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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

"You braise it slowly and lowly for a long time so it doesn't rip or shred," he said. "I'm talking like eight to 10 hours at maybe 180 degrees -- low, low, low, low, low. When they're cool enough to handle, you split them lengthwise, open them up, and then you pull out the cartilage and bones."

Some of the cartilage is edible, some is not. Once the inedible parts have been removed, the tail is rolled back up, breaded and fried. "It's going to be like a deep-fried hot dog," Desjarlais said. "But better."

The trotter gayette is made by braising the trotter, then shredding the meat and stuffing it like sausage. It's wrapped in cabbage, then in caul fat and fried.

Skawinski will be serving the Italian version of a stuffed trotter, known as zampone, at his whole hog dinner.

Vignola buys half a Berkshire hog a week from a small farmer in Vermont, and sources its pork shoulders and bellies here in Maine.

"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. "We're not doing a full dry-cure process here, but you can develop a program very easily right now. There are some guys who are having some great success with doing this in-house."


The whole hog dinner began three years ago as a private dinner with a few friends, then was introduced to the public last year.

This year's menu includes dishes Skawinski learned about in Italy, where he and his staff regularly travel. The rotolo of tenderloin is "a real traditional butcher's dish" he learned from a Tuscan butcher he met last year.

"He was doing these little tenderloins when we walked in," Skawinski recalled. "He was taking the tenderloin and wrapping it up in some day-old bread that he kind of carved out of a little baguette, and then wrapped it in their pancetta. And then he slow roasted it for about 45 minutes. All the bread absorbs all the juices of the roast, and the pancetta is nice and crisp."

Skawinski will also be serving Canadian porcelet -- meat from an 18- to 20-week-old pig that is fed "a very special diet of a warm milk and grain mixture."

At Fore Street, the cooks go through a whole Yorkshire pig, a heritage breed they purchase from a farmer in South Berwick, every month or two. During their busy season, they might buy one every two weeks.

The loin is used for chops, the back legs are brined, and the head, skin and ears are used in a head cheese. The fatback, skin and scrap meat find other uses. The trotters are deboned, braised and stuffed with fois gras, herbs and spices.

The staff says it is constantly surprised by how accepting Portland diners are of more adventurous dishes. When they recently added a blood sausage to the menu, said sous chef Nate Nadeau, "we assumed that nobody's going to get near this, and we can't even keep the stuff in the place."

"It's something that definitely freaks people out, but I think when you do it in small doses and you put it next to a confit duck leg and a chunk of pork belly that they're familiar with, it's just kind of like bridging that gap," said Pete Sueltenfuss, a Fore Street line cook who conducted a butchering workshop with Nadeau last fall at Maine Fare.

"You're not just trying to shove unfamiliarity down their throats," he said. "You're putting it in a composition that's going to invite them to try it and challenge them and not commit solely to something they've never had."

Desjarlais says the customer should trust the chef. If the chef puts it on the plate, it's there for a reason.

"We're not going to put something on a plate that tastes bad or that is gross," he said. "It's not a 'Fear Factor' thing. It's not, 'How weird can I be with my pig parts?'

"I can almost guarantee that if you can look beyond the fact that it's a pig foot, you're going to like it."

Part of the philosophy of nose-to-tail cooking is that it shows respect for the animal. British chef Fergus Henderson once said that "if you're going to kill the animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing."

Desjarlais, who has slaughtered plenty of rabbits and pigs himself, agrees.

He said killing an animal is an emotional experience that makes a chef work harder on the food, "because you've wasted its life if you screw it up."


Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:


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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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