There's no question that not all pork is created equal. We're lucky in Wisconsin to have such a thriving commitment to heritage hogs. Willow Creek Farm stands out among the best. Sue and Tony Renger raise purebred Berkshire hogs on their land near Loganville in Sauk County.
Tony, a fourth-generation hog farmer, comes from a family that raised Berkshire crosses. He switched to purebred Berkshire pork for its highly prized flavor and texture. The Rengers started in 2001 with 60 hogs; now they raise about 750.
"It needs to be purebred Berkshire," Tony says. One caution to buyers, he says, is that many farms will market Berkshire crosses as Berkshire pork; they're not the same thing.
"This is really the old-fashioned pork - it's not 'the other white meat,'" Sue says of the purebred Berkshire. It tends to be a bit darker and more succulent due to the marbling of fat in the pork. Tony adds that Berkshire pork is also very high in microfibers that hold in moisture.
The hogs are free-range and pasture-fed, and because they're exercising all the time, they mature to seven months before slaughter, as opposed to confined conventional hogs on hormones, which usually reach the same growth in just four and a half months.
Willow Creek Farm won the 2011 Grand Champion for traditional boneless ham and 2010 Reserve Champion for bacon at the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors convention, against Wisconsin's nearly 300 competitors.
The Rengers own their own USDA processing plant in Prairie du Sac and even custom-built their smokers. They also make their own spice mixes.
The Italian sausage is their number-one seller, followed by Sue's grandfather's fresh kielbasa. But I decided to go with a tenderloin roast for winter, a spinoff of Chinese-style barbecue pork (char siu) using another local favorite, Quince and Apple's Door County tart cherry grenadine.
The tenderloin, which runs along either side of the spine, is one of the least-utilized muscles, so the fibers need little coaxing to, as the name implies, stay tender. This cut is highly amenable to quick, dry cooking methods and, in my opinion, is best served with a blush of pink in the middle. As a former server, I know that some diners balk at this (holding onto old fears about trichinosis-infected pork), but the USDA has even hopped on board. As of 2011, the new recommendation is 145 degrees (medium), including three minutes of resting time to let the juices redistribute in the tissues of the roast. In the industry, some chefs will err on the side of an even lower temperature for optimal results.
The leftover grenadine makes a fine excuse for accompanying cocktails, and any leftover pork is perfect on top of ramen. But don't get your hopes up; leftovers aren't likely.
Willow Creek products are sold at Metcalfe's Hilldale and Mineral Point Road and at Willy Street Co-op East and West.
Cherry Char Siu
About 4 servings
- 1 pork tenderloin (about 1 pound)
- 1/4 cup Quince and Apple Door County tart cherry grenadine
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon grated shallot
- 2 teaspoons Sriracha
- 1 teaspoon grated ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
Trim tenderloin (remove silver skin) and combine remaining ingredients. Put tenderloin and marinade in a sealable plastic bag; marinate overnight.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Remove tenderloin and pat dry; reserve marinade for basting. Heat oiled sauté pan over medium high heat, sear tenderloin on all sides and place on roasting rack in a shallow pan; a cast-iron grill pan works well, too).
Baste with marinade and roast for about 12-15 minutes (basting once more in-between), or until internal temperature reaches 140 degrees for medium. Let rest for a few minutes before serving; temperature will rise a few more degrees to 145.