Where the wooly pigs roam
July/August 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Megan Alpers
Photos by Michele Howard and Matt Salvo
Flavor fuels new appreciation for Old World hog breed
Nickey Holtemann-Wilmott accompanies her father, "Head Hog" John Holtemann, as he feeds his Mangalitsa boar a combination of apples, beets and alfalfa. The Mangalitsa, a heritage breed of pig, develops a wooly coat as it ages.
When you raise pigs that look like sheep, having a sense of humor is almost a given.
Nickey Holtemann-Wilmott of Parker Creek Wooly Pigs hands out business cards announcing her role as "vice piglet" and has a big laugh that is contagious. And when you ask about her family's business raising exotic pigs, it becomes clear that these are people who love what they do.
The Modoc County family has made a name for themselves by raising a distinctive breed, the Mangalitsa, which Holtemann-Wilmott affectionately refers to as "Mangas."
"Raising any animal has its challenges," she said. "The difference with Mangas is that you are trying to sell pork that doesn't taste like pork."
Mangalitsas have to be seen to be believed. Their wooly coat develops as the pigs age, but what's most unique is what's underneath. Mangalitsas are known as "lard pigs" because their meat has a very high fat content, leading to a red meat more akin to beef than pork. Manga pork is praised for its exceptionally sweet, juicy taste.
The owners of Parker Creek Ranch, Lynne and John Holtemann, Holtemann-Wilmott's parents, say they have replaced butter in their diet with the lard from Mangalitsas.
"I use it to make the best fried chicken ever," Holtemann-Wilmott said. "My daughter uses it to make pie crust. I have read that some people say it's the secret ingredient to win a blue ribbon in a pie baking contest. And there is a woman in Texas who says it's the best skin cream ever."
Mangalitsas are a heritage breed, a term describing breeds that are often centuries old and sometimes rare. At one point a few decades ago, Mangalitsas even faced extinction.
Before the culinary world caught on to their value and described Mangalitsas as the "Kobe beef of pork," the breed originated in Hungary. But its exquisite flavor comes with a trade-off: Mangalitsa pigs take between 16 and 18 months to mature to 280 to 300 pounds. That is roughly a year longer than more typical pig breeds in the U.S.
For the Holtemanns, the flavor payoff is worth the wait. But not everyone agreed at first.
Chef Mark Estee, who has bought pigs from the Holtemanns, says richly flavored Mangalitsa pork is a perfect fit for his favorite cured meat and pan-fried pork chop recipes.
A match made in hog heaven
"We were trying to get a wholesaler to sell our Manga to high-end restaurants, but since the price is so much higher because of the longer growing requirements and the fact that it doesn't taste like the pork most Americans are used to, it was hard to find anyone. But once you taste it—wow," Holtemann-Wilmott said.
As it happened, Mark Estee, chef and founder of Reno Local Food Group and, most recently Liberty Food & Wine Exchange, was in the market for something special. Estee's business includes a USDA-inspected butcher shop and specializes in cuts of Old World-style cured meats, including six varieties of salami as well as pancetta, capicola and more.
"Different breeds like the Mangalitsa work best for what we do," Estee explained. "Not only do they look different from the pigs people typically see, but they have the genetic makeup and the right amount of fat that makes them unique."
Two years ago, Estee heard that Parker Creek was selling its first crop of Mangalitsas and went whole hog, buying the entire lot.
"The belly and loin make for great, sweet pork chops, and we use the shoulder and hind to make sausage and salami," he said, noting that his all-time favorite Mangalitsa recipe is a pan-fried pork chop.
Mangalitsa pork, described as the "Kobe beef of pork," is prized for its exceptionally sweet, juicy taste.
Celebrating heritage hogs
At Aatxe in San Francisco's Upper Market district, chef Ryan Pollnow seeks out Mangalitsa, Mangalitsa-cross and other heritage breeds to use for his in-house cured meats as well as for fresh roasts and ground products.
"Heritage breeds, especially those raised locally, have a deeper and more complex flavor. You can tell it in everything from flavor to appearance," said Pollnow, who was inspired to found Aatxe after living and working in San Sebastian, a coastal town in Spain's Basque region.
"To me, Mangalitsa is the best breed for curing whole muscles, like Italian coppa or lomo, because of its high fat content," Pollnow said. "Some other meats are susceptible to drying out."
Another recipe in which Pollnow incorporates Mangalitsa is albondigas, a Spanish meatball. Because the Mangalitsa fat melts at such a low temperature, Pollnow and his team have to keep the meat very cold and work quickly. "Even in your hands, the fat starts to melt," he explained.
Pollnow recently participated in the San Francisco leg of Cochon555, a culinary competition held in 10 cities across the U.S. At the event, five local chefs were each given a whole, locally raised hog—every hog a different heritage breed—and assigned to prepare multiple dishes. The chefs worked with renowned winemakers to find the perfect pairing.
"Participating in an event like Cochon is a unique opportunity to explore the different characteristics of these heritage breeds," said Pollnow, who worked with a Duroc Yorkshire hog from Llano Seco Rancho in Chico. "All five pigs utilized that day were so varied and different. After judging was announced, I made the joke that we should have stuck with our Manga."
Chef Marc Zimmerman of Alexander's Steakhouse in San Francisco took home the competition's top prize. And the breed featured in his award-winning dishes? Mangalitsa, naturally. The pork came from Winkler Wooly Pigs in Windsor.
John and Lynne Holtemann raised beef cattle before transforming their Modoc County ranch to accommodate Mangalitsa hogs.
Home is where the wooly pigs are
While the chefs were battling it out, about 360 miles from San Francisco and 45 minutes from the Oregon border, the Holtemanns were also hard at work, raising the next generation of Mangalitsas on their Alturas ranch.
Originally Angus beef cattle ranchers, Lynne and John Holtemann began researching options for less labor-intensive livestock as they grew older. Mangalitsa pigs have a reputation for being gregarious and calm, and seemed a good fit for the ranch.
But before the family dove in, they ordered pork from a New Jersey farm founded by Chris Andersen, a Wall Street financier-turned-farmer who in 2007 was one of the first to raise Mangas in the U.S. One taste was all it took.
Today, you'll find Mangalitsas roaming the property, with a fully grown boar and sows covered in thick coats of wooly black hair.
"We built fences to keep them from wandering too far into the wilderness, but they are open-range and have plenty of room to root around and lie in the mud, which they love to do," John Holtemann said. He and his wife grow beets, alfalfa and apples to feed the pigs. Neighbors share leftovers from their gardens, and friends often stop by with acorns they have collected on hikes as treats for the hogs.
"As with most pigs, they are super friendly and curious," Holtemann-Wilmott said. "They love listening to country music and enjoy back scratches."
Her father added, "Our hope is to continue to sell a high-end, homegrown, hands-on type of product to whoever wants to taste something they have never experienced before."
Tasso ham with creamy polenta and local eggs