It was Michael Clampffer’s first trip to Europe, and for five days he ate and talked about almost nothing but pork. Clampffer—a personal chef who splits his cooking time between New York City and his boss’s weekend getaway, Mosefund Farm in New Jersey—was in Austria to talk to chefs, farmers, and butchers about cooking pork and raising hogs to get the tastiest results. But not just any hogs: These were Mangalitsas, incredibly fatty, heritage-breed pigs native to the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Clampffer was on a crash course to learn as much as possible about cooking this unique meat so that he could go home and raise the hogs at Mosefund, then prepare them like the Austrians do.
The curly-haired breed has been making a comeback in Europe in recent years, after it nearly died out by the 1980s because of the general demand for leaner pork. Mangalitsas became especially scarce in Hungary, where Communist policies favored cheap, mass-produced pigs that didn’t require the space and care that the heritage hogs did. Now the Mangalitsa population is slowly increasing due to concerted efforts by mostly small-scale farmers and breeders, but it remains an expensive, niche product, even in its homeland. In the United States, the Mangalitsa (also known as Mangalitza or Mangalica) is little known beyond the West Coast; in recent years a company called Wooly Pigs, based in Washington state, imported a herd from Austria and began breeding the hogs. Owner Heath Putnam has been selling the meat at Seattle farmers markets and to restaurants including The French Laundry and The Herbfarm. When the first batch of pigs arrives in March, Mosefund Farm will be the first on the East Coast to fatten Mangalitsas, which Clampffer will initially market to New York’s high-end restaurants.
I met Clampffer on a gray and rainy morning in October in Manfred Stockner’s kitchen at the historic Vienna restaurant Zum Weissen Rauchfangkehrer (which translates to “At the White Chimney Sweep’s”). Clampffer was here to watch Stockner break down a 400-pound Mangalitsa hog and turn it into a variety of products. Having lived in Budapest for nearly a decade, I have long been in love with tasty Mangalitsa pork; Clampffer, a new convert, peppered Stockner with questions, took notes, and snapped pictures. The most outstanding features of these pigs are their huge amounts of fat and their tasty, marbled red meat, which could easily be mistaken for beef. It’s that creamy fat that makes chefs like Stockner and Clampffer crazy for the stuff. “Did you notice it’s not the other white meat?” Clampffer remarked, as Stockner carefully sliced the copious fatback from the meat of the hog, which had been killed a week earlier. “Our pigs don’t look like that,” Clampffer added. “Normal pigs in Austria don’t look like this either,” replied Stockner, putting his face next to the carcass and inhaling. “It doesn’t smell like any other pig. It has such a sweet smell.”
Before arriving in Austria, Clampffer had tasted Mangalitsa just once, but he became stuck on the idea of raising these pigs, which he says “taste more like steak than pork.” That beefy flavor has “a clean aspect,” explains Keith Luce, executive chef at The Herbfarm—and that makes the breed “far superior to any of the heritage breeds I’ve experienced [in the U.S.],” he says. (The Herbfarm has also started raising its own herd of Mangalitsas.)
In addition to this unique flavor, chefs prize the breed’s copious amounts of fat. “Even the heritage pigs [in the U.S.] don’t come close to the fat quality and meat quality of the Mangalitsa,” said Clampffer. “One of my customers told me that Tamworth pigs only get one inch of back fat, while similarly sized Mangalitsas get three or more inches.” According to Clampffer, the only other pig in the States that compares to the Mangalitsa in terms of fat quantity is the rare Ossabaw. “We raised Berkshires last year, and they were good; we fed them barley to finish them,” he said. “But Mangalitsa meat and fat taste much better.”
As Clampffer learned in Austria, dealing with the fat is the key to success when cooking Mangalitsas; “slow and low” is the best way to go. “If you don’t have a plan for using all of the fat,” Stockner says, buying a whole Mangalitsa hog “will be a really bad deal for you.” The one that he showed us yielded ten pounds of leaf lard. Once he had broken down the rest of the pig (using the heart and lungs to make Beuschel, a traditional Austrian stew; setting aside the skin to make stock; and throwing nothing else away), Stockner rendered the lard, then whipped it until it was so white and fluffy that it looked like vanilla ice cream. He made cracklings with the shoulder fat and mixed some of them with the whipped lard; the rest of the cracklings were either served on crostini with lardo, or folded into dough to make little biscuits called Pogatschen. Stockner mixed a little more of the lard into a liver dish. He even uses Mangalitsa fat in desserts: “I tried making ganache with milk chocolate and Mangalitsa fat,” he said. “You could really taste the lard with the sweetness of the chocolate.”
What Clampffer had been anticipating the most, though, was watching Stockner make the lardo from the eight pieces of prized fatback. The skin and meaty bits were first removed, and the chunks of fatback were then generously sprinkled with fennel, dried coriander, caraway, finely chopped fresh rosemary and thyme, sliced garlic, and a heavy layer of coarse gray sea salt. Stockner pressed the pieces to flatten them, and flipped them over to repeat the sequence. They would later be vacuum packed, then cured for four months to a year. “This really is the best lardo I’ve had,” commented Clampffer as we tasted paper-thin slices of the finished product, made last year. While Mosefund will initially be selling its Mangalitsa to restaurant chefs, Clampffer would eventually like to market his own products made from the hogs. In the meantime, he will work on perfecting his recipe for lardo.