I first came across Mangalitsa pigs about three years ago. We'd opened Pitt Cue Co, our restaurant in Newburgh Street, six months earlier and I'd worked myself so hard that I blew out. I needed a few months off, so I went back to my parents' place in Pitt. While I was there, I decided to start keeping pigs for the restaurant—I had four Middlewhites in a massive three-acre paddock, and when we got the meat into the kitchen, it was the best pork I'd ever tasted.
So I became a bit of a pig geek. I was on the internet every day trying to find more and more information about rare breeds, constantly reading pig books and generally wanting to know everything I could about them. The more I read about Mangalitsa, it seemed as though their eating qualities were thought to be completely unlike any other. It didn't hurt that they looked great, too.
I bought twelve to start with from a breeder in Lincoln, England. They cost a fucking fortune, but I built a sort of woodland pigtopia for them at home. I pretty much fell in love with them straight away. They're the most interesting, playful pigs.
Most pigs are pretty fun once they get to know you and feel comfortable around you—until then, they can be a bit skittish—but Mangalitsas are almost like dogs. They're so friendly and sociable. In fact, they're so friendly that when they got a bit bigger, they became too much for my mum to handle. I moved them from their pigtopia down to a friend's farm in Cornwall, and one thing led to another. Now there are 140 of them at Charlie's place.
It's like trying to farm a really old Aston Martin—they really need to be looked after and treated with a lot of respect. You can't force it. If you try to get them to slaughter at six months, it will just be all fat.
One thing that's become really apparent is that they grow so slowly. Most pigs get up to the weight where they're ready to slaughter at around six months, but Mangalitsa take 12 at the very least. It's like trying to farm a really old Aston Martin—they really need to be looked after and treated with a lot of respect. You can't force it. If you try to get them to slaughter at six months, it will just be all fat.
They're also essentially feral. They can completely look after themselves in the woods and the snow during winter. They're hard as fuck. There's definitely some wild boar in them, originally, and it shows. When we had Middlewhites, they'd go inside as soon as it rained a bit or snowed but the mangalitsas are tough as nails. The Middlewhites were princesses, but the mangalitsas are top dog if you put them in with any other pig—even something like a Berkshire, which is a bigger breed. They boss other pigs around completely. They don't take any shit.
Mangalitsas are just as interesting post-mortem, too. I don't like to think of the time I spend with my pigs as lulling them into a false sense of security. It's more that I'm trying to give them the most enjoyable, least stressful life they can possibly have (while they still have it). That's really all for one reason: happier pigs taste better.
I've got one waiting in my kitchen now that came in last night. Every time we get a new pig in, I'm reminded of just how incredible they are. There's been a lot said about the genetic make up of the fats in Mangalitsas—apparently it's a lot healthier than other fats because it's full of amino acids and it's much less saturated—but that's all done in labs and studies. The thing you notice most when you get it into a kitchen is that it's softer. There is more fat—it's fattier than any other pig—and we can only really get away with using them because we make our own sausages and use it all up. But that fat also goes through the muscle as well as on top of the muscle, which makes the meat really soft.
The meat from the Mangalitsa is different to a normal rare breed. It's really red. It looks like beef and has the same kind of steak-y characteristics when it's cooked. It doesn't really feel like a pork chop.
Good pig breeds matter, but good farming almost matters more. The breed forms a kind of genetic platform, a basis which allows you to produce wonderful meat. If you've got a really great breed, it's inherently different from the more commercial breeds. They produce more fat, they're more flavoursome, and they grow slower. From there, you're only a third of the way through the journey. If you don't farm it right, feed and treat them like shit, it's going to taste like rubbish and won't be worthwhile.
There's no going back now. The Mangalitsa we get into the kitchen on a daily basis is so good that to use anything else would feel wrong.