Tuesday, April 7, 2009

pigging out

There are some phrases that I absolutely cannot imagine myself saying.

I have yet to conceive of a situation in which I would make the declaration, “Fed Tax is fascinating.” I shudder to think of the drugs I’d have to be on to announce, “I’m really enjoying my Evidence reading.” I will concede that you might get me to utter the words “I can’t wait to be a lawyer” if you put a gun to my head – but it would have to be a very big gun.

And I was sure that the phrase “I don’t think I can eat any more pork” would only come from my mouth when – if you’ll pardon the pun - pigs flew.

As it turns out, there was no porcine aviation involved when those words passed my lips. But it did take five pigs, five chefs, and five winemakers to bring me to that point.

They call it Cochon555. It's a touring culinary event, hosted by the Taste Network and held in multiple cities: five chefs prepare five heritage breed pigs for a crowd of pork enthusiasts, and five family-owned wineries provide the libations. This "friendly competition for a cause" raises awareness for the charitable foundation Farms For City Kids, and the winning chef takes the title "Prince of Porc."

I learned about Cochon555 from Jacqueline Church, the Leather District Gourmet, who not only participated as a judge, but also conducted interviews with all five of the chefs in the weeks leading up to the big day. After reading her profiles of Jason Bond (Beacon Hill Bistro), Joseph Margate (Clink), Matthew Jennings (Farmstead Inc.), Jamie Bissonnette (Toro), and Tony Maws (Craigie on Main), I could hardly wait for April 5th. I even persuaded a friend to come along with me. (If you remember Bill, I’ve been encouraging him to start a food blog, and I thought Cochon555 would be a good way to introduce him to other bloggers.)

Sunday evening rolled around, and in a welcome change from the usual turn of events, I wasn’t wandering around some unfamiliar part of Boston while cursing Google Maps. The Liberty Hotel is just a few minutes away from Boston Common, and once I got there, the ballroom was easy to locate. I met up with Bill, and we proceeded to our evening of all things pig.

(Photos? Not from me. Try the writeup over at Feed Me Like You Mean It.)

First up, from a table festooned with pig-shaped balloons, were soft corn tacos filled with “Whole Pig Carnitas.” Matthew Jennings’ offering was an excellent example of the way a simple approach can be extremely effective: it’s hard to beat the appeal of slow-cooked shredded pork with pickled onions and a sprinkling of homemade farmer's cheese. (The tacos also came with cilantro, but I asked for mine without, because cilantro always tastes oddly soapy to me.)

It quickly became evident that encouraging Bill to attend Cochon555 was a very good move on my part: while I was thoroughly preoccupied with the aforementioned taco, Bill was thinking about more practical matters, like snagging a space at one of the few tables. After I came out of my happy reverie for long enough to lick the juices from my fingers, I took a moment to look around the room. I noticed Richard Auffrey, the Passionate Foodie, at the next table over. We relocated, and I made the acquaintance of Richard’s wife, Juanita. Bill and Richard started talking about wine, and I paused to contemplate my next move.

General consensus suggested that the most efficient way to obtain food and wine while still hanging on to our spaces at the table was to send two people out at a time to pick up two of the same dish. The crowd at Jamie Bissonnette’s table looked like it was moving quickly, and so I dashed over to pick up two plates of banh mi, which are French sandwiches that moved to Vietnam, got comfortable, and picked up some local character.

Chef Bissonnette's interpretation involved lengths of crusty baguette stuffed with homemade pâté and cold cuts, piled with pickled carrots, daikon, and cucumber, and finished with a spicy vinaigrette. It was the kind of sandwich that demands one's full attention. Suffice to say, I did not add much to the conversation at the table until I'd polished off the last crumbs.

Truth be told, I didn't add much to the conversation even after I'd polished off the last crumbs, because I noticed a cart with a pig carcass being wheeled through the crowd, towards the front of the room, and soon I was absorbed in seeing how a master butcher goes about breaking down a pig into various cuts. (It involves a sharp knife, cleaver, and hacksaw.) As the butchering demonstration drew a fascinated crowd, culinary student volunteers from Johnson & Wales started handing out rounds of baguette smeared with a spread made from rendered pork fat, seasoned with lemon juice, anchovies, herbs and spices. The crowd had some mixed reactions to the idea of eating lard, but it was actually quite tasty, with a texture similar to that of butter, and a faintly porky flavor.

Once the demonstration was over, I returned to the table my companions were still determinedly guarding. Richard and Juanita told me that my next stop needed to be Jason Bond’s table, where the offerings included red-cooked pork belly, an assortment of classic French charcuterie, and bacon praline marshmallows.

Jason Bond's table was definitely attention-grabbing: one of the dishes was hure de porc farci, a whole pig's head stuffed with jambon persillé. I was so absorbed in contemplating the display that I completely forgot to grab forks when I picked up plates of pork jelly, fromage de tête, mortadella, and pork liver mousse. (I did remember napkins.) For the record, pork jelly is decidedly not finger food, and pork liver mousse isn't much better, but there’s something delightfully uncivilized about using your fingers anyway.

Fortunately, Bill did a better job remembering the forks when he fetched plates of red-cooked pork belly and loin with blood sausage and black garlic. The meat was deliciously tender, and the black garlic added a delicate sweetness - a little like roasted garlic, but more subtle.

I made one last trip to Jason Bond's table for bacon praline marshmallows and chiacchiere (Carnivale fritters) with sanguinaccio, a chocolate spread made with pig's blood. ("Dessert for the "Twilight" crowd," joked one member of Bond's staff.) The marshmallows were appealingly salty-sweet, and the sanguinaccio, despite its potentially eyebrow-raising description, had a complex flavor and a lovely thick texture. However, it was rather rich, so I stopped off for another glass of wine and a moment to catch a second wind.
(Our five winemakers were Patz & Hall, Krupp Brothers, Chase Family Cellars, Meander Wines, and Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery. I suspect there will be other bloggers with more intelligent commentary, so all I will say is that my favorite of the evening was the sparkling white from Westport Rivers.)

Once I felt ready to continue eating, Bill headed to Joseph Margate's table, and returned with plates whose contents, in all honesty, alarmed me at first glance. The little pork sandwich appeared perfectly innocuous, but there was a cube of something fried on a toothpick, and it was balanced on the rim of a shot glass of clear golden liquid. I thought I was looking at an experiment in molecular gastronomy. (Molecular gastronomy is a fascinating idea, but I'm not always convinced of its merits as food.)

My fears turned out to be unfounded, however: Bill explained that the fried cube was a head cheese fritter, and the liquid in the shot glass, a pork consomme. Definitely food, and perfectly delicious, too.
It was the porchetta sandwich, however, that turned out to be the show-stealer. Porchetta is a roast made from an entire gutted, boned pig, stuffed with rosemary, garlic, and fennel, and slowly cooked for many, many hours. It's a specialty of Lazio, the region in which Rome is situated. I first encountered it at a wine festival in the town of Marino Laziale, where it was served in thick slices on crusty bread. (It was so simple and satisfying that I hopped back in line to buy a second one immediately after snarfing down my first.)

Margate's porchetta turned out to be every bit as good as the one I had in Italy: fragrant, juicy, and fantastically tender. The sides were also excellent: potato salad with grainy mustard, sweet brussels sprouts, and a crisp, light coleslaw.

Finally, I made my way through the crowd at Tony Maws' table to pick up plates of crackling, crispy confit of young pig, fromage de tête and pâté, pork ribs, and black sausage. The confited pork was lusciously rich, and the crackling immensely satisfying, but the production line appeared to be having a hiccup or two, and I didn't see any ribs or black sausage. (I may or may not have gone back for another helping of porchetta instead.)

Having made my rounds of all five tables, I decided it was time to stop eating. We stood around drinking wine and chatting until our event host reminded us that we should cast our votes for the "Prince of Porc," encouraging us to decide based on the "best moment." (Voting is 49% judge-based, and 51% people's choice, so it was more than just a formality.)

Though I admired the scope of the charcuterie, and I did think the bacon praline marshmallows were a clever idea, I honestly loved the porchetta best, and so my vote went to Joseph Margate.

Votes were collected, and while they were being tallied, our host raffled off some of the cuts from the butchering demonstration, and the culinary students came through the crowd with platters of dessert. The concept, as our host explained, was "Swine and Sweets." From the spicy chipotle truffles to the caramel popcorn, all the desserts contained bacon. I wasn't sure how much the caramel popcorn really benefited from the addition of bacon grease, but the bacon definitely added a welcome salty, smoky note to the chipotle truffles.

After a few more minutes, our host announced that we had a winner. Matthew Jennings of Farmstead was awarded the title of Prince of Porc, receiving a trophy and a bottle of bourbon to mark his achievement.

Their duty done, the judges came out of wherever they had been hiding, and Jacqueline came by to say hello. She encouraged us to stay for the after-party, and while Richard, Juanita, and Bill called it a night, I decided to stick around for a while longer.

The decision turned out to have mixed results. As I followed Jacqueline out to the bar for the after-party, I had my first run-in with an unpleasant food blogger.

The Farmstead team had been kind enough to grant my request when I asked for one of the pig-shaped helium balloons that had decorated their table, and I had tied it to my bag. It bobbed cheerfully on its string, and I looked forward to the double-takes I was sure I'd get when I caught the T back home. However, a New York blogger who shall remain nameless - a complete stranger - thought it would be amusing to hold a lighter to the string at a point right near my head, sending the balloon all the way up to the high, wooden-beamed ceiling of the atrium.) Said blogger was not gracious enough to apologize for his inappropriate behavior. Both Jacqueline and I were quite disgusted.

We didn't dwell on it, however: we were distracted by the food laid out for the after-party. Yes, despite the fact that we'd just had a three-hour orgy of all things pig, Chef Margate had put out a small spread, just in case we hadn't had enough to eat. (He didn't put it quite that way, but I suspect there might be a grandmother or two among his influences.)

Of course, we weren’t exactly complaining about our unexpected second (third, fourth?) dinner. We eagerly tucked into slices of rich duck with five-spice, sliders filled with tender little veal meatballs, and a platter of local cheeses with fruit compote and crackers. When Chef Margate saw that we were probably going to keep eating as long as there was food, he also brought out a platter of homemade bresaola drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. It was delicious: rich, just a little salty, and perfectly complemented by the slight fruitiness of the olive oil. Chef Margate was also nice enough to stop and chat with us for a little while, and now I definitely want to have a meal at Clink.

(Plus Toro, and Beacon Hill Bistro, and I haven't seen Craigie on Main yet, and there's talk of a food blogger roadtrip to Farmstead...)

But not for a while. I might need to eat salad for a few weeks before I eat pork again.


Dale Cruse said...

Rendered pork fat on toast is actually a common appetizer in Germany.

adele said...

Dale - Ah-ha. I was trying to figure out why it seemed familiar.

Richard Auffrey said...

This is another excellent and well descriptive post about a fun and delicious event.

It was great to meet your friend Bill, and I do hope he starts up a blog. The food and wine was amazing, and I still need to work on my own post about the event.

The VIP room, earlier in the day, was well worth the extra $50. More wine, five different heritage pigs to taste, lots of cheeses, and more.

The bacon marshmallows really stood out to me. As well as getting to watch them butcher the pig.

adele said...

Richard - I can't wait to hear all about the VIP room.

The only way the pig butchering could have been better is if they had permitted audience participation. :)

~~louise~~ said...

"Rendered pork fat, seasoned with lemon juice, anchovies, herbs and spices. I will be drooling in my sleep tonight at the mere thought of these "fine" words.

What a spread and an impeccable description on your part. I cast my vote for the Porchetta, aroma unseen. I absolutely LOVE it!!!

GREAT post Adele. Sorry about your balloon incident:(

adele said...

Louise - I always thought a seasoned whole roasted pig was a rather irresistible idea. :)

The balloon incident was unfortunate. Still, I only dealt with that idiot for a few minutes. He has to live with himself 24/7. :P

Carl said...

> “I don’t think I can eat any more pork”

A coworker, the year I was working back in North Carolina, after a large (and very tasty) lunch at a barbecue restaurant (which is Defined to be Pork in NC), large guy, deep voice, broad Maryland accent: “Well, you could pour some of this on the floor and I could roll around in it like a dog, but I’ll be damned if can eat any more.”

adele said...

Carl - Your co-worker wins. I'm not sure what he's won, but he wins.

Virgin In The Volcano said...

What a jerk...do you know how much mileage you could have gotten from bringing a pig's head balloon to fed tax?

adele said...

Virgin - It would certainly have cemented my reputation for being eccentric.

Andrea said...

Thanks for posting about this event--I intended to get there but didn't, so I was glad to read about it from you!

adele said...

Andrea - You're welcome. I'm sorry you couldn't make it. :(