March 17, 2010

Pretty as a pig

A growing number of local chefs will tell you that a whole hog is a wondrous thing. They’ve embraced ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking and are pleased to report that even skittish diners are growing bolder about sampling the goods.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Diners are more adventurous these days, but there are still some things folks just aren't ready for -- like half a pig's head, roasted, peering up at them from a plate.

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Michael Fisher/Staff Illustration

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Lee Skawinski, chef-owner of Vignola, poses with the sum of the parts of an entire hog, ranging from pigs feet to conventional hams. “If we’re not curing cheeks or belly, we’re taking everything else and making it into ragus or fresh sausages or lightly aged sausages,” Skawinski said.

John Patriquin /Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: Vignola, 10 Dana St., Portland

WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday

HOW MUCH: First course options are $7 to $11; main courses are $16 to $22.




WANT TO LEARN how to process an organic, pasture-raised pig from slaughter to sausage? The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association hosts a popular “nose-to-tail” pork-processing workshop each fall that covers basic techniques of humane slaughter, butchering and production of finished products from lard and bacon to hams and pates.

THE WORKSHOP, led by local farmers, includes a traditional butcher’s picnic serving “several primal parts of the butchered pig to give thanks to the workers and the animal itself.”

THE THREE-DAY, hands-on experience will take place Oct. 9-11 at MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center in Unity. Registration opens June 1, and it tends to fill up fast.

COST FOR all three days is $200 per person. Attendance Saturday and Sunday only is $125, and Monday only is $75.
To register or for more information, call 568-4142 or go to

Chef Lee Skawinski made that discovery at last year's "Whole Hog Dinner" at Vignola, one of his restaurants here in Portland. Everyone talked about the pig's head, but it was the least-ordered item on the menu that night.

"We had played with it a couple of times before, and we had seen someone do it, and we were like, 'This is novel,' " he said.

Perhaps a bit too novel for Americans who are used to their pork coming neatly shrink-wrapped in the supermarket. There won't be any pig's head at this year's dinner, which will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, unless it's in the form of head cheese.

Skawinski will have pig ears in the testa (a head cheese terrine) and tongues in the bollito misto (an Italian boiled dinner).

"(The tongue) reminds me more of corned beef than anything in texture and flavor," Skawinski said. "They get brined in a bottle and then you boil them up. They're quite tasty."

The use of every part of the animal, known as "nose-to-tail cooking," is not really new. Europeans are accustomed to seeing odd cuts of meat on their plates, and in American farmhouse cooking, there's a long tradition of not wasting anything.

But in fine dining restaurants, nose-to-tail has become trendy again as chefs rediscover the joys of preparing pig's feet and cooking with housemade lard. Restaurants are ordering whole hogs to break down in their own kitchens, make their own charcuterie and put their own upscale twist on old country dishes.

This movement toward whole-hog cuisine is now fairly well established in larger cities such as New York and Boston, but what is perhaps surprising is that Portland diners are embracing it as well. Several fine dining restaurants in town now regularly buy whole hogs, and pig's tails have joined pork chops on their menus.

"American food goes through so many stages, but it always comes back to the old, country rustic technique," says Erik Desjarlais, chef-owner of Evangeline, a French-inspired restaurant in Longfellow Square. "It always comes back to the simple. I think we're back into the simple stage, but a little more aggressive with the technique.

"I think it's a good chance for cooks to practice and learn, because you're not just searing a tenderloin or slicing a piece of ham," he said, "you're turning something that most folks would call inedible into something beautiful. And I think this new generation of cooks, they're really into that technique."


Desjarlais is a bit frustrated by all this new interest in nose-to-tail because he was doing it at his former restaurant, Bandol, as early as 2003. When that restaurant closed, he blamed it in part on Portlanders' palates, saying he didn't think the city was ready for this kind of food.

At Evangeline, Desjarlais orders whole Tamworth hogs from Aloha Rainbow Farm in New Sharon, the same farm that provides him with clabber-fed chickens. He still puts pork belly on the menu, but calls it "pork breast" to soothe wary diners' sensibilities.

On Saturday, he hopes to launch a new dish that will be a "pig tasting" featuring not only different parts of the pig but different preparations and textures. It will include the baked pork breast but also a fried pig's tail, a confit of cheek and a trotter gayette.

And just how do you fry a pig's tail?

The tail is not "the cute little curley-cue thing" you might think, Desjarlais said. It's about a foot long, and all cartilage and bone.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Chef Lee Skawinski recently prepared an assortment of pork cuts at his Vignola restaurant in Portland’s Old Port. The menu for Vignola’s Whole Hog Dinner on Thursday will include recipes that Skawinski learned about in Italy, where he and his staff regularly travel.

John Patriquin /Staff Photographer

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Line cook Pete Sueltenfuss at Fore Street in Portland, where the kitchen goes through a whole Yorkshire pig, purchased from a farmer in South Berwick, every month or two. He and sous chef Nate Nadeau

Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Sous chef Nate Nadeau of Fore Street in Portland.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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