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The Non-Boring Boar
By Chef Greg Baker
It seems, Chinese zodiac aside, that 2008 is the year of the pig; bacon, pork belly, and porcine charcuterie have taken the forefront this year - my wife even made bacon chocolate chip cookies, recently. I'll go on record as enthusiastically endorsing its rise to the spotlight; pork has wallowed (literally) away as a 3rd string food source in America for far too long. Perhaps we've cast aside our fears of trichinosis, (or 'worms' as I knew it as a kid) perhaps we've realized that there is room for a pig at the table in a healthy diet. Whatever the cause, I like the effect.
As we put the turkey holiday behind us, and the ham holiday approaches, I keep thinking that a huge platter of domestic ham, while tempting, seems a bit tame. My thoughts keep turning to the runaway cousin; wild boar.
Unlike huge swaths of the world, pork, in all of its forms, is not native to our part of the world. In Europe and Asia, domestic pigs are strains of wild hogs that have been brought in from the cold, so to speak, quite the opposite situation here in North America.
In 1539, Hernando de Soto landed about 30 miles from where I sit, near Tampa Bay. It seems that the king of Spain had promised the governorship of Florida to De Soto if he explored and settled the land - at his own expense (quite the bargain, huh?). In those times, food preservation was a bit lacking at best. An explorer and his troops had to bring food with them in a sustainable form, usually in the walking form. So, de Soto landed with 622 men and 13 Spanish hogs to feed them. Doing the math, that's not much to go around, but the plan was to breed the hogs, and use them for food in an emergency. It turns out that hogs are great at killing snakes, so even in times of potential starvation, his men ate dogs before they were allowed to touch the pigs. By the time that de Soto had crossed the Mississippi and returned, his hogs numbered in the 700's. He died of malaria shortly after, and the pigs were auctioned of, and naturally, some escaped. Thus begins the strain of wild boar that gave birth to Hogzilla. Must be something in the water.
My first appreciation for wild boar came in the 90's, while spending time in Tuscany. A young boar is quite tender, but lacking in flavor, somewhat similar to domestic pork, while a mature boar is more robust in color and taste, yet tougher. In Tuscany, a mature boar is considered a delicacy and can be found hanging in markets - the market place in Florence has a brass boar statue that graces a body with good luck in exchange for a coin and a rub on its nose. The preparations vary, but common methods are in umido (stewed), arrosto (roasted), or my personal favorite, a ragout.
Cinghiale al Sugo, (stewed boar in tomato and marsala) had a profound effect on my view of the pig. The texture and flavor of a wild boar has scant relation to a pork chop in your local grocery store. While largely comparable in fat, protein, and cholesterol content, the idea of 'wild' means that the boar moves, uses its muscles, and roots for food - having a marked impact on the flavor of the meat.. In fact, while there is a huge anti-hunting movement in Italy because of the scarcity of game, not a lot of people mind the taking of boar during La Caccia (hunting season) due to the fact that a boar can destroy a vegetable garden in a matter of minutes, and most importantly - they eat the truffles that grow in the area. I can sympathize, you may be of a different mindset, but I'm so mean that I once shot a man just for snoring, what do you think I'll do to protect a truffle? All right, I'm kidding about the snoring part, but don't trifle with truffles.
Back here in the states, I tried to extol the virtues of the wild brethren of the domestic pig, but I found few early adopters. Sources of wild boar were few, and personally, prior to my trans-Atlantic trip, my only experience with them was an unfortunate pursuit during a restroom break on a canoe trip on the Peace River, in central Florida (No, it wasn't me doing the pursuing, thank you very much), so how could I really expect the masses to embrace my new-found love? Epic Failure.
Ten years later, with the pork frenzy in its current state, I suspect adoption to be easier. There are still only two reliable lines of supply - online ordering, or kill it and grill it yourself. I'm going to lean towards the former, and if you have not previously hunted, I would highly recommend a more appropriate type of game to cut your teeth on - like one that can't kill you back. Luckily, many online suppliers carry more than the sub-primal cuts that were the available product back then. Not wanting to don a safety-orange vest, I'm looking at a ranch in Texas that provides hickory smoked boar ham for my holiday dinner - I'm gonna follow Lou Reed's advice, and uhm, take a walk on the wild side. At least for once I won't be the only boar at the party this year.
Greg Baker's column, Culinary Sherpas, appears every week in the Tampa Tribune. He is also managing partner of the personal chef service, CooksnCompany. Visit his blog at www.culinarysherpas.com.