Pigs can't fly, but they sure can swim. Just ask Tim Winkler.
Pigs' ability to swim led to Winkler's newfound career: pig farmer to the culinary stars. He got into the business via his other business, building aquatic landscapes for wineries, homeowners and institutions—he built the flamingo pond at Santa Rosa's Safari West.
As part of his work, Winkler often needs to get rid of invasive or wanted plants in ponds and reservoirs. Goats are good for munching wayward plants on the land, but they don't like to swim. Pigs do. And they like to eat.
"They go into the water like hippos," he says.
But the savvy Winkler didn't choose just any pig to do his water-weeding. He needed a hearty, heat-tolerant pig with an affable disposition. After doing some research, he choose a wooly, Hungarian breed of pig that had almost disappeared from its native home: the Mangalitsa.
For chefs, the once-rare pig also happens to be one of the most sought-after breeds in the world. Now Winkler Wooly Pigs (winklerwoolypigs.com) has one of the largest operations in the United States with clients that include the French Laundry, Meadowood, Altelier Crenn in San Francisco and Backyard in Forestville. "It was a good marriage of ventures," says Winkler, 52. "It just really sucked me in."
He raises the pigs for meat but also sells animals to other breeders committed to preserving the genetics. "I just decided, someone needs to do it."
Last week he met a shipment of eight red mangalitsa pigs at the San Francisco International Airport. The pigs had come from Hungary via the Netherlands before touching down at SFO. Their flight was delayed and it was 4am by the time Winkler got them home to Windsor—and now he has the only red Mangalitsas in California.
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FAT BACK The Mangalitsa is an Old World pig whose name means 'hog with a lot of lard.'
He also has the other two variants, blonde and black swallowbelly, a black pig with a tan underside. All of them look like a cross between a pig and a sheep.
The modern pig has been genetically engineered to be a lean, bland-tasting animal. The Mangalitsa is the opposite. They're an ancient breed that was reportedly the pig of choice during the height of the Roman Empire. It's a pre-industrial pig whose name comes from a Serbian word that means "hog with a lot of lard." When they reach 12 months or more, about half of the animal's weight is fat.
And that's a good thing. While there are pounds of wonderful lard (more on that below), much of the fat is intramuscular fat, giving the meat its incredible flavor and tenderness. For this reason, the animals have been called the Kobe beef of the pig world. But it takes a knowledgeable cook to know what to do with all that fat.
Winkler started raising the pigs nearly four years ago and he now has about 400 of them on land in Windsor, Santa Rosa and Forestville. Joshua Schwartz was one of the first chefs to purchase Winkler's Mangalitsa pork.
Schwartz cooked at the French Laundry and was the private dining chef at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York: he knows a few things about fine dining and top-shelf products. He's now executive chef at St. Helena's Del Dotto Vineyards. The money-is-no-object winery could order any kind of pork for the private events it holds for wine club members. Winkler's wooly pigs are Schwartz' swine of choice.
"We use [Winkler's] stuff any place we use pork," says Schwartz. "It's as good as it gets in this country." (Schwartz's roasted pork loin recipe is below.
While not for sale to the public, Del Dotto wine club members are also treated to exceptional salume made by winery artisan salumi maker Tony Incontro. As a boy in Nebraska, Incanto learned to cure pork from his Italian grandfather. A leg of prosciutto or jamon can age for more than 18 months, and Incanto's salume is exceptional. While Incanto is certainly talented, he says the quality of the pork he uses is a big part of the texture, flavor and wonderfully rich and nutty fat that suffuses his salume. Paired with a glass of Pinot Noir, it's an incredible match.
"Salume and wine are the oldest of friends," says Incontro. "I love what I do, and Tim's pigs take it to the next level."
"Hog heaven" is a fitting term for the swampy oak forest on the edge of Laguna de Santa Rosa, where some of Winkler's pigs live until they're fat enough for slaughter. On a hot September afternoon, the shady woods feel cool and moist. The pigs forage on acorns, which contribute to the quality and quantity of their fat. But they also dine on the many aquatic plants and trees like horsetail and willow that Winkler says keep the pigs healthy. They live just like a pig would in the wild. As long as forage is abundant, they don't need much.
"We're not doing anything special," Winkler says of his farming technique. "We're just doing it old-school."