Roasted porchetta, caramelized apple, shallot jam and aioli, with a pickle: Comfort food from Madison Club chef Andrew Wilson.
They aren't kidding when they say SloPig is designed to bring an "overwhelming amount" of heritage pork and locally crafted culinary items together under one roof.
The fifth-annual event founded by Madison chef Dan Fox of Heritage Tavern and Fox Heritage Farms once again transformed all three floors of the Madison Club into a veritable porcine paradise on March 22, featuring dozens of high-end food and beverage stations dedicated to providing a snout-to-tail celebration of the even-toed ungulate.
"I am dead. This is heaven," I immediately tweet a picture of a lavish, glistening charcuterie display from Smoking Goose, an Indiana-based "meatery," hoping to strike jealousy into the hearts (and stomachs) of my Internet friends.
"That's so sad," my vegan friend responds. I consider unfollowing her.
I was brought up during the fat-free 1990s and begrudgingly choked down my mother's bland, dry pork chops every Sunday (sorry, Mom), so the wonders of the pig were a mystery to me until I started serving in restaurants in the early 2000s.
Smoking Goose, an Indiana "meatery" specializing in cured pork products, served sausage, morradella, and salame piccante -- all seam-butchered and hand-tied without nitrates.
That's about the time the slow food movement started picking up speed, and soon, I and other previously unenlightened foodies began to realize that there were cuts of meat that were even more delicious than bacon.
My SloPig companions -- or Partners in Gluttony (P.I.G.s), as I dubbed them -- and I made a plan: Start from the top floor and work our way down, sampling as many dishes as possible. This turned out to be easier said than done.
As in years past, celebrity chefs from throughout the Midwest were provided with half a heritage-breed hog, one-quarter of beef and a goat (all sustainably pasture-raised, of course) and tasked with creating five to seven small plates to be judged by SloPig attendees.
With five chefs participating, that's up to 35 dishes -- not counting the numerous substations offering an array of pork and non-pork delicacies. Oh, and don't forget the amazing beer, wine and punch stations. Pro tip: Wear loose-fitting clothing.
This year's SloPig competitors included Madison's Daniel Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat, Andrew Wilson of the Madison Club and Francesco Mangano of Osteria Papavero as well as Mike Gorman of the Bristol in Chicago and Cole Ersel of Wolf Peach in Milwaukee.
Ersel took home the coveted SloPig cast iron skillet for being the audience favorite with his creative, expansive menu that ranged in scope from charcuterie to milk-braised pork head agnolotti to high-end pig-in-a-blanket and dessert-style pork belly.
In a tragic twist of fate, Ersel's was the one station I didn't get to try -- I was too full.
Madison-based metal artist Alisa Toninato, owner of FeLion Studios, created special SloPig cast iron skillets and belt buckles for the event.
The Madison Club's menu offerings ranged in style from an Asian-inspired Tom Yum-style pork broth with chunks of salty lardo (cured backfat) and strongly flavored with kaffir lime oil to a savory roasted porchetta on cornbread with shallot jam and a whipped lard aioli that wouldn't have been out of place at a really fancy Southern barbecue.
But the favorite among my group (or at least the most memorable menu item) were the obscenely indulgent "lard brioche rolls" made with a head cheese swirl, pig skin jus and -- wait for it -- brown sugar ham butter.
The Bristol's station was similarly multicultural, featuring a tender Japanese-style pork dumpling in broth, a magnificent pork loin tonnato, crispy espelette chicharrones (fried pork skin) and one of the best pork shoulder tacos I've ever had.
I found a hair in my chicharron, but my friend pointed out that it was probably a pig hair. Somehow that made it okay. And it was delicious.
The staff from Osteria Papavero served pasta e fagioli with cannellini beans and pork skin -- which was admittedly a tiny bit bland for my taste buds -- but made up for it with an unexpectedly delightful combination of braised octopus and a melt-in-your-mouth pickled lamb tongue and a revelatory gnocco fritto (fried dough puffs) with truffeled Tuscan head cheese. Also, their butterscotch pudding was the bomb.
The crew from A Pig in a Fur Coat pushed the boundaries of the traditional pork-lover's palate with their menu of head cheese with fennel apple kraut (it tasted like the best meatloaf ever), pork tripe (stomach!) with pork belly. They even tricked me with one menu item when I misheard the chef describe the ingredients.
"You guys have to try this foie gras and plum pudding cracker from Pig in a Fur Coat," I tell my friends, enraptured by my mouthful of velvety, delicious, morally questionable mousse.
"Um, that's actually blood pudding," my friend points out. "Like, as in, actual pig's blood."
The distinctive flavor hits me. For the first time in the evening, I contemplate spitting something out. I end up going back for seconds.
I forgot to mention the cocktails. Boozy and delicious punches were also in competition. These included punches from Madison's Merchant and Heritage Tavern as well as Milwaukee's Movida and Goodkind Bay View and Chicago's Barrelhouse Flat.
Madison Club chef Andrew Wilson's sugar and spice chicharrones with caramel apple mole sauce put a sweet and tangy spin on the traditional fried pork skin.
I marveled at the long list of ingredients the Movida bartender rattled off in describing his concoction. Have we as a species truly evolved to the point when we need to flavor our drinks with two different kinds of bitters?
"When you get down to it, it's just punch," he says with a smile.
But hands down, the best drink was from Clint Sterwald of Heritage Tavern -- he hand-juiced pineapples, strawberries, serrano chilis, basil and lemons and flavored the drink with allspice, cardamom, bay leaves, juniper berries, fennel, coriander and star anise.
Taking the drink from "amazing" to "off-the-charts incredible," the bartenders poured my sample through an adorable ice sculpture luge and topped it off with a grilled pineapple and basil cream foam. SloPig attendees agreed with me and voted it the night's best punch.
The foam canister ran out halfway through my squirt -- I held out my cup expectantly, hoping the bartender would grab another and top off my drink, but she didn't.
In hindsight, I appreciated her restraint.