By Sam Hiersteiner, Photos by Sam Hiersteiner
The great dry-aged hams of Europe, including Italy’s prosciutto de Cinte Sineses and Spain’s jamon iberico de bellota, have historically had little competition from American products, and it’s almost inexplicable. The best hams are products of the woods, and the Appalachian forest that carpets the eastern U.S. is among the earth’s richest timber stands. The pigs that deliver the hams are ideal evolutionary machines for turning woodland biomass into that one perfect bite, and American farmers have long been at the leading edge of sustainable husbandry.
So when in 2007 the three partners behind Woodlands Pork—Nic Heckett, Chuck Talbott, and Jay Denham—launched an ambitious project on Talbott’s Black Oak Holler farm, in the heart of Appalachia’s Central Forest Region near Charleston, W.Va., American charcuterie lovers took notice. And Woodlands is preparing to take its European competitors by storm.
Forest management is at the heart of their effort, because the quality of the ham derives primarily from the acorns and other forest “fruit” the pigs eat in the wooded hills. Perhaps no one in America better understands this relationship than Talbott, whose years of research at North Carolina A&T culminated in the publication of his seminal 2005 paper, “Enhancing Pork Flavor and Fat Quality with Swine Raised in Sylvan Systems.”
The experiment behind Talbott’s paper set the stage for Woodlands Pork. With the help of farmers, he tested how controlled diets and forest foraging periods affected the taste of meat from Ossabaw Island hogs when compared to conventional pigs. Talbott chose the Ossabaw, a feral-like native of Georgia’s Sea Islands, because it is directly descended from Spain’s Iberico pigs from which the fabled iberico de bellota hams are derived. Both breeds are naturally disposed to a hard life spent roaming the forest.
Talbott’s experiment showed the Ossabaws raised in the forest tasted better than their counterparts, and the experiment proved a side benefit: “pigs raised in [the forest] re-emphasize the possibility of using a renewable forest resource as a food source for animal husbandry”—and the animals may help in re-establishing oak park savannas.
Talbott’s co-author, New York Times food writer Peter Kaminsky, later expounded on the topic in his book “Pig Perfect,” which helped make heritage breed hogs de rigueur in high-end restaurant kitchens.
The buzz surrounding Kaminsky’s book led Nic Heckett, an entrepreneur who had tried and failed to start a prosciutto importing business, to Talbott’s doorstep. Their first task was to turn Black Oak Holler into a laboratory to further Talbott’s research. Nothing has worked more strongly in the duo’s favor than the sheer richness of the Appalachian forest: Talbott has worked with a forester with the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative for nearly two decades to maximize acorn production on the farm.
A 30-year veteran of forest management, Scott Eggerud had never— until now—had a project aimed specifically at increasing acorn production. “This is a science that is not well understood in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re really trying to shove nature aside in as responsible a way as we can.”
Early on, Talbott and Heckett added Ossabaws to the equation. The Ossabaws, which have now been cross-bred with feral boars and Berkshire pigs, are pasture-raised for the first ten months of their lives before being released into the forest to gorge on nuts and shrubs for two months. At a year old they are ready for slaughter. Under the watchful guidance of master charcutier Jay Denham, who has apprenticed with ham makers in both Spain and Italy, the pigs are processed into hams and other cuts, including hickory-smoked bacon and sausage.
The hams are packed in salt for a few weeks before being hung for a minimum of two years, during which time the texture firms up and the ham becomes the perfect distillation of pork and the nutty flavors of the forest floor.
“We are trying to make our product globally competitive the same way the Mondavi family did for American wine,” said Heckett. “The flavor profiles will change slightly with each line of ham, because things like humidity and acorn abundance will change in the forest year after year. That’s what makes our ham so uniquely Appalachian and American.”
Woodlands Pork is opening a large facility in Louisville in 2012, where production of the newly trademarked Mountain Ham™ will be the focus. The partners hope to take the program they have mastered at Black Oak Holler and bring it to other farmers across Appalachia to build a network of responsible suppliers to fill demand for pigs.
Woodlands Pork has, after just a couple breeding and curing cycles, created a product that is turning heads across the country. Mountain Ham is showing up in more and more restaurants, including super chef Michael Mina’s restaurant empire—D.C.’s highend Bourbon Steak is one—and Cincinnati’s temple of pork, Local 127. Woodlands also recently won the prestigious American Treasures Award, which celebrates small producers that create uniquely American food products.
Sam Hiersteiner lives in Washington, D.C., where he consults for non-profits by day and writes the Sam’s Good Meats column at www.hypervocal.com by night. He is from Kansas City and would always rather be eating KC barbecue.