When most folks think of Cochon555, what comes to mind is a lively nose-to-tail culinary competition and indulgent, porky dishes. But Cochon555 was established in 2008 to promote something deeper: the preservation of heritage breed pigs and the family farms that raise them.
This year, we’re taking a farm-to-tasting approach to our coverage of Denver’s Cochon555 event (Sunday, March 19), following one locally raised heritage hog’s journey from pasture to chef to plate. About a week before the event, a 200-pound, whole heritage pig from a Colorado farm is delivered to the restaurant kitchen of each of five competing chefs. This year’s Centennial State competitors are Bill Miner of Il Porcellino Salumi; Will Nolan of Viceroy Snowmass; Darrel Truett of Barolo Grill; Hosea Rosenberg of Blackbelly Market; and Burton Koelliker of Bonanno Concepts. The chefs spend the next week butchering and preparing their animal into six dishes meant to wow judges and party-goers alike.
We’re following competing chef Darrel Truett, whose pig hails from ACES @ Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt, Colorado. But in this first installment, we’re starting at the source: the farm. Be sure to check back for parts two (in which we’ll chronicle Truett’s menu planning and pig prep) and three (where we’ll reveal which chef was crowned the 2017 Prince of Porc).
For farmer Jason Smith of 113-acre ACES @ Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt, Colorado, heritage breed pigs are a bright spot. The ranch is owned by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), a nonprofit that focuses on conservation education, so environmental stewardship through agriculture is Rock Bottom’s primary mission. Its pastures, year-round greenhouses, and wild lands support an abundance of mindfully farmed flora and fauna, including goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, and a variety of heritage breed hogs.
According to the Livestock Conservancy, heritage swine are defined as purebred pigs of an endangered (or formerly endangered) breed. The breed must have an “established and continuous breeding population in the United States since 1925,” and farmers of heritage hogs must comply with “management practices consistent with the history of the breed,” including providing access to open pasture, a diet that agrees with the hogs’ natural omnivorous proclivities, and zero use of antibiotics or growth hormones.
Smith has farmed heritage breed hogs this way for more than a decade, and he sees these antique animals as vital to preserving genetic diversity: “The Irish potato famine happened because they went down to growing one variety of potato. We want to preserve various traits and qualities because we never know what we’ll need,” Smith says. And while he raises a variety of certified-Animal Welfare Approved pigs at Rock Bottom Ranch—including Old Spots, Tamworths, Red Wattles, and Berkshires—Smith has equipped Barolo Grill’s executive chef Darrel Truett with a Large Black, a breed with a long history.
Large Blacks were once the most common pig in the United States, but by the 1980s, they were on the verge of extinction. Thanks to industrialized agriculture during the ‘50s and ‘60s, farmers focused on producing breeds with less body fat and a tolerance for the fast-paced conditions of modern pork farming. Such practices threw the more time-intensive, fatty breeds, like the Large Black, into decline.
And while Smith loves many things about his Large Black hogs—their docile, friendly temperaments, hardiness to the cold temperatures of the ranch’s 6,000-foot elevation, and nurturing, motherly instincts—yet another reason is their incredible flavor. As a former chef at the Little Nell in Aspen, he’s always “had a love for pork in the kitchen.” That’s especially true of the meat from Large Blacks, which boast a rich, red color and ample amounts of flavorful fat. “Nutritionally, it’s a totally different product than the bleached, white, pale meat you see in the supermarket,” Smith says.
How will Chef Truett utilize the flavor and fat of his Large Black? We can’t wait to find out, for it’s this farmer-to-chef connection that underscores the genius of Cochon555: Chefs act as flavor ambassadors for heirloom breeds, thereby promoting more sustainable, diverse agricultural practices on small family farms. A portion of Cochon’s proceeds (and all of the earnings from auction items) are donated to the non profit Piggy Bank, which is essentially a Noah’s Ark that provides a “genetic sanctuary” for heritage breeds, as well as business plans and livestock for family farms.
Cochon555 takes place on Sunday, March 19 at 5 p.m. General admission tickets are $125 and can be purchased here.