Known by my friends as a pork fanatic, I’m often asked, “How can I tell whether the pork I am looking at is any good before I buy it?” In short, there is no straight forward answer to this one, but here’s a few pointers that should steer you in the right direction.
Free Range / Commercially Farmed – easily the most contentious topic in the farm vs. consumer relationship today. Is it possible to rear animals in a truly ‘free range’ environment on a commercial scale? Perhaps, but given that what we might typically refer to as “commercial farming” practices for pigs are particularly horrendous, lets begin by stating that whenever possible and despite any other factors, if you can afford to buy free range, please do so.
`Appearance & Colour- a good cut of pork should be a light to mid pink colour and quite simply, it should look ‘good’. While there are variations in flesh colour between different cuts, for example the loin is often paler than the shoulder, colour across the same piece should be consistent, with the exception of some marbling. Look for any red speckling through any part of the meat, this is a sign that the animal may have been under extreme stress when it was dispatched. Not only is this likely to result in tougher meat, it would only encourage poor processing practices were you to buy it.
Fat & Rind – a good amount of fat is a sign of a healthy and well fed animal. How much is a ‘good’ amount is more or less up to you. Colour-wise, the fat should be a delicious creamy white colour (yellow pork fat is rancid). While it is definitely in our interest to reduce the amount of fat we eat, the cruel and ironic paradox is that pig fat is largely responsible for much of the flavour we know and enjoy about pork. Some butchers remove the best sections of fat to promote ‘leaner’ pork and then either sell it separately as lard, or use it in sausages. I like to buy my cuts with fat intact, then separate it out myself to save for later if I choose. Cuts such as the belly which comprise interspersed areas of meat and fat should present near equal proportions of both. The rind should be a pale grey-pink colour and not too thick (think mandarin vs orange peel). Thick skin is indicative of an older pig whose meat is less likely to be succulent and tender when cooked. This may not be relevant if you are slow cooking.
Touch & Smell – if you have the opportunity to hold the cut, even if through the packaging, give it a gentle squeeze in a couple of places. The flesh should feel dense and slightly reactive, that is, it should return more or less to how it was before you pressed it. Meat which is on the turn or which has been frozen and thawed several times will stay down, it will also likely have a slightly slimy coating; proceed with caution. Pork certainly has a subtle yet distinctive smell, something I instantly recognise as an enthusiast though not as apparent to most people as say, lamb. Generally, if you can’t smell anything noticeably ‘wrong’ you should be fine; rancid pork reeks!
In Search of The Holy Grail
These initial tips should get you on the right path to begin with. If you are in pursuit of an exceptionally good piece of pork, you may need to investigate a little further. From my experience, exceptionally good pork is determined by additional factors such as where the pig came from, how it was reared, its diet and to some extent, its breed. The answers to these will may require a few answers from your friendly butcher.
If your butcher is not friendly or is unfamiliar or unwilling to discuss the origins of his produce, may I suggest you hunt around until you find one who is. This is perhaps the most important step you can take in acquiring truly exceptional pork. You know the feeling you get when you walk into a deli and the old italian behind the counter greets you with an enormous smile and talks affectionately about his prosciutto, knows every last detail about his cheeses, his olives, the bread, and reveals a ‘secret stash’ of salami out the back? That’s the feeling we’re chasing for our butcher too folks.
So, what are the answers we are looking for? Here’s a few additional pieces of the puzzle that may help you along.
Breed – more than likely, the pork you will find in a butcher in Australia will come from one of three breeds, the Large White, the Landrace or the Duroc, sometimes a combination of the three. In the free range market, in addition to these you may also come across Berkshire, Large Blacks and possibly Welsh Saddlebacks. Blind tasting events that compare meat from different breeds have often shown that it makes less of a difference what breed the meat came from , but how it was reared and what it was fed. We will confirm that in our own Pork Enthusiast Pork Off down the track. Besides yield, factors such as climate, terrain, vegetation and farming facilities usually determine the most suitable breed for individual farmers which in turn determines what will be available in your area.
Farming Practices | Pig Lifestyle – ask any free range pig farmer about why they’ve opted for free range farming and they’ll tell you that happy pigs produce better meat than unhappy pigs. Happy pigs also result in happier farmers and happier customers with clear consciences. It is well known that pigs are social animals that present behavioural characteristics that we can identify as being in a state of distress or contentment. In their natural state, pigs instinctively forage for their food, create wallows for cooling off, bedding for sleeping and interact with each other in doing so. Farmers that facilitate these natural habits find that their pigs are healthier, happier and most importantly tastier.
Feed – offering a variety of foods for pigs to forage such as pasture, root vegetables along with supplements aimed at improving taste such as corn, acorns or chocolate (theories abound!) promotes good health and stimulation for our porky friends. In the southern parts of Spain, the Iberian Black pigs raised to produce Jamon Iberico (possibly man’s single greatest ever achievement) are fattened on maize and barley before being grazed exclusively on south facing hillside pastures covered in oak trees and laden with fallen acorns. Tell that to the people at Don’s.