Deep in Our Genes --
Were you and I living on a farm in the South 100 years ago, we'd be giving thought about now to the upcoming hog-butchering. Here in the valleys of East Tennessee (it's "East," Tennessee, not "Eastern," Tennessee) it's not quite the season yet. Too warm. November is more typical for butchering here, but further north and up in the mountains the season comes earlier. Down in Alabama and Georgia the farmers might wait until December. It needs to be cold for hog-butchering. Frost is a good sign that the time is coming.
You needed to wait until it was cool to butcher a hog. There's wasn't any refrigeration so you wanted a cold day to retard spoilage, plus once the weather has cooled off flies aren't such a bother.
Hogs were "free-range" back then -- literally. They'd wander the mountain-sides eating whatever they could find. Sassafras roots, ginseng, acorns, leaves, bark, grubs, even the occasional carrion. Hogs are omnivores like we are and will eat anything. This Catholic diet made them the perfect meat animal -- far superior to cattle, which needed pasture -- for the folks who settled the South. That, and the fact that the only part of a hog you can't eat is the oink.
Butchering a hog was an all-day, full-family affair. Still is to this day on some farms. In deference to modern sensibilities, I won't go into details about the butchering, but there was a well-defined process specifying both the order of dismemberment, the processing of each piece as it came off the carcass, and, within a family, who performed each job.
Although pork is particularly well-suited to preservation, there are parts that don't keep well and so Butchering Day was often a feast day as well in order to make use of the parts that wouldn't keep.
And, if you think about the timing of hog-butchering, it's no accident that cooks have been pairing pork with apples for so long. In the past they are both at their best at this time of year -- the pork fat and greasy and the apples crisp and sweet/tart.
Today most pigs are raised in appalling conditions on factory farms. They've been bred to reduce the fat content of the meat, which, because pork doesn't marble the way beef does, has resulted in meat that's inclined to be dry and less flavorful than of old. They've also been bred to mature faster, whichÂ undermines the flavor. Worst of all, factory pigs are fed a bland and uniform diet, reducing flavor even further.
Don't get me wrong, I still love pork in most of its forms, but it's demonstrably not the meat I grew up with. So I was tremendously pleased when several local farmers started offering pork that, if not necessarily free-range in the sense of wandering the Appalachian Mountains rooting for food in the forests, at least was raised outdoors from breeds that have been less-modified by humans.
So last week I bought a pork tenderloin from a local rancher and some local Braeburn apples and fixed Pork Medallions with Apple Cream Sauce.
Pork Medallions with Calvados Cream Sauce and Apples
1 1/2 lb pork tenderloin -- cut into 3/4" medallions
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 c Calvados (apple brandy)
1/2 c chicken stock
1/2 c heavy cream
1 tbsp fresh sage -- finely chopped
1 tsp fresh rosemary -- finely chopped
2 ea shallots -- chopped
1 ea apple -- peeled and sliced thin
3 tbsp butter
salt and pepper
Heat oven to 200F.
Season pork medallions generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a skillet (not non-stick) over medium heat. Add pork and cook on each side until browned -- about three minutes per side. Place medallions on a plate in the oven.
Add butter to skillet. Add shallots, apples, sage, and rosemary and sautee until browned. Add Calvados, remove from heat, and ignite brandy to burn off alcohol. Return to heat and add chicken broth, scraping up fond. Reduce liquid by half. Add cream and reduce to desired consistency. Divide pork between plates and spoon sauce over the top. Serves 4.
Postscript: The pork was a faint pink, the color of a baby's cheeks, in the center -- and as tender as a lullaby. The flavorâ€¦ Ah the flavor. Sage and rosemary tickle your nose carried on the breath of Cavados. On the tongue the sage is musk and the rosemary, pine. Butter and cream lay over the whole accented with the scent and taste of apple. And the porkâ€¦ There's something about the taste of meat, an almost atavistic wildness in even the most domesticated flesh, that appears most clearly in animals that have lived under the sun and felt the rain. A taste that touches something deep in our genes.
(I first posted this on my blog last fall and planned on posting it here at roughly the same timeÂ this year, but Jennifer Hodge asked me for something for Thursday andÂ this isÂ an article I'm as pleased with now as I was then. Although the timing is somewhat early, it's not entirely out of season.)
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