There’s a new pig in town. It’s called Kurobuta, and for those who prefer their pork flavorful, rich and tender rather than lean and mean, this is great news. A number of Los Angeles chefs are so excited about it that it wouldn’t be surprising if Kurobuta becomes known as the other other white meat.
Kurobuta, which is also known as Berkshire pork, means “black pig” in Japanese. The pig is black with six white points: feet, face and switch (the last few inches of the tail). It has shorter muscle fibers and more marbling than what’s known in the industry as “bulk commodity pork.” The result is meat that, when cooked, is plump and juicy, terrifically rich, with a deep pink color.
Showing up on some of the best menus around town, Kurobuta seems poised to do for pork what heirloom varieties did for the tomato. And it seems destined to become the first designer name in pork.
Spago Beverly Hills chef Lee Hefter first put Kurobuta on his menu two years ago. “It is so flavorful,” he says, “it can hold up to whatever cooking style you like: [Chinese] five spice, Italian ....” Hefter has served the pork, including the rack, belly and loin, in different ways almost every day since he discovered it.
Chef Govind Armstrong has been using Kurobuta since he opened his restaurant, Table 8, eight months ago.
Armstrong says that since it is now available, he puts pork on the menu more often than he otherwise would have. Customers who have never heard of Kurobuta order the pork as a novelty and “are blown away by the quality of the meat,” he says. Lately, he’s been offering Kurobuta pork chops with white bean puree, ham hock jus and salsa verde, served with long-cooked greens. He brines the chops, then sears them in a cast-iron skillet, finishing them in the oven.
Kurobuta may even change the way diners will eat pork, because many chefs, like Armstrong, believe its high quality obviates cooking it to medium-well done, as they would with conventional pork. “Because it’s such a clean product,” Armstrong says, he likes to cook it medium-rare to medium.
The word that comes up most often to describe the superiority of the product, and the thing that has Los Angeles chefs swooning over the stuff, is fat. “The loin is covered with the perfect amount of snow-white, renderable fat,” says chef Troy N. Thompson of Jer-Ne Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey. “When you sear the pork, you’re cooking the fat. So the pork flavor goes right back into the meat.” And it’s not just roasts that are nice and fat: Even the chops are well marbled.
Thompson, following conventional wisdom, was reluctant to put pork on his menu. But he put Kurobuta on as a special last fall and “it went crazy,” he says. He’s served it ever since, most recently as a tenderloin cooked slowly in a sous-vide he improvises by wrapping the long cut tightly in plastic film and simmering it in water. But first he rubs the tenderloin with a paste made from umeboshi, Japanese pickled plums.
I’m familiar with the very blanket of fat Thompson is talking about. I cooked two boneless loins last Christmas, and the fat acted as a self-basting system. Although I overcooked the meat, it was tender and juicy -- the best pork anyone at my table had ever tasted (or so they said).
When I later made the same dish using conventional, grocery-store pork, which I did not overcook, not even an abundance of the caramelized fennel and dried apricot condiment I served with it could rescue the pork from its dry, crumbly self.
Kurobuta pork made its American debut as the entire pig -- head, fur and all -- descended on a platter from the ceiling of the famous Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef. But the meat remained in near obscurity until Spago became the first Los Angeles restaurant to put Kurobuta on its menu.
“Every time I returned from Japan or Europe,” Hefter says, “I would think: ‘Why can’t I get pork here that tastes like that?’ So I searched it out.” And that’s when he came across the pork being raised on small family farms and sold under its Japanese name by Snake River Farms, the same company that raises the majority of Kobe-style “Wagyu” beef sold in America. Pork that had the “old farmer flavor” he was looking for.
Berkshire pigs, so the story goes, were discovered more than 300 years ago in England, by Oliver Cromwell’s army in the wild, at its winter quarters at Reading, the county seat in the shire of Berks (hence the name Berkshire) and fancied by the English for all the reasons it is fancied today.
Knowing of the Japanese penchant for pork, the British government gave some Berkshire hogs to the Japanese Imperial family as a diplomatic gift. The meat quickly came to be prized as a delicacy. Today there are restaurants in Japan that serve it exclusively. Customers choose the cut, and it is simply prepared tonkatsu style, breaded in panko and pan-fried.
Two years ago, it would have been nearly impossible to find Berkshire pork for sale in the United States, but not because the meat wasn’t here. The American government was also given some of the pigs by the British. Although the American people didn’t take to it as did the Japanese, an organization was established to preserve the bloodline of the pigs.
Today, there are about 350 herds of Berkshire hogs in the United States, all of which can be traced as direct descendants of those that first touched down on American soil. Still, until recently, the vast majority of the meat produced in this country was exported to Japan, where it fetched a higher price. (For reasons involving the costs of independent farming and the fact that the hogs mature faster and thus have less salable meat on them at the time of slaughter, a Berkshire loin costs 2 1/2 to three times that of a commodity loin.)
Meat that wasn’t exported to Japan was either thrown in, undistinguished, with commodity pork, or savored by the families that raised the pigs. “We always knew the meat tasted better,” says Kelly Biensen, who has been raising Berkshire pigs on his family’s Iowa farm for 37 years.
But the fact that the meat was superior in taste and texture to that of the other pigs on the farm didn’t count for much in the American marketplace, where consumers were bent on eating pork that was as lean as possible. Meanwhile, big pork business was busy meeting customer demand by slimming its pigs for market, creating pigs so skinny they aren’t fit to live outdoors.
The animal whose enthusiastic eating habits inspired the phrase “pigging out” now produces meat with the astonishing distinction of being as lean as the skinless chicken breast. But as any good cook knows, fat is where the flavor is. In taking the fat out of pork, we ended up with meat with just as little juice or flavor as factory-farmed chicken.
The three major sources for Berkshire pork are all family farm collectives: Snake River Farms, Eden Farms (a cooperative founded by Biensen in 1998, aimed at selling the meat domestically) and the American Berkshire Assn. Snake River Farms is the newest on the scene. But, perhaps because of their experience with Wagyu beef, they knew better how to market the name. Targeting high-profile chefs such as Hefter and Armstrong and using the sexier Kurobuta, Snake River Farms is the one that has managed to make it a brand name.
Perhaps surprisingly, Niman Ranch, a company known for the high quality of its meats, has not entered the Berkshire hog race. Paul Willis, who heads the Niman hog program, explained that though many of Niman’s hogs have Berkshire blood, Niman’s are all crossbreeds. Purebreds, he says, tend to be weaker; they cannot withstand the cold Midwestern winters.
And the Niman priority is that the pigs live outdoors, sleep in straw beds and live happy hog lives until slaughter. Though he doesn’t dispute that Berkshire is a good breed to have in the mix, he says, “Just because a pig is a certain breed doesn’t mean better pork. It’s about how they’re raised.”
Although the lineage of every American Berkshire Assn. pig can be traced back 130 years, there are no rules governing how Berkshire hogs are raised, so it varies from farm to farm. Depending on the climate and the particular farmer, some of the pigs are raised outdoors, others indoors. They are all fed a traditional soy and corn diet. None of the meat is pumped with flavor enhancers as is commodity pork.
The pigs are given antibiotics, but most adhere to a period of withdrawal, meaning the pigs are not given antibiotics for a period before slaughter, supposedly giving the meat a chance to be cleaned of the antibiotics.
But it is the family farm aspect that is a big draw for the chefs who have fallen for the pork. “I appreciate the care taken in raising these pigs,” says Armstrong.
“The people who take care of the pigs are the people who own the pigs,” says Mike Hodges, president of the American Berkshire Assn. “Each one of these sows means something to me. And that makes a difference.”