Yes, I like pork. But I didn’t reckon how much I liked pork until I grilled up a skillet-sized pork chop produced by Firefly Farms in North Stonington, and sold on Saturday mornings, along with a larder of other meats and cuts, and trimmings, at the Stonington Farmers Market.
Taste, texture, aroma, all of it lightly nuanced by the minimal use, for me, of condiments, left no doubt: These chops were not gleaned from the meat cases at this supermarket or that one. No denying the price was, alas, commensurate with the quality, but $11 a pound for chops, and much of the weight consigned to what is known as fat cap, or luscious rinds of fat, seemed, well, rather rich.
The lesson, after I haggled about the cost and then was enlightened, is simple: pay the freight, never mind the weight.
I haven’t the vocabulary of a food writer. Neither have I particularly cultivated taste buds. But I know enough to appreciate what I’ve been missing, and that grilled chop, with glistening and crispy fat attached and infused, was just jaw-dropping.
By chance, I came upon a fellow inductee into the Firefly Farms circle at the Denison Farmers Market, held on Sunday on Pequotsepos Road in Mystic. Jim Blair, head chef at Mystic Market (East), with whom I share a devotion to hot sauces, and who bottles up his own for private enjoyment and disbursement each year, was there, and we began talking food. I asked whether he’d had the Firefly Farms pork. Turns out, he’s been buying their beef and pork and boar, often in rather select cuts, for some time.
I wanted to hear what he had to say. “It tastes like real food,” he said. “Pork at supermarkets is too lean, no flavor, dry.” He also likes the aged beef proffered by the farm, and claims that the boar chops are better than the pork. He concedes a fondness for liver, sweetbreads, cheeks and what are euphemistically called Rocky Mountain oysters.
Van Brown and Beth Tillman, of Mystic, bought a former YMCA day camp on Button Road in North Stonington in the summer of 2011 and by late fall, Firefly Farms was up and running with their son, Dugan Tillman-Brown, managing the fledgling operation. Herds of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry, such as Mulefoot hogs and Randalls cattle and a flock of Dorkings chickens were introduced.
Beth Tillman often is at the Stonington fishing docks on Saturday mornings (and in the nearby Velvet Mill in winter months), selling from the farm’s vendor’s tent at the farmers market. It was she who tactfully but firmly fended off my grousing about the price of the chops based on the amount of fat I argued I was buying. “Our pigs have flavor, and flavor comes from fat,” she wrote in an email. “Without fat, the meat is the flavorless protein sold in grocery stores.”
She also sent me a story from The Wall Street Journal to enhance my education. It turned out that the piece, published on July 28, 2017, was written by Julie Wernau, who once was a reporter for The Day.
“For decades, hog farmers have been breeding animals to produce a leaner, pinker, lower-fat variety of meat that would calm their customers’ fears of clogged arteries,” the story read. “Lately, however, the strategy has run into an obstacle that few people saw coming: a legion of foodies who think skinny pigs make for dry, bland meat.
“The growing clamor for greasy bacon, sausages stuffed with supple lard and pork chops oozing with scrumptious, oleaginous flab is so strong, in fact, that a problem has developed: America has a shortage of flabby pigs.”
The reporter quoted a restaurant owner in Dataw Island, S.C., about trying to meet the demand for fatter pigs. He finally found a breeder of Tamworth hogs an hour outside of Charleston. “But they had more chefs than hogs,” he said. “To get in the doors was a little bit of a struggle.”
His restaurant, the story read, now trims the fat before serving $25 pork chops, using the lard in chicken pate. “You get that nuttiness, that creamy flavor,” he was quoted. “The fat cap on these things is like an inch and a half.”
Beth Tillman told me her Mulefoot pigs are processed at Rhode Island Beef and Veal in Johnston, R.I., and that generally the farm will recover about 80 percent of a Mulefoot carcass’ live weight. I asked about cuts not often seen on the supermarket meat shelves. “Pigs ears and snouts for Italian dishes, larger shanks for German cooking, trotters again for mostly German dishes, kidneys, hearts,” she wrote. “The liver goes to liverwurst, which is the old fashioned kind, more like Braunschweiger. But not smoked.
“Caul fat for wrapping roasts (mainly industrial types). Back fat for rendering suet, aka leaf lard, for liquid oils. I get lots of calls for different cuts not usual on the East Coast.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org