What is Berkshire Pork or Heritage Pork?

Dear BBQ Friend:

I was researching online recently trying to find a better source for pork -Berkshire Pork to be exact... you see, down here in Savannah, ossabaw island pigGA our meat situation basically sucks. It's amazing to me that I have won so many BBQ contests with the junk they sell down here. Savannah must be the dumping grounds for all second rate meats. I'm serious... they have to sell that stuff to somebody! I know they reserve the best meats for the high end restaurants. I don't own a high end restaurant, so where does that leave me? We don't even have a butcher shop in Savannah. I do have an account with Sysco/Buckhead Beef but they like to see a $600 order before they will deliver to me - and they don't like delivering to residential customers at all.

I seriously believe that the food distributors know that they have a bunch of suckers down here in Savannah that are forced to eat whatever is thrown at them in this environment of few options. You couldn't buy a prime grade steak if your life depended on it. I usually head down to Sam's Club and buy whatever their "pork brand of the week" is and try to do my best with it. Sometimes they try to dump the second rate IBP on us and sometimes it's the Smithfield stuff. Every slab of spareribs I have ever bought from Sam's Club has had a huge knife slash along the back side of the ribs. I'll bet you a dollar they don't send that kind of rib to a popular BBQ restaurant or steak house! Before the Gaffney, SC BBQ contest, I went to Sam's Club and they had a brand called Prairie Fresh. What the heck is Prairie Fresh!? I've never heard of them in my life and now I am forced to use it for the first time in a BBQ contest?! Note to Sam's Club... if you are going to be a main sponsor of BBQ competitions, then you need to get your meat department in order first.

OK, I'm finished ranting and raving... I have the prestigious Dillard contest coming up and I am the defending champion. I can assure you of one thing... I will not be bringing Prairie Dog ribs with me to Dillard! So... I started looking around for a better source for pork. I have tried some heritage pork before and I wasn't all that impressed with it. The brand I tried was Niman Ranch from Buckhead Beef and what I didn't like about it was it's small size - the spareribs were very small with shiners and the butts were the smallest butts I had ever seen. Boneless too. After cooking, I could not see any real improvement over the IBP or Smithfield brands from Sam's Club. Niman's pork is a cross between Duroc, Chester Whites, and Berkshire breeds.

Another big producer who sells 100% Berkshire pork is Eden Farms. I have never tried their pork, but I plan on doing so shortly and I'll let you know how it goes. Berkshire pork is also known as Kurobuta pork in Japan. When I talk about Duroc, Berkshire, and Chester Whites, I am talking about what they call heritage pork or heirloom pork. These are some of the original breeds of pigs before they bred the modern pig for leaner white meat and faster processing on huge hog farms. When the lean meat came in the front door, the taste went out the back door!

Heritage pork is a darker red in color than regular commercial pork and is more moist, tender, tasty, and the fat is creamier. The meat is healthier for you too with lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of vitamins, minerals, CLA, and Omega 3s.poland china pig

Some of the heritage pork breeds include...

  • Gloucestershire Old Spot
  • Mangalitsa "Wooly Pig"
  • Tamworth
  • Red Wattle
  • Large Black
  • Hereford
  • Berkshire
  • Mulefoot
  • Guinea Hog
  • Ossabaw Island Hog
  • Duroc
  • Hampshire
  • Large White
  • Chester White
  • Poland China
  • Iberian
  • European Wild
  • Lacombe
  • Saddleback
  • Yorkshire
  • Choctaw

When I was looking for a source for pure heritage pork, I particularly took interest in the Ossabaw Island Hog. After all... Ossabaw Island is literally in my back yard! prosciuttoIt's about 10 miles from my house and I've been there many times on fishing trips and to hang out on it's beautiful secluded beach. I knew there were wild hogs there and I knew that they allowed controlled hunts every year. What is interesting is the way they evolved on this isolated island habitat. The Ossabaw Pig is a descendant of the Spanish Iberian pig which was brought over by the early Spanish settlers. Most of these pigs mix bred with the wild hogs which where present, but the Ossabaw pigs didn't have any wild hogs to breed with, so they pretty much evolved as a pure breed. The Iberian pigs are the ones that are used to make the famous dry cured Spanish hams and delicious prosciutto.

One thing I found out when researching pure heritage pork is that it is very hard to find. Sure... there are the mass produced Niman Ranch and Eden Farms stuff, but I got to believe that stuff is not quite as good as the stuff produced on small local farms from true pure bred heritage pigs - preferably Ossabaw Island pigs because that breed is considered by a lot of people to be the best of the best. The quality of their fat and marbling is superb. I'm going to try my hardest to get my hands on some pure Ossabaw Island pork and see how it smokes up.

The problem with getting heritage pork is that most of the good stuff is raised on very small farms. The meat is then either reserved for a small number of fine restaurants or for local customers to pick up. And since there are no heritage hog farms near Savannah that I can find, I'm going to either have to buy from a farm that ships or drive 100's of miles and pick it up. Buying online has it's drawbacks... it is frozen and you don't get to select the meat and sizes that you want.

Some of these breeds are becoming very rare and even endangered. This may sound contradictory, but one of the best ways you can help preserve these rare breeds is to eat them! If the heritage pork becomes more popular, the farmers will breed more pigs. Problem solved!

If you are interested in finding some heritage pork near you, I would start with Local Harvest's website and do a search for "berkshire pork" or "kurobuta pork" or "ossabaw pork".


Bill Anderson