The annual Cochon555 swept through Seattle Sunday, as part of its annual 10-city tour. The event supports sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs by, well . . . pigging out on them. Much as heirloom tomatoes have a unique flavor that has been bred out of commercially grown, supermarket tomatoes, heritage-breed pigs come from centuries-old bloodlines, from a time when pigs were pasture-raised and allowed to forage for food. These breeds are raised by a small number of farms, and it is the mission of Cochon 555 to raise awareness of breed diversity and to help farms sustain and expand their business.
I ended up chatting with a young guy who was standing alone sipping his beer. I'd watched enough Portlandia to recognize that with his jaunty hat and tattoos, he must have been from Portland. Turned out he was Joseph Wells from Zorn Family Farm in Oregon (near Portland), and one of his pigs--a Tamworth breed--was being cooked by Jason Stratton of Spinasse for the event. Each of the five competing chefs (that's one of the first 5's in Cochon555; the other two stand for five breeds of pig and five wineries) prepared a different breed of pig for the competition. They broke down and cooked the entire pig.
From left to right: Chris Hansen of Mosaic Farms, Joseph Wells from Zorn Family Farm, and David "Bubba" King from The Collective.
As I stood talking with Joseph and learning about his family's farm (they also raise sheep, cows, and horses--though they don't eat the horses), two of the other farmers with pigs entered in the competition joined us. Chris Hansen from Mosaic Farms entered a Red Wattle pig that was being cooked by Holly Smith of Café Juanita. Chris wore his Carhartt overalls for the event, but he made up for that with his charm. He proudly showed off photos of his pigs and farm, and explained more about the cooperative efforts some farmers in Oregon were committed to.
"Bubba" and Sarah King then joined us, the operators of The Collective in the Willamette Valley. They have only raised four pigs--Old Spot/Poland/Duroc mixed breeds--but one of them was being cooked by Rachel Yang of Joule and Revel. The group drove up together from Oregon, and when I asked if they had any bets going, they said yes. If one of their pigs won (well, the chef is the winner actually), the other two would have to give him a bag of feed and a "weaner pig." I thought they meant "wiener pig," as in a breed raised just for hot dogs, but that's just my own fantasy. They meant an 8-week old pig that's been weaned from the sow.
The farmers and I continued talking as our bacon bouquets and glasses of Pike Brewing beer were refilled. They all had opinions about the various breeds. "Tams" are often referred to as "bacon pigs" for their long bellies. Red Wattles are known for tender meat, and the mixed breed raised by The Collective combines the higher fat ratio of the Old Spot, the sweet meat of the Duroc, and the large loin of the Poland. When I asked about Mangalitsa, also known as the "Woolly Pig," Chris replied, "Oh, Mangalitsas are so 2007." This new generation of farmers are young, hip, and also able to laugh at themselves.
Cochon555 is really about the eating, of course . . . and finally 5 p.m. rolled around and the doors of the Grand Ballroom opened. The room is enormous, and upon entering, you don't really know where to begin. My first bite was a crespelle with pig's blood and beets from Spinasse. Jason Stratton cooked nine dishes, but was doling them out one at a time, so I had to return to the line multiple times to try others.
I moved on to Rachel Yang's table. The line for her food was growing faster by the minute, and I knew I'd need a strategy to make it to all the other tables. I got some food from Yang and then ate it while standing in Ethan Stowell's line. As I waited to taste Stowell's pig's-blood ravioli and pork-shank donuts (zeppole), I sampled Yang's pork & kimchi stew with stinky tofu and pork-brisket reuben with fennel kimchi.
The crew at Café Juanita wore pigtails and served tasty gelato with bacon brittle.
Winemakers were strategically placed next to the food lines, so as you waited for food, you could at least sample some wine. There wasn't a lot of seating, just tall bistro tables in the center of the room where you could stand and eat. Most of the five competing chefs plated their multiple creations on individual plates, making it a little difficult to juggle both the food and the wine. I appreciated that John Sundstrom from Lark (there to defend his 2010 title) plated his three dishes on one plate. He served miso ginger pork belly with a sticky rice cake, red curry pork and crab sausage, and a trotter fritter, which was like a deep-fried square of pork rillette.
Sundstrom's food was fantastic--but then I tried the food by Holly Smith from Café Juanita. Smith made maltalgliati, a thin pasta cut from the leftover scraps of dough, topped with a pork sugo and honeyed ricotta. That Red Wattle pork is tender indeed. There was also a pumpernickel crostini with pork rillette, huckleberry mostarda, and tarragon. It was a refreshing, light bite after tasting so many rich, heavy dishes. But Smith's coup de grace for me was gelato with bacon brittle. Crunchy bits of bacony brittle were in every spoonful of rich, creamy gelato.
The winner of the event was chosen by a combination of votes by attendees and a panel of judges. As the evening's main festivities drew to a close, John Sundstrom of Lark was once again crowned "Prince of Pork." He'll continue to the next round of competition at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where he'll compete against other winning chefs from around the country. Bravo Chef Sundstrom, and good luck in Aspen.