March 14, 2014 5:51 pm

Artisan foods: mangalitza pigs

A rare and luxurious Austro-Hungarian breed produces dark ruby meat with a rich, steak-like flavour – and even the fat is healthy
lltud Llyr Dunsford with his boar Arthur at his Welsh farm©Gareth Phillips

lltud Llyr Dunsford with his boar Arthur at his Welsh farm

Illtud Llyr Dunsford is leaning over a fence on his farm in Carmarthenshire, southwest Wales, looking at his litter of curly-locked pigs greedily foraging the forest floor. “We’ve always had pigs in the Gwendraeth Fawr Valley here,” he says. “They’ve featured in Welsh folklore, The Mabinogion [medieval narratives] and Arthurian scripts.” Dunsford’s boar, appropriately named Arthur, twitches his long, noble snout, and ensconces himself corpulently in a patch of mud.

Arthur and his kin are no ordinary pigs, and Dunsford’s 167-acre holding, Felin y Glyn, is not quite an ordinary farm. These endearing beasts are mangalitzas, a rare Austro-Hungarian breed, whose meat offers dark ruby flesh with marbling as silken as any Ibérico ham. So prized were they in the 19th century, they were traded on the Vienna stock exchange alongside gold. In Budapest an annual mangalitza festival held in February sees Hungarians descend on the city to pay tribute to this special livestock. But the mangalitza has only recently become fashionable in Britain, arriving, explains Dunsford, “by way of America, not Hungary”.

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Heath Putnam, an entrepreneur who used to breed mangalitzas in the US, sold his first carcass to Thomas Keller’s restaurant The French Laundry in 2004. In Britain, the breed was introduced in 2006 but was mainly sold as pets because of the pigs’ irresistible “Womble” features. Dunsford, 33, invested in mangalitzas in 2011 as part of his mission to put Welsh charcuterie on the map. “I’d like to make Welsh ham to rival Ibérico. The Welsh have an amazing tradition of ham-making,” he says. As a child his family kept two or three pigs each year for slaughter. “We’d make black pudding, faggots, brawn and we’d salt the rest of the pig. There were hooks on my grandparents’ ceiling to hang the hams.”

Modernising ancient techniques, Dunsford has been making and selling mangalitza salami and burgers locally. Of the burgers’ pork mince, he muses, “It looks like beef, deep-purple,” adding, “The pigs are 20 months old before slaughter, you see, that’s why it’s so beautiful.”

mangalitzas in the pen©Gareth Phillips

mangalitzas in the pen

We go inside to look at the hams. “The latest mangalitza salami is insanely good,” he says. “Each climate provides different moulds and fermentation to the meat. Making this produce here gives you a very Welsh product.”

He is not alone in his enthusiasm. Advocates in Britain include butcher Nathan Mills, who has worked with Heston Blumenthal and Raymond Blanc. Then there’s chef James Goss of the King’s Arms in Rutland, Tom Adams of Pitt Cue in London, and Richard Turner and James George, who brought the New York butchery festival Meatopia to London last year.

Turner and George are so enamoured of the mangalitza they are to start rearing their own in Essex next year to sell at their new butchery in Islington. The pair, who offer mangalitza for sale in their shop most weeks, can’t keep up with demand. Surely it’s the restaurants buying it up? No, says George. “It’s the general public. In fact, we have a waiting list for the whole range of cuts but especially the fattier ones like belly and shoulder. Everyone’s slow cooking and smoking these days.”

charcuterie©Gareth Phillips

the resulting charcuterie

The mangalitza is a lard pig and it’s the act of curing it or transforming it into a luxurious product that’s getting food-lovers salivating. George is unequivocal: “Mangalitza pork is prone to somewhat more fat than Ibérico and this fat is what lubricates and carries the almost steak-like flavour in it.”

This means mangalitza hams can mature slowly, resulting in a rich flavour. In order to push the limits, Dunsford wants to make seven-year-aged hams with mangalitzas. “With a more modern breed, you can only make two-year-old ham.”

The downside is that as the pigs live for up to two years to produce the best meat, production costs for farmers are exorbitant. I ask if this pork will endure in Britain, or if it is just another transient food fad. George says: “Yes, it has longevity. Meat production and consumption is undergoing something of a change. We are now returning to old practices and standards that Britain was once known for. It’s all about eating less meat but much higher quality, two, three times a week.”

Old-fashioned practices, slow-grown meat artfully turned into comestibles, is exactly the approach taken at Felin y Glyn. Dunsford shows off some of his creations lying tantalisingly on a plate in his kitchen. We try some mangalitza pancetta – it’s rich, fudgy, lightly smoked with melting-to-touch fat. Dunsford smiles, and points out that the meat boasts both amino acids and unsaturated fat. “It means it has healthier fat than conventional pigs too.”

Chloe Scott-Moncrieff is co-founder of Young British Foodies; the-ybfs.com

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Five places to buy mangalitza

1. Illtud Llyr Dunsford runs Charcutier Ltd (01554 810345; charcutierltd.wordpress.com). His meat is also sold at Roath and Riverside markets in Cardiff (029 2019 0036; riversidemarket.org.uk)

2. The Red Lion Freehouse in East Chisenbury, Wiltshire, serves pork loin and belly (01980 671124; redlionfreehouse.com)

3. At the King’s Arms in Wing, Rutland, James Goss offers six-course mangalitza nights (01572 737 634; thekingsarms-wing.co.uk)

4. Wright’s Food Emporium, Llanarthne (01558 668929; wrightsfood.co.uk)

5. Turner & George, London (020 7837 1781; turnerandgeorge.co.uk)

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