Pigs can’t fly, but they sure can swim. Just ask Tim Winkler.
Pigs’ ability to swim led to Winkler’s newfound career: pig farmer to the culinary stars. He got into the business via his other business, building aquatic landscapes for wineries, homeowners and institutions—he built the flamingo pond at Santa Rosa’s Safari West.
As part of his work, Winkler often needs to get rid of invasive or wanted plants in ponds and reservoirs. Goats are good for munching wayward plants on the land, but they don’t like to swim. Pigs do. And they like to eat.
“They go into the water like hippos,” he says.
But the savvy Winkler didn’t choose just any pig to do his water-weeding. He needed a hearty, heat-tolerant pig with an affable disposition. After doing some research, he choose a wooly, Hungarian breed of pig that had almost disappeared from its native home: the Mangalitsa.
For chefs, the once-rare pig also happens to be one of the most sought-after breeds in the world. Now Winkler Wooly Pigs (winklerwoolypigs.com) has one of the largest operations in the United States with clients that include the French Laundry, Meadowood, Altelier Crenn in San Francisco and Backyard in Forestville. “It was a good marriage of ventures,” says Winkler, 52. “It just really sucked me in.”
He raises the pigs for meat but also sells animals to other breeders committed to preserving the genetics. “I just decided, someone needs to do it.”
Last week he met a shipment of eight red mangalitsa pigs at the San Francisco International Airport. The pigs had come from Hungary via the Netherlands before touching down at SFO. Their flight was delayed and it was 4am by the time Winkler got them home to Windsor—and now he has the only red Mangalitsas in California.
He also has the other two variants, blonde and black swallowbelly, a black pig with a tan underside. All of them look like a cross between a pig and a sheep.
The modern pig has been genetically engineered to be a lean, bland-tasting animal. The Mangalitsa is the opposite. They’re an ancient breed that was reportedly the pig of choice during the height of the Roman Empire. It’s a pre-industrial pig whose name comes from a Serbian word that means “hog with a lot of lard.” When they reach 12 months or more, about half of the animal’s weight is fat.
And that’s a good thing. While there are pounds of wonderful lard (more on that below), much of the fat is intramuscular fat, giving the meat its incredible flavor and tenderness. For this reason, the animals have been called the Kobe beef of the pig world. But it takes a knowledgeable cook to know what to do with all that fat.
Winkler started raising the pigs nearly four years ago and he now has about 400 of them on land in Windsor, Santa Rosa and Forestville. Joshua Schwartz was one of the first chefs to purchase Winkler’s Mangalitsa pork.
Schwartz cooked at the French Laundry and was the private dining chef at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York: he knows a few things about fine dining and top-shelf products. He’s now executive chef at St. Helena’s Del Dotto Vineyards. The money-is-no-object winery could order any kind of pork for the private events it holds for wine club members. Winkler’s wooly pigs are Schwartz’ swine of choice.
“We use [Winkler’s] stuff any place we use pork,” says Schwartz. “It’s as good as it gets in this country.” (Schwartz’s roasted pork loin recipe is below.
While not for sale to the public, Del Dotto wine club members are also treated to exceptional salume made by winery artisan salumi maker Tony Incontro. As a boy in Nebraska, Incanto learned to cure pork from his Italian grandfather. A leg of prosciutto or jamon can age for more than 18 months, and Incanto’s salume is exceptional. While Incanto is certainly talented, he says the quality of the pork he uses is a big part of the texture, flavor and wonderfully rich and nutty fat that suffuses his salume. Paired with a glass of Pinot Noir, it’s an incredible match.
“Salume and wine are the oldest of friends,” says Incontro. “I love what I do, and Tim’s pigs take it to the next level.”
“Hog heaven” is a fitting term for the swampy oak forest on the edge of Laguna de Santa Rosa, where some of Winkler’s pigs live until they’re fat enough for slaughter. On a hot September afternoon, the shady woods feel cool and moist. The pigs forage on acorns, which contribute to the quality and quantity of their fat. But they also dine on the many aquatic plants and trees like horsetail and willow that Winkler says keep the pigs healthy. They live just like a pig would in the wild. As long as forage is abundant, they don’t need much.
“We’re not doing anything special,” Winkler says of his farming technique. “We’re just doing it old-school.”
As we bushwhack through the forest and try to avoid boot-sucking mud bogs, Winkler calls out to the pigs hidden in the dense brush.
“Come on piggies,” he says in the playful voice he adopts whenever he’s talking to the animals. “Where you?”
No doubt the pigs see and hear us as we tromp through the forest, but we don’t see them. It’s an odd feeling knowing there are a few dozen 200–300 pound animals somewhere nearby, watching us. Then we spot one. The dark, bristly pig peaks out from behind the vegetation about 30 feet away. Then others reveal themselves.
Winkler has handled and talked his baby talk to most of these animals since they were piglets and they are comfortable around him. As we reach an area of muddy pools more pigs emerge from hiding. Some nuzzle up to Winkler, who rewards them with vigorous scratches behind the ear. A few get belly rubs. Other pigs slosh through the ponds, munching green plants as they go.
But the pigs aren’t here for belly rubs. Two of Winkler’s employees round up the herd of a dozen of so pigs, calmly herding them into a chute near the entrance to the woods. Winkler selects two pigs that will make a trip to Marin Sun Farm slaughterhouse in Petaluma. One of the workers grabs a can of spray paint and marks the chosen pigs with neon orange stripes for easily identification and leads them into a holding pen until they are transported. The pigs are destined for the hallowed kitchen of Meadowood, a Michelin three-star restaurant in St. Helena.
Winkler’s raises his pig until they are 12 to 14 months old. Conventional pigs are slaughtered at more than half that age.
“It’s a true slow food,” he says.
Winkler’s commitment to Mangalitsa pigs is clear when we drive to his house in Windsor. The back of his property has been completely given over to pig farming. Massive boars and sows lounge in black mud or in shady spots while one squirming litter of football-size piglets after another jockeys for position on their mothers to nurse.
He is clearly fond of raising animals. Adjacent to the pig pens are two wolf hybrids and a German shepherd who lope about in a large area corralled by an electric fence. They dine on choice pork scraps. As Winkler walks among the pigs, a runty, kink-tailed black cat scoots underfoot. The adopted stray cat sleeps in Winkler’s garage and moves around the hulking hogs fearlessly.
Mangalitsa is expensive compared to the factory-farmed pork that dominates the market. Depending on the cut, it retails from $7 to $17 a pound. Industrial pork is cheap because the animals are raised in densely packed conditions where they need antibiotics to stay alive. Winkler’s pigs range free and don’t get antibiotics. The pork industry touted the value of lean pork in part to allow them to slaughter the animals at a younger age, when they have less fat.
Up until about the 1960s, Americans were used to fat hogs, and it took a concerted marketing effort to convince them that lean pork (“the other white meat”) was better for them. Modern hog producers also dump water- and air-polluting manure with relative impunity—for free. That’s why industrial pork is “cheap.” With Winkler’s pork, you pay the real cost of the meat because nothing is externalized. It’s a closed loop.
For me, eating Mangalitsa was like tasting pork for the first time. Not only does the fat literally melt in your mouth, the flavor of the meat is uncommonly . . . porky. Conventional pork tends to be dry and flavorless because it has so little fat. The Mangalitsa has a character and robustness you just won’t find in grocery store pork.
“Once you try it you can’t go back,” says Winkler. “We call it being ‘ruined.'”
As good as a Mangalitsa chop or burger is, I’ve become a big fan of Mangalitsa lard and find myself looking for new ways to cook with it. It’s great for frying chicken, cooking eggs or even spreading like butter on toast. It has a mild, almost neutral flavor but it’s supremely rich and creamy. It’s famously good for baking, particularly the highly sought after “leaf lard” from around the kidneys. Surprisingly, lard doesn’t taste at all porky.
Eric Alegria, who helps Winkler market the pigs to restaurateurs, says he puts a spoonful of lard in his coffee.
As part of the ill-conceived war on fat, lard became a four-letter word. It even sounds bad: lard. As far as unprocessed foods go, you can’t get much more hands-off than lard. While hydrogenated lard is deadly and not worth eating, Mangalitsa lard is high in healthy, unsaturated fatty acids. It’s also high in vitamin D and oleic acid, which reportedly has depression and cancer-fighting properties. It’s a health food.
I’d love to be part of a rebranding effort to reintroduce Americans to the benefits of lard. Here are my catchphrases: “Eat More Lard,” “Lard: Who Knew?” and “Come Back Home, Come Back to Lard.”
Winkler now splits his time between his aquascape business and his pigs. Because he was one of the early adopters of the pig in the United States, his breeding stock is now highly sought after. But he won’t sell to just anyone. He’s become a champion of the breed and its preservation.
“It’s a mission,” he says. “We don’t try to fit a round pig in a square hole. This is a niche pig.”
Mangalitsa Porkloin Roast with Philo Apple Sugo
From Josh Schwartz, executive chef at Del Dotto Vineyards
1 Winkler farms pork loin (6 bone)
8 sprigs seeded wild fennel
¼ cup canola oil
¼ cup butter
6 each cloves of garlic crushed in the skin
12 Philo Gold or Golden Delicious apples
½ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 ¼ cups apple cider or juice
2 tablespoons corn starch
1-2 cups pork or chicken stock
¼ cup Winkler Wooly Pigs lard
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Trim as desired
Place sprigs of wild fennel on bone side of roast (reserve two sprigs for basting)
Score fat cap as cross hatch with sharp knife (don’t cut too deep. Just 1/8 inch max and not into meat)
Tie roast with butcher twine. Cross tie around bones
Make sure fennel is secure
Season heavily on all sides with salt and pepper
Heat heavy bottom roasting pan over high hea. Add o/il
Once oil is hot carefully place roast in fat side down first
Lightly brown on all sides. Add butter, additional fennel sprigs, and garlic and baste
Place in oven and cook until 130 degrees, basting often
Remove and let roast rest 10-15 minutes. Tent with foil to keep warm.
Peel apples, cut out core and dice
In a heavy bottom sauce pot, add sugar and 1 cup vinegar. Cook until bubbles are big and liquid is syrupy.
Add apples and bring to a summer until apples are tender Add last ¼ cup cider and whisk in cornstarch and bring back to a simmer. Add stock for desired sauce consistency
Whisk in lard and simmer again. Season with salt and pepper.
Slice meat off the bone and fan out on a deep rim platter.
Add parsley to sugo and pour over sliced meat and enjoy.
(Sugo can also be served on the side)