The annual event Cochon555 swept through Seattle Sunday, as part of its annual ten-city tour. The event supports sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs by well…pigging out on them. Much like heirloom tomatoes have a unique flavor that has been bred out of commercially grown, supermarket tomatoes…heritage breed pigs come from centuries-old bloodlines, from a time when pigs were pasture-raised and allowed to forage for food. These breeds are raised by a small number of farms and it is the mission of Cochon 555 to raise awareness of breed diversity and to help farms sustain and expand their business.
We arrived at the Westin hotel downtown and were met with throngs of ravenous, porcine-loving people. The VIP lounge opened at 3:30 and the main event would begin at 5pm. In the lounge, tables were decorated with bouquets of crisp bacon strips that were quickly dispatched. There were oysters on the half shell and a massive spread of cheese for sampling too. Charles Finkel from Pike Brewing weaved through the room with his beer keg backpack contraption and filled empty glasses, in an attempt to convert wine drinkers to beer drinkers. He was pretty successful.
I ended up chatting with a young guy who was standing alone sipping his beer. I’ve watched enough Portlandia to recognize that with his jaunty hat and tattoos, this guy must be from Portland. Turned out, he was a Joseph Wells from Zorn Family Farm in Oregon (near Portland), and one of his pigs – a Tamworth breed – was being cooked by Jason Stratton of Spinasse for the event. Each of the five competing chefs prepared a different breed of pig for the competition. They broke down and cooked the entire pig (that’s one of the first 5s in Cochon555. The other 5s stand for 5 breeds of pig and 5 wineries).
As I stood talking with Joseph and learning about his family’s farm (they also raise sheep, cows and horses – though they don’t eat the horses), two of the other farmers with pigs entered into the competition joined us. Chris Hansen from Mosaic Farms entered a Red Wattle pig that was being cooked by Holly Smith of Café Juanita. Chris wore his Carhartt overalls for the event, but he made up for that with his charm. He proudly showed off photos of his pigs and farm and explained more about the cooperative efforts some farmers in Oregon were committed to.
“Bubba” and Sarah King then joined us – they operate The Collective located in the Willamette Valley. They have only raised four pigs – Old Spot/Poland/Duroc mixed breeds – but one of them was being cooked by Rachel Yang of Joule and Revel. The group drove up together from Oregon and when I asked if they had any bets going, they said yes. If one of their pigs won (well the chef is the winner actually), the other two would have to give him a bag of feed and a “weener pig.” I thought they meant “wiener pig”, like a breed raised just for hot dogs, but that’s just my own fantasy. They meant an 8-week old pig that’s been weened from the sow.
Me and the farmers continued talking as our bacon bouquets and glasses of Pike Brewing beer were refilled. They all had opinions about the various breeds. “Tams” are often referred to as “bacon pigs” for their long bellies. Red Wattles are known for tender meat, and the mixed breed raised by The Collective combines the higher fat ratio of the Old Spot, the sweet meat of the Duroc and the large loin of the Poland. When I asked about Mangalitsa, also known as the “Wooly Pig,” Chris replied, “Oh, Mangalitsas are SO 2007.” This new generation of farmers are young, hip and also able to laugh at themselves.
Cochon555 is really about the eating of course…and FINALLY 5pm rolled around and the doors of the Grand Ballroom opened. The room is enormous and upon entering, you don’t really know where to begin. My first bite was a crespelle with pig’s blood and beets from Spinasse. Jason Stratton cooked up 9 dishes, but was doling them out one at a time, so I had to return to the line multiple times to try others. I moved on to Rachel Yang’s table. The line for her food was growing faster by the minute and I knew I’d need a strategy to make it to all the other tables. I got some food from Yang and then ate it while standing in Ethan Stowell’s line. As I waited to taste Stowell’s pig’s blood ravioli and pork shank donuts (zeppole), I sampled Yang’s pork & kimchi stew with stinky tofu and pork brisket “Reuben” with fennel kimchi.
Winemakers were strategically placed next to the food lines, so as you waited for food, you could at least sample some of the wines. There wasn’t a lot of seating, just tall bistro tables in the center of the room where you could stand and eat. Most of the five competing chefs plated their multiple creations on individual plates, making it a little difficult to juggle both the food and the wine. I appreciated that John Sundstrom from Lark (there to defend his 2010 title) plated his three dishes on one plate. He served miso ginger pork belly with a sticky rice cake, red curry pork and crab sausage and a trotter fritter, which was like a deep-fried square of pork rillette.
Sundstrom’s food was fantastic – but then I tried the food by Holly Smith from Café Juanita. Smith made maltalgliati – a thin pasta cut from the leftover scraps of dough – topped with a pork sugo and honeyed ricotta. There was also a pumpernickel crostini with pork rillette, huckleberry mostarda and tarragon. It was a refreshing, light biteful after tasting so many rich, heavy dishes. But Smith’s coup de gras for me was gelato with bacon brittle. Crunchy bits of bacony brittle were in every spoonful of rich, creamy gelato.
The winner of the event was chosen by a combination of votes by attendees and a panel of judges. As the evening’s main festivities drew to a close, John Sundstrom of Lark was once again crowned “Prince of Pork.” He’ll continue on to the next round of competition at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where he’ll compete against other winning chefs from around the country. Bravo Chef Sundstrom and good luck in Aspen.