Friday, February 22, 2013

Out & About: Cook Pigs Ranch

The picturesque drive up the mountain to Julian is two lanes most of the way, but as you start to climb up into the forest, past the pie places, egg stands, apple trees, and cider mill*, you almost forget you're in Southern California.  Julian is northeast of San Diego, nestled in the Cleveland National Forest and home to the new Cook Pigs Ranch.

Cook Pigs was initially a subsistence farm, with the sole intention of providing meat for the young family, but soon grew into much more.  The Cooks soon found out that if they cared about what they were feeding their children, others did too, and thus a bigger project was born.  They are raising Heritage Red Wattles, GOS Heritage, Large Black Heritage and Berkshire Heritage breeds pigs, and also have some goats on property for milk production.  You can learn more about the breed history and bloodlines on the Cook Pigs site.

Krys Cook may have been a reluctant farmer, but after chatting with her she seems to have settled in just fine.  While her husband Mike is deployed, she runs the day to day operations of the farm, and is truly passionate about what they do.

She talked about her 'moms' (the sows that breed the butcher pigs) and how she had to bottle feed and raise them so she could bond with them, which makes it easier to manage them when they get bigger.  And boy do they get big.  I have to say I was intimidated when I took my first step inside one of the pens, this formidable beast could do some major damage if she wanted to, but lucky for me the moms were docile and almost affectionate (you can see Krys in the photo above petting one of her girls).  When I was in the pen with some of the newly weaned butcher pigs, they were insanely curious and I found myself standing there like Ace Ventura having a 'come to me jungle friends' moment while they were nibbling on my boots.

The pigs eat apples, acorns, macadamia nuts and beer mash. They also get crunchy tortillas for snacks like a dog working on a pig ear (ironic). All the foraging for acorns and cold weather - the ranch is almost 5000 ft in elevation - makes for a happy pig that has great marbling.  They're almost like the kobe beef of swine, all that's missing is the massage by a Japanese man.

The marbling, or fat in the meat, is making Cook Pigs pork a hot commodity for home cooks and chefs alike.  They've started suppling pigs to local restaurants, and hope to have the opportunity to meet more chefs and deliver to more restaurants.

With 20 acres, the Cooks have room to grow, and they hope to expand their operation to include other grass-fed meats (like bison!).

The little ones - I have to admit, you can't think about these cute little guys when you're searing a pork chop

Some happy pigs foraging for acorns

These were the little dudes nibbling on my feet

I learned the ins and outs of running a ranch: who spends what time in which pen, where the piglets go after their weaned, who's a good mom and who's not.  I think it's pretty awesome that even in Southern California, you can still shake hands with your farmer, and I support that type of relationship in this wasteland of super markets** and packaged food.

So do yourself a favor, order some pork - Cook Pigs works with a butcher and USDA certified processing plant so you can get any cuts your heart desires - and support your local farmer! They also plan to host butcher classes, complete with pig roasts, this summer, so us city folk can really get up close and personal with our dinner.

And it wouldn't be complete without a recipe!  I cooked a gigantic bone in pork chop when I got home and it was as delicious as promised.  Anyone want to go in on a pig pool???

Paleo Pork Chop with Chipotle Blueberry Pan Sauce

The ranch dogs following us as we drove around the property.  I brought my dog and he almost passed out at the sheer excitement of roaming 20 acres.  At the time of this picture he was MIA, but he eventually surfaced with a shit eating grin and a limp.  Curious.

*Julian Hard Cider is gluten free and made with one ingredient, fresh apples.  It's also delicious

**Don't get me wrong, I go to the supermarket, but you have to shop very very carefully.

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