Monday, January 31, 2011

How I learned to love the red wattle

There is a white paper bag bleeding out along my counter top, a thin red trickle blushing the corner. The pig meat it was once holding is safely squirreled away in the fridge. I sweat white wine and a thinner, richer musk of bacon fat as I look through my fridge for a vegetarian option for lunch. My legs are tense and I feel like I've been salted, brined, and fried. But it is all worth it (as many days when I wake up to find my head in pieces on the floor) to have experienced the night before and the event...Cochon555 at the Fairmont.

On our first date, on our way to get a few sushi rolls, Kelly told me that he had double-booked in case the night went sour and he needed a pick-me-up. Ever since, all I have heard about for the past ten months has been Cochon, Cochon, Cochon. When it came back to Boston, I made sure to go if only to see how I stacked up against this pork phenomenon. Their mission statement from their web page sort of says it all: "Cochon 555 is a one-of-a-kind traveling culinary competition and tasting event--five chefs, five pigs, five wine makers--to promote sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs." Well, I may not have five chefs, wine makers, or pigs, but I can bend myself in half and talk dirty in Spanish (What you got now, Cochon?!)...

For weeks before the event, I visited their website. I studied the breeds of heritage pigs, which in itself is a little creepy and fascinating when you realize that you're reading about how something has been breed purely for flavor or the marbling of the muscle. I memorized a few names and tried to remember a few facts of each pig so that I would at least sound somewhat intelligent when asked which was better, the Large Black or Duroc. But once I stepped inside the hotel, it was forced out by the smell of bacon and the overwhelming stimulus from baroque architecture.

At the VIP event beforehand, we bonded with a representative from Yelp! and the sister of a caviar producer and her husband. (These would be the people I spent the evening with while Kelly was sequestered as a judge.) We took turns guarding the tiny, tall table and our wine glasses as one or two people went off for cheese, wine, or St. Germaine cocktails. Our holding pattern worked so well that after they showed a promotional video and opened the doors, we continued to work together to guard the limited space set aside.

As is, I only managed to get to three chefs' tables and the Elk Cove Vineyard table as the deluge of people flooded the function hall of the Fairmont. Although two hours seems like plenty of time to get to every chef, wine maker, and pig, no one seemed to take into consideration that people really like their pig...Regardless, the few people I got to were well worth the wait.

There is little information on this cross-breed of pig. All I could learn was that the Duroc is a large, aggressive red boar; the Yorkshire is a pale white and known for its lean meat; and both are a perfect pig to cross-breed.

The first table I spotted had a small line already started, so I threw myself in knowing that I'd get the long table out of the way (so much for that). The plate is arranged like a clock face, with a small snack at 12, 2, 4, 8, and 10:
  • The croquette had a nice crunch and a good bite from a spicy red sauce.
  • The caviar-maker's sister all but swallowed her waffle whole and purred that I had to try it next. Slathered with a thin sauce and a slab of pork, the waffle added a nice bit of substance as the pork all but melted with each bite.
  • Next came a pig's ear (at least I thought it was) with pop rocks. Although a strange combo, it was far from the strangest and added a nice, lighter dimension.
  • The least favorite dish was the blood sausage on a bed of beans. Although the white beans were creamy and added a nice contrast, the blood sausage was too dense and its spice was too much of a contrast to the beans.
  • The dessert, however, made up for the poorer sausage. A rich chocolate cookie, the filling was made from bacon fat. Decadent and filling, it went very well with the reds being served. The caviar-maker's sister made sure to go back and pocket several more in her purse for later.

Large Black
Originally a Chinese breed, the Large Black is a rarer breed known for its taste and hardiness. The smaller marbling and shorter fibers of the meat make this breed the perfect choice for bacon. The team (headed by a chef named Mary) also wore "Mary had a Large Black" t-shirts that I coveted greatly...

I got the table for the Large Black after sampling the wines at Elk Cove. Mulling over my glass, I watched as the sous chefs platted two dishes. The pulled pork rillette (Lunch) was served in mason jars topped with pickles and coarse-grain mustard, and served with hard crostini. I ate as much of the jar as possible, treating the dish almost like a high-brow pork dip and fishing the pink bits out with the edges of the bread. The slow-cooked pork loin and kimchi pickles on a grilled pita (Dinner) was almost like a White-people pork bun. But, as the first table, the best dish was the dessert. Ethereal and surprising, the cotton candy looked innocent until I bit into it. Acting as the basis, a thick strip of bacon added a needed salty taste to the sweeter spun sugar that my co-workers still will not believe in (despite my photographic's not Bigfoot people!)

Red Wattle
Named for its red color and unfortunate jowls (think octogenarian chicken), this breed has lean and juicy meat that has a beef-like taste and texture.

This was the table that ate up all my time. Waiting in line (for half-an-hour), I sucked down the last of my wine and gratefully took a slice of the pork hock and drunken pineapple pizza. Familiar and close to the one that Kelly and I order all the time (pineapples, bacon, and jalapenos), the drunken fruit is almost flammable and hurts to eat. At the table, I find that most of the seven dishes are already gone. I take a ladel of the chestnut flour pappardelle with pig's head and celery heart ragu, while the chef carves. She plates the porchetta with dried peach and pistachio and cuts a wedge of lard and lemon pastry to go with it. I spot her doughnuts in their warmers and fish one out with my fork. At this point, I have eaten at least one entire pig by myself. I fork as much of the ragu as I can, but it's not as appetizing as it would have been hours ago. Likewise, I can't bring myself to eat more than half of the porchetta and lard/lemon pastry. The doughnut, however, is airy and delicious. It tastes like summer and doesn't sit as heavy as the other pastry. It's only later that I find out it is a pig's feet and Mexican spiced margarita doughnut with salt and lime juice.

Kelly finds me leaning against the table, trying to find room for the chicharron and dark chocolate dip that is making it's way around the floor. He smiles wide and puts down a plate of porcelet de lait (milk-fed piggy veal). At this point, I am drunk, filled with so much pig I have grown hooves, and exhausted for being on them for hours. I nibble half-heartedly at the porcelet and watch as they name the winning chef (the Duroc/Yorkshire). We all clap and I am grateful when the waiter comes to take our mostly empty plate away, saving me from myself.

Following the river of people out of the hotel, we join up with more of Kelly's friends and brave the winter towards the after party (where I don't even think of eating anything ever again). Flushed with the cold, we order a few more drinks and try to digest. Kelly sits across from me and everyone is drunk on pig and alcohol. I sink further into my chair, fully aware now what I am worth in pork.

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