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Slicing High on the Hog
Friday, May 5, 2023


They’d eaten ham, pork cutlets and bacon all their lives.

But that didn’t prepare seven students at Sun Valley Culinary Institute for coming face to face with a side of pig its head still attached.

The students literally squealed as they confronted the pink slab of meat that measured four and a half feet from snout to hoof, a tooth protruding from its mouth. The Berkshire heritage hog weighed about 325 pounds before it was cut in half.

“It reminds me of that scene in ‘The Godfather,’ ” exclaimed one student.

Eduardo Chavez gingerly touched its nose and its eye. “I touched it,” he squealed as he tugged at its ear.

The hog was supplied by Josh Hale of Elkhorn Ranch South in Mackay and hauled to Ketchum by Culinary Director Chef Andy Floyd in the back of his SUV.

Hogs, Floyd told the students, are competing with chickens as the other white meat. They grow quickly compared with calves. This particular hog took just under eight months compared with a calf thtat takes two years to reach maturity. And you can raise 10 sows on an acre whereas it takes 1.7 to 2 acres to raise a calf, Floyd said.

Rub a pork belly with salt and hang it up in a curing room and you get what’s known as pancetta, Floyd added.

“It’s the salt that gives it its unique flavor. When you make carbonara, you have to be careful about adding salt because of how salty the pancetta is.”

Hale grows his pasture-raised pork grown in the Lost River Valley in view of Mt. Borah—Idaho’s highest peak at 12,662 feet.

Josh Hale told the students that he and his wife bought the ranch near Mackay more than four years ago. They planned to raise a few cows but now have more than 200 pigs, all of which are heritage pigs. They include the Berkshire pigs, which hail from Japan and provide amazing porkchops, he said. The  Mangalits is a Hungarian pig, and the Large Black is a European pig that’s on the endangered list.

The pigs are three pounds when born; boars can grow up to 800 pounds and sows 600 pounds as they feed on the beardless barley and alfalfa the Hales grow for them, as well as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and garlic cloves.

Hale likes to harvest them at about 6.5 months, turning them into several flavors of bratwurst, breakfast sausage and bacon which they sell at Kraay’s Market and NourishMe. They also sell various cuts to consumers online

“Shoulder bacon is my favorite,” he said. “Ham hocks are starting to make a comeback, as well.”

The pigs use mud to cool themselves on hot days, Hale told the students. The mud not only insulates them but keeps them safe from parasites.

“Pigs are smart—they only go to the bathroom in certain places so they are really clean animals. You can call them by name and they’ll come,” he added.

Hale said they have never lost a baby to badgers or other predators, thanks to the fierce maternal instincts of the mothers.

Floyd told the students that the best pork he’d ever had was that of pigs raised fed exclusively on acorns in southwestern Spain. The acorns promote wonderful marbling and a nutty aroma, he added.

“I’ve had some of that,” Hale said. “Some of ours are just as good.”

Floyd told the students that the first thing processors do is bleed out the pigs. Once blood starts to go bad, the meat starts deteriorating. Some slaughterhouses replace the blood with a salt/sugar water to help preserve the meat.

“Slaughterhouses will take a piece of meat like this and break it down in seconds on an assembly line,” he added.

Nothing goes to waste, he added. The skin is used for gelatin. Many cultures use the brain and kidney in taco meat. And some think the tongue is a treat, slathered with Dijon mustard.

One of challenges facing small ranchers right now, Hale said is the difficulty of finding places to process meat. It used to be every county had a processing facility but many have closed down as the Big Four conglomerates take over.

“They don’t have to play by rules,” added Floyd. “They can raise a lamb in New Zealand and call it Colorado lamb if they it’s processed in Colorado. People think they’re getting one produce when they’re actually getting something different.”

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