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Chestnuts and Pork

In 2006, Badgersett partnered with Grass Run Farm to produce a small amount of chestnut-finished pork, for sale.

Why Chestnut-finished pork? There are at least 3 excellent reasons: taste, health, and environment.

Reason One— Taste And Flavor

The taste aspect is dealt with in depth at the Augieland Food Blog.

Augieland is a highly respected food blog. If you're not familiar with the "foodie" world, there can hardly be a better introduction than reading some of his restaurant reviews. Most of us don't know that there IS that much to know about food, but he does. After reading his comments on the acorn-fed pork from Spain, we asked him to taste our chestnut fed pork, and he agreed to give it a try. The results are at the link above.

Chestnut fed pork is just very, very delicious. Finishing hogs on chestnuts has been a tradition in a great many parts of the world for a very long time. It has only been recently that we've forgotten about it, as forests were cut and pigs have been put into confinement feeding factories.

We had our first tasting party on July 15, 2006. I asked everyone to write up their thoughts briefly after the dinner. Here they are:

"I, Ryan Jepsen, and four others got together and sampled three different types of pork chops. The three types of pork chops sampled were: 1 red pig finished on chestnuts for approx. 6 weeks and butcher weight was approx. 310 lb./ 1 pink pig finished on chestnuts weighting approx. 310 lb. / 1 random pig finished on pasture and supplemented with corn and oats. Pork chops from each pig were grilled and kept separate. This was not a blind taste test. We all sampled pork chops from each pig. I thought the pork chops from the chestnut finished pigs was far superior to conventional finished pigs. I would love to serve chestnut finished pork chops to my dinner guests again."
"Though admittedly not a big meat eater, I must say that the pork I recently sampled from pigs finished on chestnuts, when eaten bite-for-bite with pork from pigs finished on grain, has a distinctively more complex, satisfying taste. Of course, we tried to control for variables affecting taste in our experiment, limiting the comparison to similar-sized cuts of similar age and with similar fat. We went to great lengths to cook the cuts at the same temperature on the same grill for the same length of time. In addition to complex, sweet-nutty flavor, the chestnut pork seemed juicier and more tender. I was so surprised that a difference was easily detectable that I sampled back and forth again and again. There's something to this crazy idea, and I hope to spread the word!" Kristine K. Jepsen, Grass Run Farm
"I had the opportunity on July 15, 2006 to sample pork from both animals raised and finished on grain, and animals raised on grain and finished in the last six weeks on chestnuts. We grilled the same cuts (chops and steaks) from both varieties in a single evening, on the same grill and for the same length of time. It was very distinct to me that the chestnut-finished pork had a richer flavor and more succulent texture, though both cuts from both varieties appeared to have the same amount of trimmings. The difference was distinct enough to tell the meat apart in a blind sampling from a mixed plate." Graham W. Jepsen
"I was just plain scared when we finally faced the chops, ready to taste. 'What if there is just no difference? What if the chestnut fed pork tastes weird or just bad, since most of what we gave them was sprouted nuts? I'm going to look like an idiot.' is what I was thinking. I was also wishing we'd had some way to do a true double or even single blind test, but we couldn't. I was so happy with the other tasters— nobody made any snap judgments or comments, and everyone was aware of the dangers of the non-blind process— it took quite a few minutes of careful chewing, but eventually, EVERYONE started to say— 'you know— the chestnut fed stuff is just— WAY better...' And it was. Not so distinctive that you'd go crazy without a side by side comparison— but it was more tender, more complex, more yummy, every time. One of the thoughts that hit me was, 'This is just exactly what pork is supposed to be — delicious.' — which made me remember all the times I've eaten store bought pork, and been disappointed. It was good— or great— and worth all the trouble (hauling nuts, storing nuts, etc.). Huge relief, I don't look like an idiot, after all." Philip A. Rutter

Historically, several of the "famous" hams, including Virginia hams, were originally specifically finished on chestnuts. When the American chestnut trees were killed in the blight, though, of course that stopped, and pork producers shifted to other feeds. (We'll get references for all this up here as soon as we can.) 

Reason Two— Health

In the earlier days of the USA, it was a common thing to finish hogs by turning them out into the forests to feed on "mast", a term that includes all the nuts and seeds and fruits to be found there. Typically in American forests, there would be acorns, walnuts, (yes, pigs can eat black walnuts with no problem; they've got very strong teeth and jaws!) hickory nuts, beech nuts; chestnuts in Appalachia; and sometimes persimmons, pawpaws, and wild cherries. And more. It was a very complex diet—good for the hogs and, in fact, exactly what hogs used to eat when they were wild. They thrived on it, and in years when the mast was heavy with acorns, the folk tales include years when the pigs got so fat the folds would close over their eyes, making it impossible for them to see.

The fat, the lard, was of course a very important foodstuff in the years before we "learned" that it was bad for us and replaced it with artificially hydrogenated vegetable fats, which turn out to be much less healthy. Even before the chestnut blight killed off the chestnut forests in the eastern US, though, consumers turned away from forest finished hogs. The lard rendered from such hogs turns out to be much softer at room temperature than lard from corn finished hogs, and sometimes it was even reported to be liquid. (This is fact, not folk-tale. One good reference is the book "Tree Crops" by J. Russell Smith.) Housewives were taught that hard white lard was what they wanted for making biscuits and pie crusts, and the practice of finishing hogs in the forests disappeared. There were other reasons why forest finishing declined, of course, including changing forest ownership and other sociological aspects.

Those of you who remember anything from your college course in Organic Chemistry should be perking up your ears right now. Soft-liquid at room temperature? Almost certainly, that translates into "much less saturated fats". That is, they are probably much healthier fats for humans to be eating.

It turns out that the hogs in Spain that are finished on acorns (pata negra pigs) have had their fat tested. It turns out that, indeed, fat from pata negra pigs is less saturated than regular lard. It even contains the two holy-grails of current fat-fashion, mono-unsaturated and Omega-3 fatty acids. "Olive trees on four hooves" one web site puts it! 

Two points: This is about acorn fed hogs. Chestnuts are closely related to acorns, though, and in fact, most of the forests in Spain contain chestnut trees right beside the oaks, so the realities here are a little hard to sort out yet.

There is more than a little reason to hope that chestnut fed pork will be healthier food, as well as tastier. We're hoping to have some of the lard from these pigs analyzed for exactly these factors.

Reason Three— The Environment

The world needs more trees and less corn, no doubt about it. And the world needs food. The possibility of having more of our pork production take place in the more natural situation of chestnut forests, or even chestnut plantations, is certainly worth looking at carefully. It could easily be better for the pigs, better for the people, and better for the farmers. Not only is chestnut fed pork worth more than confinement raised, corn-fed pork, but there are rumors (not claiming fact here!) that pigs actually gain weight faster when fed chestnuts instead of corn. We hope to find that out in the years ahead.

This post is just the beginning of the conversation. We intend to keep it updated and improved as we go through the process of re-learning how to produce pork with chestnut trees. One of the real possibilities for next year is that we may fence off a portion of the chestnut trees here at Badgersett Farm, put some pigs in to pasture there, and start the process of actually finishing hogs on chestnut pasture. We'll keep you informed.