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.

click image to enlarge

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.

"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

click image to enlarge

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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