from one field to another. Then there is the constant fight against predators that lurk beyond the farm’s edges. “Battling predators is difficult as it takes place when I should be sleeping!” says Trainum.
While it would be easier to confine the pigs to a pen, the labor needed for their freedom is worthwhile. Allowing the pigs to roam on Autumn Olive’s eco-rich farm and forest is not just good for the pigs, the Trainums say, it is also key to the quality of the pigs’ meat. As the pigs root under the ground for nuts, insects, fruits, seeds and plants, they literally eat soil, and the minerals and nutrients the soil contains. The Trainums liken this to the wine concept terroir. Like grapes, the pigs pull up from the ground the unique attributes of the Shenandoah Valley farm.
The impact of nutrition and wellness on meat quality, it turns out, is not just a feel good story. “Nutrition impacts meat quality,” says Dr. Elizabeth Hines, Swine Specialist at Penn State University. “And, animals that are abused or not treated well will generally have poor meat production, both in quantity and quality.”
Whatever the reason, the Trainums’ products are beloved by chefs. “Love, passion, attention to detail, ingenuity, intelligence, organization, reliability, good morals, and good people,” says The Dabney’s Jeremiah Langhorne, a 2018 James Beard Award winner. “If you apply those ideas to raising and selling heritage pork, you’ll understand why they are the best.” Langhorne is not alone in his adoration. Follow Autumn Olive Farms’ Instagram feed and you will see photograph after photograph of the wonders chefs create with Autumn Olive Farms pork. While I have tasted many such creations, never have I encountered a dish that better honors Autumn Olive Farms’ pigs than one I had this year at Fleurie, in Charlottesville, Virginia. At Fleurie, the same respect that the Trainums accord their pigs in life chef Jose de Brito accords them in death.
At Fleurie the same respect that the Trainums accord their pigs in life chef Jose de Brito accords them in death.
Photo by Tom McGovern
Nose to Tail Eating
One cause of the mass production methods the Trainums despise is that so many meat consumers refuse to eat most of a pig. Think about meat displays at a supermarket. Every day they are filled with the same familiar cuts: chops, loin, ribs, and ham. And yet, these cuts comprise just a fraction of a pig. Where do the remaining parts go? You rarely see them because demand for them is so small.
Even the Trainums are not immune to the effects of this. One might think that with a product as extraordinary as the Trainums’, consumers would want it all. Not so. “All parts of the pig can be utilized for food,” says Trainum, “but not enough people choose to consume all parts.” This can leave the Trainums with excess undesired parts like shanks, heads, feet, hard fat, leaf fat, and skin. “We are challenged to sell all parts in ratios that balance out the whole pig,” says Trainum.
The market’s response to this has been to make more pigs. Find other uses for parts humans won’t eat, and make more pigs to produce more parts that they will eat.
But, there’s another possible response. And, that response is at the heart of the story of the 2018 Dish of the Year. Instead of supply changing to meet consumers’ demand, what if consumers were to change what they demand? Many people assume that they would not enjoy eating certain pig parts simply because of the sound of them. But, what if they were to discover that they really would enjoy those parts? Rather than making more pigs to eat, we could just eat more of each pig.
The story begins with a decision by Fleurie owner Brian Helleberg to change how he purchases Autumn Olive Farms pork. To align with customers’ demand, restaurants typically place meat orders by the cut: rib-eye steaks, pork chops, a leg of lamb, etc. But, Helleberg believes so strongly in what the Trainums are doing that he began purchasing entire sides of their pigs, which Fleurie’s kitchen staff breaks down in house, from nose to tail. “I’ve visited the pigs at Autumn Olive, and I have always observed them growing whole,” says Helleberg. “So it makes for the most straightforward transaction with the farm if we purchase it whole and add the value in-house. That leaves the farmers more time to do what they do best.”
That said, there are reasons so few restaurants buy entire carcasses at a time. “As the Chef de Cuisine, getting an entire pig seems fun,” says de Brito, “but it is not.” The challenges are many: moving and storing the carcass, butchering it, selling it, and, ultimately, making money with it. “It requires time and serious planning,” de Brito says.
The parts easiest for the restaurant to sell are chops. Fleurie’s beautiful double chops are so popular that a whole rack can sell out in a night. Ok, now what? The rack is gone, but 80% of the carcass remains. De Brito initially set out to work through the pig’s less-desired, primal parts one by one, introducing nightly specials from vintage types of cooking, like pig feet terrine, confit of pork galantine, and paupiettes. Unfortunately, the “strange-name preparations,” as de Brito calls them, did not sell well.
So de Brito looked for another outlet: the tasting menu. “The people who order the tasting menu usually just put themselves in the hands of the kitchen,” says de Brito. On top of that, the number of Fleurie regulars who order the tasting menu had been increasing. “I had the numbers and a better audience,” says de Brito. “Nose to Tail was finally possible!”
Challenges remained, though. Most significantly: planning the right percentage of servings among a pig’s various parts. Like the Trainums at the farm, how would the restaurant avoid having too much pork belly left after it runs out of loin? De Brito’s solution was twofold. First, he would extend the parts’ shelf life with preservation methods of cooking, so he could have parts available as needed. Second, instead of the standard approach of featuring just one cut of meat on a dish, he would create a dish for the tasting menu with many parts of the pig all on one plate. This would also allow de Brito some flexibility in how to describe the dish on the menu, so “strange-names” would not deter diners. De Brito remembered a lesson from his time at The Alley Light when a delicious crispy crepe filled with pork head and feet did not sell. After de Brito changed the menu description from “pork head and feet” to “braised pork,” it suddenly became a best-seller. “People were moaning over it,” de Brito says. If De Brito were to create a dish at Fleurie incorporating many parts of a pig, he thought, it would help to have a similarly vague – but accurate – description. Thus, “Autumn Olive Farms’ Heritage Pork, Prepared Nose to Tail” was born.
The great effort required to make “Autumn Olive Farms’ Heritage Pork, Prepared Nose to Tail” is a tribute to the pigs of Autumn Olive Farms and their caretakers. Behold what goes into one single line item on the menu – the fourth course of Fleurie’s tasting menu.
First, De Brito and his team carry the carcass inside the restaurant.
Next they break down the carcass, a four-hour process.
Once the carcass is broken down, the noble parts are separated from the rest. Noble parts are rack, loin, half of the shoulder, ham, and belly. The remaining, primal parts include skin, feet, head, soft fat, hard fat, the other half of the shoulder, kidney, and liver. The noble parts go through an old fashioned French method of preserving meat, petit salé. First, the meat receives thirty-six hours in a brine as salty as seawater, with sugar, bay leaf, thyme, clove, and black peppercorn. Next, the meat is de-brined for twenty-four hours in clean water. These processes tenderize the meat and give it a slight briny flavor and, when cooked, a beautiful rosy color. They also keep the meat fresh for up to five weeks, or until the next pig arrives.
After the brining process, De Brito marinates the racks and loins for three days in orange, lemon, fennel seed, olive oil, thyme, rosemary, and espelette pepper. This boosts umami and tenderness.
When it comes time to serve the dish, De Brito cooks a three-bone chop first by pan-searing both sides in pork fat. Then he stands the chop on its side and turns down the heat to render and crisp the fat around the edges, before roasting it atop a grate, to allow airflow around the chop. Because of the time that searing and roasting require (30-45 minutes), de Brito and his staff do it just before restaurant service begins. Then, to order, de Brito, sears the chop, cuts a slice, and bastes it with a mixture of butter, pork fat, crushed bay leaf, and thyme. On nights when he is short on chops, de Brito roasts loin instead.
Photo by Tom McGovern
Another brined part, the pork belly, de Brito cooks sous vide for twelve hours. At service, he pan sears it and coats it in an agrodolce of mustard seed.
As for the primal parts, still another component of the dish combines skin, feet, head, and blood. De Brito boils the skin in cream, and boils the head and feet in water and aromatics. He then de-bones the boiled meat, chops it all together, and emulsifies it with blood, nutmeg, shallot, and garlic. The result de Brito bakes until set with caramelized onion, thyme, egg yolk, espelette pepper, nutmeg, black pepper, and a touch of cream. At service, de Brito slices a cube of the terrine, and pan sears it to order.
Bones help make another component: sauce. De Brito first roasts the bones, and then covers them in a pot with stock made from the head and feet used for the blood terrine. The broth is slowly simmered and reduced over several days, until very dark. The result: demi glace de cochon. Next, de Brito caramelizes sugar in a pan until amber, and deglazes it with orange, lime and lemon juice. He “confits” the citrus peels by cooking them in a syrup of citrus juice, sugar, water, cinnamon, and cloves. Then he combines the confited peels with the citrus glaze and the demi glace de cochon. The mixture is reduced for several more hours, after which de Brito strains the spice and peel and passes the sauce through a muslin several times to remove any specks. He rounds out the sauce with butter and pork fat, and then removes it from the heat to infuse with a few sprigs of thyme for about twenty minutes. Voila! That’s the sauce for the finished plate.
Another component is pork confit, made by curing shoulder and other odds-and-ends of the pig, and covering the meat in rendered soft fat. The cured meat is roasted slowly at a very low temperature until falling apart. De Brito then shreds the meat and covers it in more fat for preservation, and stores it in a container for weeks, as needed. To serve the confit, de Brito shapes small discs of confit called crepinettes, and wraps them in caul fat, the lining of the pig’s intestines. He sears them to order along with pieces of the pork belly.
Photo by Tom McGovern
Finally, there is lardo, made from the layer of fat between the skin and the loin, called hard fat. De Brito cleans the hard fat and cuts it into two pound blocks, which he rubs with salt, rosemary, and black peppercorn. He wraps the blocks in plastic and stores them in a lightless bin in the walk-in refrigerator, where the blocks are aged for a minimum of six months to build flavor, being flipped every two months. When the blocks are done, de Brito washes them, lets them dry for four days, and then hangs them, wrapped in cheesecloth. For service, de Brito puts some of the lardo in the freezer so it is easy to cut into thin slices to drape across the pork. The heat lamp on the pass-through from the kitchen to the dining room is all it takes to provide the melting each slice needs for service.
Photo by Tom McGovern
Photo by Tom McGovern
What drives a chef to devote such an enormous amount of time to a single plate of food? In this case, to honor the life of the pig. In part that means not wasting a thing. “An animal is not only a belly and a tenderloin,” de Brito says. “I strongly believe that I should do my hardest to use everything.” It also means creating the best product he can so that the pig’s death is put to the highest purpose. When de Brito first considered how to tackle the surplus of unpopular parts of the pig, he thought of turning them all into sausage, where no one would know the difference. But, de Brito ultimately decided that would be “unfair to the pig.” Instead, he set out to create a dish that would show proper respect for the pig.
To that end, it helps that de Brito and his staff are so skilled. When it comes to culinary expertise, de Brito’s decades of study and experience have yielded a chef who can run circles around much of today’s younger guard. “Jose is a naturally gifted, passionate chef whose love of the profession makes him a rarity in our industry,” says Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington. Indeed, not every chef has de Brito’s passion for classical cooking methods. “I am so attached to old fashioned preservation and ways to make the most disliked cut attractive because I am amazed of the smartness and skills of chefs of the past, who have more than thousands of ways to make each last cut tasty and usable,” the French native says. “Those skills are now either forgotten or badly used, but I keep them as alive as I can.”
And yet, in the case of “Autumn Olive Farms’ Heritage Pork, Prepared Nose to Tail,” the purpose of de Brito’s application of those skills to the pig is not to mask its flavor. Rather, it is the opposite: slowly coax out the essence of an Autumn Olive Farms pig. Look closely at de Brito’s process for making the dish and, among occasional gentle seasonings and aromatics, you will find that the primary ingredient is time. More than forty-eight hours for petit salé. Twelve hours to sous vide the belly. Several days to reduce broth to demi glace de cochon. Weeks to age the confit. Months to age the lardo. All of this time works gradually to evoke and concentrate the flavor of the pork.
In the end, on the plate is a pork chop (or loin), a piece of pork belly, blood sausage terrine, confit crepinette, and draped across the top, lardo. Richness-cutting acid comes from garnishes of apple puree, braised apple and onion agrodolce. And, perhaps most importantly of all, de Brito says, is the generous pool of sauce. “A good dish is the marriage of different ingredients,” says de Brito, “and the bonding in this marriage is the sauce.”
Photo by Tom McGovern
The result is a lesson for diners who usually eat just a fraction of a pig. Here is a dish that, out of respect for the pig and the Trainums’ care for it, uses almost every part of the pig. And, thanks to de Brito, the dish is extraordinary. “Jose and his team have the drive and talent to make the forgotten odds and ends of the pig taste every bit as good as the center chop,” says Helleberg. “That gives us the best chance to utilize the whole pig just as it is raised on the farm, and to be part of a sustainable and rewarding process.”
So, if you go to Fleurie for the dish, when the plate emerges from the kitchen and is placed before you, before digging in, pause for a moment of gratitude. Thank de Brito and his staff. Thank Helleberg. And, the Trainums, too. And, most of all, like they all have done through their work, thank the pig.
Photo by Tom McGovern