Heritage is to meat what heirloom is to vegetables: traditional breeds being revived for a wider range of flavors.
The reason chefs are so excited about heritage pork? The taste. Different breeds have different fat-to-lean ratios, different sized cuts, and even distinctive flavors that bring more bang to the table than industrial raised, bred-to-be-lean, other-white-meat pork. Plus, farmers who bother to raise heritage breeds are also likely to raise them on pasture, allowing the pigs to live like pigs as much as possible, which also allows the meat to develop more flavor.
Here's a guide of what to expect from a few of the more common types of heritage pork should you be lucky enough to come across some at farmers markets or co-ops:
- Berkshire pork has a naturally smokey sweet flavor and is prized for its evenly distributed, mild-flavored, well-marbled fat. It is a relatively rare, highly protected pedigree breed.
- Duroc pork is known for its incredible juiciness and relatively mild flavor, especially compared to the bold flavor of many heritage hog breeds. The pigs are a distinctive red color and have what can only be described as adorable droopy ears.It is the second most common breed in the U.S.
- Gloucestershire Old Spots pork is even more difficult to find than some of these other breeds, but it is a well marbled, nutty-tasting meat that butchers and chefs adore. It's known for its top-notch maternal skills, allowing liters to be raised successfully on pasture.
- Hampshire pork is lean, perhaps the leanest of any breed, with a fairly mild flavor. Purebred Hampshires are fairly rare and prized for making leaner cured specialties.
- Mangalitsa pork is fatty. Fatty, fatty, fatty. And that's why chef's love it. The creamy white lard from these hogs is perfect for making cured meats and pâtés.
- Ossabaw pork is a fatty, dark-colored meat with a strong, spicy flavor. It comes from hogs that evolved running wild on an island off the coast of Georgia and survive seasonal food shortages, hence their high fat quotient. DNA evidence suggests this breed was originally brought in from the Canary Islands.
- Red Wattle pork has a strong flavor that really tastes of pork. It is a great match for spicy, bold recipes, which makes sense since it was originally bred in New Orleans. It's known for its foraging abilities, letting some growers raise them as truly pastured livestock.
- Tamsworth pork is best known for making fabulous bacon since it has a big, long belly. It's also known for its extra-large chops. Like Durocs and Red Wattle, Tamsworth pigs are a lovely red color.
Learn more about heritage livestock breeds at the Livestock Conservancy.