Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Twelve Heritage Pig Breeds

Pigs are omnivores. They are smart and sociable. Ancestors of today's domestic varieties include the wild boar and numerous feral varieties from regions around the world, all of which are highly adaptable mammals. Their ideal foraging habitat is partly forested range land. Though in some regions they are valued for contributing to ecosystems, in others they are considered highly destructive. Pig's snouts are acutely smell sensitive and are used to find food in dirt, which renders them capable of sniffing out truffles for today's epicurean Europeans. This Earth harbors about two billion domestic pigs at any one time.

wild boar

The first pigs were brought to the United States to the Atlantic Coast of Florida by the Spanish in the mid-1500s. The first Russian wild boars were brought into the U.S. in 1890, when they were were released into a 20,000 acre enclosure in New Hampshire. Currently, Texas and New Hampshire are the two states believed to harbor the true Russian wild boar.

Many of the pig varieties featured below reached near-extinction levels of under 50, 100, or 200 in number at some point in the past fifty years. This was due to modern pig farming methods which valued quick growth and lean meat over free ranging with more activity and slower growth, just the qualities which make the meat tastier and more marbled. Today, there has been a comeback due to the prioritizing of taste, artisan aged meat products, slow food movements, appreciation of heritage breeds in general, and also a return to small hobby farming and eat local movements. This happened rather remarkably just in the nick of time, as the breeds were so incredibly close to extinction.

As you read through the various breeds, note the variations in the genetics of fat distribution, size, fecundity, and personality type, in addition to the wide variety of appearances. If I were lucky enough to pick one for my own fictional small farm, I'd pick the Guinea.
Kay McDonald

1) Kunekune of New Zealand

The word Kunekune means 'fat and round.' It is a small breed with short legs and a short snout. Some have tassels which hang from the lower jaw. The coat colors and textures are widely varied and there is a marked difference between their summer and winter coats. This pig is sociable and placid and enjoys humans, thus is easy to handle and generally safe with children, making good pets.

Of Asian origin, they are believed to have been introduced to New Zealand in the early 1800s by whalers or traders. This breed was reduced to about 50 purebreds in the 1980s, at which time a successful breeding recovery program was begun. Their natural habitat is woodlands and pasture. They fatten on grass and are disinclined to roam. As meat, they have an excellent ratio of meat to fat.

2) American Mulefoot

Photo taken by Kay McDonald 2010 at Black Cat Farm in Boulder County Colorado

The defining characteristic of this black "Ozarks" pig is its solid hoof, or mulefoot. The breed is hardy, has a gentle disposition, and fattens easily, weighing 400-600 pounds at two years of age. The Mulefoot's numbers declined dangerously and only recently are on the rebound since there is a new appreciation for its superior tasting meat.

3) Berkshire or Kurobuta

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The Berkshire is Britain's oldest pig breed, originating from Berkshire county (now Oxfordshire). For years the Royal Family kept a large Berkshire herd at Windsor Castle. The breed is called "Kurobuta" in Japan. It is black, of a large size, with white legs. Chefs love the intramuscular marbling. This pig matures quickly.

The home of the American Berkshire Association is West Lafayette, Indiana. The breed has had a great influence on swine breeding. Their mid-1900's championship show winnings have never been duplicated. Selection pressure was applied toward those traits of great economical importance - fast and efficient growth, reproductive efficiency cleanness, and meatiness.

4) Red Wattle

The rare Red Wattle hogs came from New Caledonia, which is a French Island in the South Pacific by Australia. They were brought to New Orleans in the late 1700s by the French. This pig is gentle natured, hardy, has a lean but tender carcass, and excellent flavor somewhat resembling beef in taste and texture. They are easy to work and farrow. It is a tasselled pig, adapts to climates well and is an excellent forager. These hogs weigh 600-800 pounds but can reach 1500.

5) Guinea Hog

The rare Guinea Forest hogs may have originated on the Guinea coast of Africa and were spread widely though the slave trade from Africa to England, France, Spain, and America. They were a large, square breed with reddish bristly hair and pointed ears. Hardy grazers and foragers, they can be raised on pasture and still produce lard and pork. Their numbers declined drastically with the collapse of the lard market and the shift away from backyard pork production.

Today's Guinea hogs are small, only 150-300 pounds and 15-20 inches tall when fully grown making them a perfect size for the small farm. Colors may vary, but they are usually black and often hairy. Guinea hogs are very gentle and easy to care for, making them popular at children's zoos, though they remain extremely suitable for small scale pork production.

6) Tamworth

This smaller, red-coated breed is of ancient and unknown origin, though some say it originated in Ireland. One of the oldest pig breeds, it is a descendant of wild boars and native European pig stock. Imported to Tamworth of Staffordshire England around 1812, it was given a separate breed classification at the English Royal Show in 1865. They have since been bred quite extensively.

The first Tamworths were brought to the United States in 1882 by Thomas Bennett of Rossville, Illinois. Tamworth pigs have enjoyed more popularity during time periods favoring greater amounts of lean meat in the carcass rather than excess lard production. The ham is muscular and firm although it lacks the size and bulk found in most other breeds. The flavorful bacon-type is quite ideal as is the meat. It is a rugged, thrifty, and active pig.

7) Basque Pigs or Ass Black Limousin (France)

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The endangered Basque Pig, also called Pie Noir du Pays basque, Euskal Xerria or Xuri eta beltza, is an indigenous breed of the Basque Country. It once inhabited the extreme south-western Pyrenees, and that the neighboring provinces of northern Spain. The Ass black Limousin breed is French pork from the region of Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, in the south of the Haute-Vienne. This type of Iberian pig was neglected in favor of other breeds by industrial hog farming because of its low growth rate and its high proportion of fat.

After becoming nearly extinct in the 1970s, the breed has been saved by some breeders who appreciate raising their pigs according to ancestral traditions.

The weather hardy Ass Black Limousin pigs are lively, alert, and accustomed to foraging free range in the wild for grass, chestnuts, acorns, peas, and fruit. They are well adapted to living in the mountains and deforestation led to their near-extinction. They are white with black spots, grow slowly and produce extra-tasty meat. Since they deposit fat easily, they are good lard and bacon producers. These pigs make good mothers with an average of 10 piglets per litter.

8) Cinta Senese Pigs (Italy)

The extremely rare Cinta Senese is the only Tuscan native swine breed to survive extinction. The Senese pig farms in Tuscany are in the provinces of Siena, Arezzo, Grosseto, Florence and Livorno. Though nearly extinct in 1990, many breeders in Tuscany are currently promoting it. This medium sized pig is highly regarded today since it is authentic Tuscan. It has ancient origins and these animals are seen in very old paintings dating back to the fourteenth century.

The Cinta Senese is the forefather of all the Tuscan pigs. It is almost savage and very resistant to bad weather, and for these reasons it represented a secure food reserve for farmers and their families. This swine type grows very slowly (the slaughtering age is never less than 12 months) and that is why farmers abandoned them in favor of breeds which grow much faster. The pigs are raised half wild, digging in the dirt, eating roots and mushrooms, and free ranging in the Tuscan fields and woodlands.

The pig is harvested at two years of age. The low fat (not separate from the lean) fragrant pork is optimal for cooking but it’s mainly used for the production of various kinds of tasty cold cuts. Classical are the “prosciutto alla spalla” (shoulder ham) and the “salami al lardo e il capocollo” (salami of lard and top neck), as well as typical Tuscan products that include finocchiona, fresh sausage, seasoned pork loin, salt bacon, capocollo, and cured lard. The products are cured in special rooms according to the length of time it takes them to be ready for consumption. This is a totally natural process which can take more than two years for prosciutto, for example.

9) Ibérico Pigs

The Black Iberian Pig, whose unique origin can be traced back to ancient times, is found in herds clustered in the central and southern territory of the Iberian Peninsula, in Portugal and Spain. They were probably brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Phoenicians from the Eastern Mediterranean coast (current day Lebanon) where they interbred with wild boars dating back to 1000 B.C. This pig is dark in color, ranging from black to grey, with little or no hair and a lean body, also called the "black hoof" pig.

Because the animals live freely, they are constantly moving around and therefore burn more calories than other species of pig. A hectare of dehesa (a beautiful Iberian landscape ecosystem halfway between forest and grassland) is needed to raise a single pig. True dehesa is a richly diverse habitat with four different types of oak that are crucial in the production of prime-quality ham, since the acorns along with aromatic herbs provide the pigs diet.

This pig accumulates fat under its skin and between its muscular fibers which produces the typical white streaks that make the ham special. Meat aging takes place in dark cellars where the darkness, humidity and temperature are perfect for the completion of the curing process, allowing the ham's unique flavor and aroma to develop fully.

10) Meishan pig (China)

The Meishan pig is a sub-group of the Taihu pig and is a small to medium-sized breed with large drooping ears, and wrinkled black skin. Native to a mild climate in Southern China, the breed is best known for its large litters of 15-16 piglets. Meishan pigs are perhaps one of the most prolific breeds of pig in the world. It is quite common to have two litters per year.

Due to its fecundity, it was imported to the United States in the late 1980s by the USDA Agricultural Research Service. It lost favor due to its slow growth rate and abundance of fat, although it reaches maturity very early, and both boars and sows carry traits that make them one of the most prolific breeds in the world. They are slow growing and fat, but have a very good taste. They are considered to be resistant to some diseases and are able to consume large amounts of roughage.

The German Swabian Hall pig breed, known for its taste and gaining in popularity, is a cross between Meishan Swine and the Russian Wild Boar that was indigenous to the country of Germany.

11) Large Black

Photo credit flyinghfarm

Originating from Chinese breeds brought to England in the late 1800s, the very rare Large Black is known for its taste, pasture foraging skills and overall hardiness. Other names for it are Cornwall, Devon, and Lop-eared Black. Large Blacks have short black hair, wide shoulders and a long body. When harvested, even at 200 pounds, the micro-marbling, short muscle fibers and excellent bellies produce exceptional bacon and moist meat with old world flavor.

Its coat color makes it tolerant of many sun born illnesses and its hardiness and grazing ability make it an efficient meat producer. The hair is fine and rather thick with the black pigmentation being quite heavy. They have a very docile nature and move more slowly and deliberately than other breeds.

The slower maturing Large Blacks are also known for their mothering ability, milk capacity and prolificacy. Sows give birth to 8-10 piglets. Formerly fed to enormous weights to produce carcasses with a large amount of fat, Large Blacks are now used for lean pork and bacon production.

12) Ossabaw Island, Georgia Pig

Originating from Spain, and of Iberian decent, this endangered feral breed lives off the coast of Georgia on Ossabaw Island, a preserved barrier island. The original Ossabaw Hogs are descended from swine released on the island in the 16th century by Spanish explorers who often left livestock such as pigs on islands as a future food source. Over time, some of the Spanish pigs escaped and became feral in southeastern forests. While most feral pigs eventually mixed with domestic pigs, the Ossabaw Island animals are an exception, having remained a distinct and isolated population.

These Georgian pigs have a heavy coat and long snout. The quality of their fat and marbling has increased their popularity within the chef community. These are small swine, less than 20 inches tall and weighing less than 200 pounds at maturity though they get much larger in captivity. Ossabaws are noted to be intelligent and friendly swine in terms of temperament. Meat is considered to be an artisanal, heritage product especially well-suited to use in pork, cured meats, and whole pig roasts.


warty pig

bearded pig

pot bellied pig


NOTE: If you like this, you might like my previous post, Miniature Cattle, Piedmontese Cattle, and White Park Cattle.

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