Friday, November 21, 2008

This Little Piggy Went to Market

I have a new title to add to my resume: pig wrangler.

My working at the creamery to learn the fine art of cheesemaking has taught me an invaluable lesson, a lesson I will recall for years to come, a lesson in strength and endurance: I am much weaker and less tenacious than a farm pig!

In the midst of crisp autumn morning, one of my Fridays at the farm making cheese, a voice rang out from close range, breaking the routine of cheese churning and cheese washing….. I had to perk my ears to realize that, yes, I had just heard: “the pigs have escaped!”

Having worked on the farm for 6 months, I have befriended the cows, the goats and the resident farm cats, but had yet to see the pigs. I had no idea that these stalwart creatures each weigh in from 200-250 pounds and that I was about to I get an intimate, crash course in rodeo-style, frantic pig chasing.

I’ve been face to face with pigs before, but usually postmortem and on my plate: crisp bacon, salty pancetta, briny prosciutto, a juicy pork chop. I’ve also seen cute, diminutive pot belly pigs in pet stores at the mall. But never have I wrestled with a stubborn pig, a female Conan the Warrior in sow’s clothing.

The farm staff was able to wrangle most of the porky harem back into its pen, with the exception of one stubborn swine. The pig was unruly, zigzagging through the pastures, barreling through a maze of hay barrels, content to knock over any human that stood in its way of world domination. There were two of us to this pig: myself and the cheesemaker, Colin. In a wrestling contest, me versus the pig, there’s no question who would prevail: surely, the pig. I figured the pig was no match for me and Colin combined, a strong and confident team, but I could not have been more wrong than a horse and buggy going 90 miles-per-hour down a one way street!

This thing whipped through prickly trees, bushes, in between small spaces, until we had trailed it, fast as the dickens, down an incline into an area confined by an electric fence. Add another colleague to the mix: three against one. The situation remained unyielding, the pig dead-set on human dominance.

By now we were dripping with sweat, laughing out of control, out of breath. We had attempted to move the pig with sheer brute force, humans pressed up against the hairy body of the pig, while it stood steadfast, grazing for mushrooms and snorting. This thing had to go down, down like a misbehaving teenager, down like tonight’s pork roast dinner. We had become caricatures: lab coat wearing, hair-net donning fools, running around like blind bats in our rubber boots, wielding thick sticks, while the darn pig got the better of us. We know we looked ridiculous and yes, it was darn funny.

So, roused by my piggy encounter, here is a delicious Italian-inspired recipe for pork slow-cooked in milk. After simmering the roast in the milk with juniper berries, rosemary and sage, you get extremely tender, silken meat in a clear, clean broth: a perfect meal after a day of chasing unruly pigs.

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 (4 1/2- to 5-pound) boneless pork shoulder roast (without skin), tied
3 juniper berries, crushed
2 large rosemary sprigs
2 large sage sprigs
4 dried bay leaves
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 cups whole milk

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.

Heat oil in a wide 5- to 6-quart ovenproof heavy pot over medium heat until it shimmers, then lightly brown roast on all sides with juniper berries and herbs, 8 to 10 minutes total. Add garlic and sprinkle roast with sea salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, then cook until garlic is golden, about 1 minute. Pour wine over roast and briskly simmer until reduced by half. Pour milk over roast and bring to a bare simmer.

Cover pot and braise in oven, turning roast occasionally, until tender (milk will form curds), 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Transfer roast to a carving board and loosely cover. Strain juices through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl (discard solids), reserving pot, and skim off fat. Return juices to pot and boil until flavorful and reduced to about 2 cups. Season with sea salt and pepper. Slice roast and serve moistened with juices.

Serves 6.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cheese (Shop) of the Month: Neal’s Yard Dairy, London.

My obsession with cheese has gone international! On a recent trip to England, I made cheese an important part of my itinerary, which included stomping around town with the English faction of my family. Our schedule read something like this: Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden, Royal Albert Hall, Westminster Abbey, Neal’s Yard Dairy. You can take the girl out of her country, but you can’t take the cheese away from the girl. Although it was a tourist affair extraordinaire, I needed to recall a bit of home: I needed some cheese!

Neal’s Yard, considered London’s most venerable cheese shop, has two locations: the original in Covent Garden and their bigger location in London’s Borough Market.

Found in 1979 by Nicholas Saunders, Randolph Hodgson, an employee who acquired the shop soon after its inception, was making his own cheeses at the time. Early in their business, they began buying and selling mature cheeses. After their requisite growing pains, they grew into a haven for high quality farmstead English, Irish and Welsh cheeses.

Their staff is armed with an arsenal of knowledge and I ended up spending a huge chunk of time in their Covent Garden shop, tasting everything I could fit in my seemingly bottomless stomach. I probably tasted more cheese in-house than I actually purchased in the long-run. I was lucky to have met Martin, behind the counter, whose passion for cheese equaled my own. We talked shop and tasted together. We compared English cloth-bound cheddars and blues, and compared quince pastes to accompany my selection; we sniffed stinky cheese until I burned all the hairs from my nostrils.

To give a sense of their undeniable and almost inconceivable generosity, I was able to sample Montgomery’s Cheddar, unpasteurized cow’s cheddar from Somerset, Lincolnshire Poacher, a hard cow’s milk, unpasteurized cheddar, Crozier Blue, and Irish blue sheep’s milk cheese, Mileens Dotes, a soft cow’s milk washed-rind cheese and Ardrahan, a semi-soft pungent cheese from Cork, Ireland, among others.

Cheese is piled high, cloth bound cheddars towering over the customers like lactic skyscrapers. This shop fired me up. If I could, I’d live in Neal’s Yard Dairy. I love the smell of a ripening room, I love the ammonia it emanates. Back in the States, I am missing Neal’s Yard like Dorothy missed Kansas while trapped in Oz. There’s no place like an artisanal cheese shop.