Pursuing the Perfect Pig

Lucky visitors to Black Oak Holler Farm in West Virginia, Nic Heckett’s culinary laboratory, will arrive when the pig has been on the smoker for about eight hours. The hickory wood, harvested from surrounding hills, has turned the meat mahogany, its smell wafting down the valley. In the remaining hours before dinner, cold beer and rocking chairs set the stage for a telling of the Woodlands Pork story.

For most of the last decade, Heckett ’87 has dedicated himself to producing aged hams to rival Italy’s renowned prosciutto di Cinta Senese and Spain’s jamón ibérico de bellota. At the farm, he and his partners raise high-quality, heritage breed pigs on 267 wild acres of Central Appalachia’s forest region. The company they are building, Woodlands Pork, is becoming a presence in the world of high-end restaurants.

Heckett is part of a growing cast of New World culinary entrepreneurs who are trying to compete in Old World-dominated niches like wine, cheese, and cured meats (char- cuterie) that now generate billions of dollars in sales in the u.S. each year. He is ambi- tious: “I want to do for American charcute- rie what the Californians did for American wines. Full stop.”

As in the production of wine and cheese, soil and climate (terroir) can greatly affect the end pork product. The unique flavor and texture of Woodlands Pork comes from the time the pigs spend in the forest rooting for acorns and other biomass. The mix of avail- able food options gives the hams their rich flavor, while the pigs’ Herculean rooting cre- ates intramuscular fat coveted by chefs and helps the land regenerate.

“Aged ham is so honest,” says Heckett, as cubes of crispy, luscious fat from the smok- ing pig are passed around. “Because the day it is hung to age, there isn’t a thing anyone can add or subtract to improve it. The quality and taste of the meat come from the land.”

Roaming as a child in the countryside near Cork, Ireland, Heckett developed a deep love for nature and food. His paternal

grandmother, who raised championship Aberdeen-Angus cattle on land outside Pittsburgh, gave him a glimpse into livestock farming. His father, who was raised there but spent most of his adult life living and trav- eling in Europe, introduced the family to international delicacies like rijsttafel, the fiery Dutch-Indonesian fusion cuisine, at a time when TV dinners were de rigueur for Western European and American families.

Heckett ended up an ethnomusicology major at Wesleyan, where he threw himself into his weekly reggae radio show on WESu. He met Lynn (Isenburg) Heckett ’86, his wife of nearly 20 years, at a graduation party.

Driving to Black Oak Holler, Heckett talks lovingly about her and their 10-year-old son, Xander, whom they are raising in Clifton, Va. A chaotic soundtrack of Roxy Music, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Tom Waits, and Stanton Moore plays in the background, and the conversation ranges among topics including contemporary literature, jazz, Mississippi River trade history, plant genetics, real estate, macroeconomics, and politics.

But once Heckett turns off West Virginia’s rural Route 35 onto the dirt road toward “the Holler,” so named because it is a small valley snaking between surrounding moun- tains, the rugged isolation, beauty, and por- cine company bring on a sense of peace and focus in him.

Heckett’s path here began after a revela- tory trip to the Tuscan countryside in 2005, during which he became enchanted with the food of the region, particularly the hand- made cured meats and pig farming tech- niques. When he returned, he tried and failed to launch a partnership to import fine Tuscan prosciutto to America.

“That experience left me with a question I couldn’t shake,” he says. “Why couldn’t Americans use the rich agriculture here to make hams that are just as good as, or better than, what’s being made in Italy and Spain?”

He devoured all available information on the topic, eventually making contact with Chuck Talbott, Black Oak Holler’s owner who is considered the father of America’s growing love affair with heritage breed hogs. Talbott’s years of research at North Carolina A&T State university showed that a diet sup- plemented with rich forest mast (the “fruit” of forest trees) can improve the taste and health qualities of pork. His secondary find- ing was equally important: “Pigs managed properly in wooded systems” can help drive forest renewal.

Farmers and ham makers in Europe might have shrugged off these results as obvious, but there were few if any people making hams in the European tradition in America when Heckett invested in Black Oak Holler and launched Woodlands Pork in 2006.

Ossabaw pigs are at the center of the Woodlands Pork experiment. The native breed from Georgia’s Sea Islands is, like its Iberian relative, preternaturally disposed to a life spent foraging. The Ossabaws are pasture-raised on barley feed for 10 months before they are set loose in the forest to for- age for the last 60 days of their lives.

Talbott closely manages his land by mov- ing the pigs between cordons of pasture and forest. Since the early 1990s, he has also worked with a local u.S. Forest Service representative on a program to strengthen oak and hickory tree presence on the land.

Their aim is to increase forest mast for the pigs, and the program is one of only a few of its kind.

“We are trying to figure out the best mix of forest conditions and breed to create the best hams,” says Talbott. “At the same time, we want to create a model that other small farmers can use to make a good living.”

“We will go to scale soon,” he says. “Jay Denham, our salami maker, and I have bro- ken ground on a 25,000-square-foot uSDA processing facility in Louisville. We will source pigs from farmers who support the approach we use at the Holler, because it really does make for the happiest pigs, the healthiest forest, and the best product.”

Heckett is left only with the question of how to explain the taste of his ham. Instead of thinking too long and hard about it, he sets up a side-by-side tasting of superlative hams for a pre-dinner appetizer.

The jamón ibérico de bellota, which comes from pigs that are slaughtered at two years instead of one, is mahogany-colored and firm, with brownish fat that sweats at room temperature. The taste is rich and distinctly nutty, thanks to the pigs’ acorn-dominated diet. The prosciutto di Cinta Senese is moist and velvety in texture, with pointed salti- ness that results from the humid tempera- tures of Tuscany.

Mountain Ham, as Heckett’s product is now called, stands up to both with its balanced taste, although Heckett is still work- ing on the alkalinity (he believes the hams are too salty). But the product is starting to speak for itself. Chefs like Michael Mina, scion of a San Francisco-based empire of high-end restaurants, have started to put it on their menus. Mina’s corporate chef, David Varley, calls the ham “the best arti- sanal food product in America.” Not sur- prisingly, Woodlands Pork also won a prestigious American Treasures Award in 2011. Heckett and Denham received it in the room where Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address.

By now, the pork is ready to come off the smoker onto a table that Nadine Perry, Talbott’s partner and a superb country cook, has studded with cornbread, cole- slaw, cucumber salad, and grilled corn. Her homemade barbecue sauce—spicy and vinegary in the style of her North Carolina home—bubbles lazily toward the crescendo. Denham uses a long knife to cut huge chunks of smoked meat, taking care not to dispatch any fingers that dart in and out to steal more bites of crispy fat. A thin film of the stuff, which is thankfully high in healthy oleic acid because the pigs are raised well, covers almost everything. Before the first bites are taken, Heckett finishes the story.

With the opening of the Louisville production facility, he will attempt to move the company closer to financial viability. Big challenges lie ahead, but if any single element will carry the enterprise through to the next level, it is the passion Heckett shares with his partners.

“This is a 25-year project,” he says. “We plan to see it through.” PROFILES —BY SAM HIERSTEINER ’03

Sam Hiersteiner is a VP at The Glover Park Group in Washington, D.C. He writes about food for Washington City Paper, DC Modern Luxury and Edible DC. He grew up in Kansas City and prefers Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue.