"The quality of the meat and the flavor of the meat has a lot to do with what that animal is eating," says Jennifer Milikowsky, founder of Walden Hill. The New England-based company sells pork finished with acorns collected from rural, suburban and urban areas.
David Leite: Acorn-fed pork is very much a European tradition. I was very drawn to it because they do that in Portugal, Spain and I think also Italy. What was it that gave you the idea to bring this tradition here to America, especially New England?
Jennifer Milikowsky: It is a European tradition.
It actually started by looking at what we had here in New England. We have incredible oak-hickory forests, so they produce amazing tree nuts. Once I started realizing that we had this incredible abundance of acorns, and once you start looking into acorns and what you can do with them, you very quickly make the connection to this European tradition of feeding them to pigs and producing an incredible product.
DL: What is the difference between acorn-fed pork and regular pork?
JM: The quality of the meat and the flavor of the meat has a lot to do with what that animal is eating. Because acorns are quite fatty and they have this nutty, rich fat that these pigs are then consuming, that finished product becomes not just flavorful in the meat, but also incredibly flavorful in the fat. That fat is slightly sweeter -- it's nuttier, earthier.
People actually talk about acorn-fed pork melting in your mouth. That's because the fat of the acorn is actually lowering that melting point of that fat. It's not just a statement that people are making. It's actual reality that at room temperature that fat will be much looser and it will really seep into that flavor of the meat much more while cooking. Your finished product just has a lot more flavor throughout.
DL: In Europe, at least in Portugal where I saw it and also in Spain, the pigs are just allowed to roam free, do whatever they want and eat as many acorns as they want. What are some of the challenges here? You can't have pigs running through the Connecticut forests, can you?
JM: In Europe they let them roam around. That works for that system because these forests and these pigs have co-evolved over centuries. That's not the case for New England. In fact, in many parts of this country there's incredible damage that comes from invasive wild hogs. We have to be careful about sensitive ecosystems.
Rather than having our pigs roam New England forests, we work with incredible New England small family farms who are doing things really well, but feeding them more traditional pig feed. We partner with them and we harvest thousands of pounds of acorns from forests and native oak trees in the area. We bring them to the pigs so that the pigs can still have a great life and be treated really well, but they're not in the forest causing damage on this large scale.
DL: One of the things that you told me that I was utterly fascinated by is this isn't just something you do with a forest or on farms, this is also a suburban and an urban effort?
JM: Yes, it is. It's something that actually I didn't even anticipate starting off. But I've really enjoyed it as it has evolved to become a rural, suburban and urban activity. There is an incredible opportunity to better connect people with our native landscapes and our local food system. Not only are we collecting these nuts from large widespread forests, but we're also collecting nuts from homeowners who live in more suburban or urban environments and encouraging them to keep their native trees intact, preserving and protecting them.
Many people actually currently think of acorns as a nuisance. I've spoken to hundreds of landowners across the region already this fall. I've heard so many stories from people telling me that they were going to cut down their oak trees.
DL: These are big, old, gorgeous oak trees?
JM: Yes, absolutely. With a lot of great attributes and a lot of importance from a public health standpoint, from a native wildlife standpoint. There's no way we could ever collect all of the acorns. But by collecting some of them and putting them to good use, it really changes the mindset of these homeowners. That's been really exciting to see. They're not just excited that there's monetary value, but they're just excited that there's inherent value to put these to better use.
DL: You are centered in New England at the moment, but what are your plans for the future?
JM: We really want to apply our model more broadly, both with types of foods that we're producing and in the regions that we're operating in. There's a lot of untapped potential to create a more sustainable food system, but it's changing a system that's very big and very ingrained in our culture so it will take time. We really hope that region by region we can look at those natural landscapes and figure out what system makes sense there. It's not about necessarily growing the food that we want everywhere, it's about growing the food that makes sense. We can take the time to produce really incredible products if we do that.
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David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite's Culinaria, which has won two James Beard awards. He is the author Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, as well as The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe's Western Coast, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. Leite also won a 2008 James Beard award for Newspaper Feature Writing Without Recipes, a 2006 Bert Green Award for Food Journalism, and Association of Food Journalists awards in 2006 and 2007.