Of the many workshops offered at Slow Food Nation '08 I was of the lucky few to attend the Heritage Pork & Sparkling Mead Workshop. The highlight of my day, my only regret is that the workshop lasted only one short hour. Gordon Hull, of Heidrun Meadery, Eliza Maclean, of Cane Creek Farm, and Chef Joe Bonaparte and Marla Thurman of The International Culinary Schools presented an intriguing and thorough look into the world of Ossabaw Island Hogs and Sparkling Mead. Bonaparte and Thurman cooked and paired the pork and mead beautifully while Hull and Maclean extolled the virtues of their particular passions.
Gordon Hull is the owner, and as he joked, the sole employee, of Heidrun Meadery. Hull is a well-spoken, passionate man quite obviously consumed by his work. His short words on production methods provided a clear glimpse of just how expertly he commands his craft. The sparkling mead, produced from his small meadery in tiny Arcata, CA is an appropriate representation of just how seriously he takes his work. Not a huge fan of traditional, still meads myself I was blown away at the quality and flavor of the sparkling mead. The tantalizing aroma of honey blooms forth from the mead, teasing your senses. Orange Blossom Mead presents a backlit citrus note while the Buckwheat Blossom proffers a crisp, dry subtleness. The mead paired spectacularly with the Ossabaw Island Hog from Eliza Maclean. I had only a few moments to ask Hull about the name of his meadery, Heidrun. As soon as he started explaining it immediately took me back to high school mythology classes. Odin, the leader of all Norse gods, kept a goat named Heidrun. Heidrun fed off the Læraðr tree and produced mead instead of milk. Odin, concerned about tainted foods, drank only the mead that flowed from the teats of Heidrun. Heidrun also nourished the valkyries.
Maclean owns Cane Creek Farm in Snow Camp, NC. At Cane Creek she raises a variety of animals including the Ossabaw Island Hog. Ossabaw's are descendants of Spanish Iberian pigs left on the island of Ossabaw off the coast of Georgia nearly 400 years ago. Unable to escape the micro-habitat of the island the Ossabaw's evolved to survive. Looking at this photo of Ossabaw Island, though, it looks like an OK place to hang out for a while.
Through their adaptation the relatively petite Ossabaw's became smaller still. Their captivity on the island forced them to alter their eating habits throughout the meager spring. They developed a unique method of fat metabolism, allowing each hog to store a much larger amount of fat than other hogs. This metabolic transformation also produced a form of non-insulin dependent diabetes, making them a choice test animal for diabetes research.
Their fat is also higher in Omega 3 fatty acids than other hog fat. This larger proportion of unsaturated fats as opposed to saturated fats sure made me feel a whole lot less guilty about indulging so heavily during the workshop.
Our first pairing started with a taste of the Orange Blossom Sparkling Mead.
The heady scent of honey was most prevalent, with surprisingly strong backnotes of the citrus flower the honey is produced from. The mead was light and clear with a pleasant effervescence.
The Orange Blossom was slightly sweeter than I anticipated, but with enough acidity to cut through the fattiness of the Ossabaw.
Accompanying the Orange Blossom mead was a smoked Ossabaw pork belly over what I'm assuming was a fruit compote. The fat was truly of the melt-in-your-mouth variety and the meat smoked to perfection. The hog meat was quite obviously of an amazing quality with a firm, tender texture. That fat, though - outstanding. Definitely not the type of pork fat you'd slice away from your meat to discard. Chefs Bonaparte and Thurman did an amazing job in pairing.
Next up was a taste comparison of Ossabaw Island Hog pork shoulder and store-bought pork shoulder, both smoked and served with a type of pickled sweet corn chutney. The difference in the smoked shoulder was palpably, instantly noticeable. The commodity shoulder was tough, dry, and stringy. The smoke flavor seemed like a layer over the top of the pork, rather than the permeation the Ossabaw achieved. The smoked Ossabaw shoulder was a touch drier than I'd like, but still moist enough and tender as could be. The smoke had permeated the flesh entirely, creating a harmonious blend with the marbled meat.
Our next taste was a comparison of store bought salamis and Ossabaw Island Hog salamis. The three samples on the top row of the salami plate are Ossabaw and the bottom two were bought from a local grocery store.
I'm not sure exactly what this was, but it was outstanding.
The differences between the Ossabaw salami and the store-bought was like comparing Gloucester Cheddar to Velveeta - night and day. The store bought salami was plastic-like and had an odd offputting smell. The taste was unremarkable and again possessed an odd aftertaste, probably from the large amount of nitrites used. The Ossabaw on the other hand, was remarkably velvety. The salami tore easily and the fat practically melted on my tongue. Here you can see the drastic difference between the two.
The Ossabaw on the right is noticeably darker and fattier than the commodity salami on the left.
For our final pairing we tried Gordon Hull's Buckwheat Blossom Sparkling Mead.
The Buckwheat Blossom mead was darker and much drier than the Orange Blossom with more effervescence. The honey scent was still noticeable, but not nearly as prevalent as in the Orange Blossom. The Buckwheat was crisp and clean with a refreshing bite - slightly reminiscent of grass.
The dryness of the Buckwheat mead coupled perfectly with the next pork presentation, Braised Neckbones with Pickled Okra and Collard Greens served over Cheese Grits.
I've never had neckbones before, but I always thought they'd be much tougher than what I was presented with. I'm assuming this is in large part due to the tender Ossabaw hog, but I imagine Joe Bonaparte's expertise in the kitchen lends a hand as well. The neckbones were firm but tender and filled with flavor. The okra and collards were delicious, with the cheese grits providing a perfect base.
I actually enjoyed the cheese grits so much I made them a couple days later - not nearly as good as Bonaparte's, but they were delicious nonetheless.
This foray into the world of heritage pork was eye opening at the very least. Ossabaw Hogs are considered critically endangered. Thankfully caring individuals like Eliza Maclean are taking the needed steps to ensure the survival of such an amazing breed. The loss of such an amazing, and tasty, creature would be a great loss.
I felt equally notable was the intriguing look into the very tiny world of sparkling mead. I will no longer hold the belief that mead must be still, heavy and unpalatable. I only hope that Hull will one day be able to expand his business - if only so I can try all of the many flavors he produces.
In fact, I enjoyed the mead in the workshop so much I ordered a couple bottles of the Orange Blossom Mead soon after arriving home.
Thank you to Gordon Hull, Eliza Maclean, Joe Bonaparte, and Marla Thurman.