One early morning last month, a dozen Chicago chefs crowded into Stan Schutte's kitchen, listening to the stocky, buzz-cut farmer talk about the owls, hawks, and coyotes that harass his animals. "Coyotes I'm not so friendly to," he said. "I will kill a coyote. They're not so bad this time of year, but once it gets cold they'll start coming in closer and closer, and that's when they start to get a little bit greedy."
Schutte said he didn't so much mind when they limited themselves to field mice or even, occasionally, one of the farm cats that roam his land. "We got plenty of cats," he added. It's when they summon the brass to pick off his chickens or turkeys in broad daylight that he goes for his shotgun.
Since the spring, Schutte has had a new and far more rare and valuable animal to protect. The chefs—Mike Sheerin of Blackbird, his brother Pat from the Signature Room, Ryan Poli of Perennial, and Paul Virant, Nathan Sears and a battery of line cooks from Vie—had rousted themselves before dawn and made the three-hour drive to Schutte's organic Triple S Farm in downstate Stewardson to visit the six Mangalitsa hogs they'd committed to purchase and serve in their restaurants this winter. While they snacked on thin, juicy pork chops rimmed by a luscious band of fat (butchered from Schutte's Berkshire crosses and cooked up in a crock pot), Schutte noted that the young Mangalitsas, which had probably gotten too big to be a meal for a single coyote, might still fall prey to a group of them.
That would be a very expensive loss. Mangalitsas are an old Austro-Hungarian breed that had no presence in the United States until about three years ago, when a Washington State financial analyst and programmer named Heath Putnam imported a herd of 25 from Austria at enormous expense. Like other old breeds, Mangalitsas are lard-type pigs, fattening well—if slowly—and producing juicy marbled meat. Putnam dubbed the swine Wooly Pigs and put their meat in the hands of chefs at the Napa Valley's French Laundry, Seattle's Herbfarm, and New York's Spotted Pig, and they were duly featured in the pages of Saveur, the New York Times, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Like Schutte, most of the chefs in the room had read the April Times article, in which their colleagues on the coasts swooned over the creamy fat of the woolly pig and compared its marbled meat to Wagyu beef. Kendall College dean Chris Koetke and Slow Food Chicago's Joel Smith read it too. A year earlier they'd purchased four heritage pigs—two Durocs and two Red Wattles—and contracted a farmer to raise them naturally with the intention of eventually selling the meat. Though the experiment wasn't an economic success—one of the pigs died—they did sell one off to Osteria di Tramonto. The rest they distributed among themselves and friends.
When they read about the Mangalitsas, they wanted in. But "Chris and I both thought we needed more than just a caretaker farmer to raise these things," says Smith. "We needed a partner. And that's when I proposed Stan. Because Stan is always thinking of new, different, and unusual things that he can do to raise the profile of what he does, and to be unique."
- Mike Sula
- Ryan Poli of Perennial
Reader readers may remember Schutte, a onetime conventional farmer who began a gradual switch to organic 12 years ago, as the subject of a 2007 cover story about his attempt to build a multipurpose organic slaughterhouse. (That project is on hold for lack of funds.) He, Koetke, and Smith wanted to buy pigs they could breed themselves, but Putnam—who controls the country's entire breeding stock of Mangalitsas—only sells feeders. Schutte looked into importing a herd, but discovered that the cost of bringing in enough of them to ensure healthy genetic diversity was prohibitive: $130,000, including $1,000 a day for a one-month quarantine period.
Putnam put Schutte in contact with a farmer in Centerville, Iowa, who breeds them on his behalf. Conventional-breed feeders go for as little as $40 apiece, but Putnam sells his Mangalitsas for $285. Schutte, Koetke, and Smith pooled their resources, and in early May Schutte went to Iowa and picked out half a dozen.
Schutte thought the woollies looked a bit like French poodles at first, and he chose his miniherd like he was picking out puppies. So his pigs are a quite bit more varied in appearance than the adorable porcine Brillo pads that pop up on a cursory Google search: "I just kind of picked them by the way they looked—the ones with most unique color," he says. "They got stripes on them like a calico. I just thought they looked cool." The alpha pig—who happens to be the smallest—has short gray hair and looks more like a wild boar. Others have straight black hair with white underbellies, and there's a pair you could probably shear and knit sweaters from.
He brought the two-and-a-half-month-old pigs back to Illinois and turned them loose on a narrow half-acre piece of pasture with a border that includes a few oak trees. He doesn't yet have the acreage to put his regular hogs out to pasture full-time, though he hopes to get there eventually.
Schutte admits he was initially a little embarrassed for his neighbors to see the new poodle pigs. But he and his son quickly grew to love them. "They're awesome," he says. "Hogs are smart, but when you keep them separate like that they have more one-on-one exposure to people, so that naturally makes them more friendly anyway. But boy, you can't even get in there—they're just gonna eat you up."
In addition to roaming and foraging privileges, the woolly pigs get a special diet, one that's three times more expensive than what Schutte's Berkshires eat. He feeds them a mix of his own organic grains, particularly barley, and in August they got apples—but in the fall, when Schutte added acorns purchased from a nut grower in southern Illinois to their diet, they began to turn their snouts up at everything else. Acorns—which are high in monounsaturated fatty acids—are famously fed to Spain's Iberico hogs, which are made into some of the finest aged ham in the world. The idea of striving for that ideal is something that makes Schutte a little giddy.
He estimates that when the hogs are ready for slaughter on December 9 they'll weigh around 290 to 300 pounds each. Factoring in all his costs, he figures they'll have to sell at between $750 and $850 apiece. They bought the pigs without securing a deal with anyone to buy them after slaughter, but "I knew I could sell them," he says.
"The first thing I said was 'I want one,'" says Pat Sheerin. He told his brother Mike, who put himself down for two. Schutte also got commitments from Chris Pandel of the Bristol and chef Michael Higgins from Maldaner's in Springfield. Virant went in on a pig with chefs from the Boka restaurant group, which is planning to host two back-to-back dinners in December at which Virant, Perennial's Poli, Boka's Giuseppe Tentori, and Stephanie Izard of the forthcoming Drunken Goat will each prepare a course with Mangalista pork. The other chefs are also planning special dinners that month, with the exception of Mike Sheerin, who'll be offering a Mangalitsa tasting menu throughout January at Blackbird.
None of them has ever worked with Mangalitsa pork before, and until the chefs get their hands on the meat, their plans are speculative. "I think it depends on when we cut into them and see," said Sears. "If they have a huge fat cap, we'll put some up for lardo," said Pat Sheerin. "If we could get the blood that would be fantastic for blood sausage."
Schutte doesn't know firsthand what the meat is like either, but he's already thinking about raising more next year if it's as good as he expects. He's thinking about selling Mangalitsa meat in Saint Louis as well, but the Chicago chefs who got in early will get first dibs.
After a stop by the chickens, the turkeys, and the Berkshires, Schutte led the visiting chefs up to the Mangalitsa pasture. The pigs were nowhere in sight, but as Schutte called out they burst from the treeline and barreled down the pasture. He dumped a bucket of acorns into a trough, and the pigs noisily made short work of them. The chefs took snapshots, and attempted to pose with the animals, but most were too busy nosing around the ground and nibbling on jackets and shoelaces to cooperate.
"What are you gonna do with the hair, Stan?" said Virant. "Can we make some hats or anything?" But his sous chef, Sears, wasn't fooling around. Within a few minutes he'd picked out the hog he wanted, a large black and white porker Schutte estimated at 270 pounds already. As he bent down to scratch between the animal's ears, he marveled at the possibilities. "Look at those jowls," he said dreamily.