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Thursday, May 29, 2014 12:01 am

Schutte headed for Aspen – again!

Central Illinois Organic Farmer Stan Schutte with Chicago Chef Tim Graham.
Two years ago, I wrote about Stan Schutte, the central Illinois farmer whose heritage breed Tamworth pig won the national Cochon 555 competition against other regional winners in cities all around America with pork dishes created by Chicago chef Jason Vincent. The final competition took place in Aspen, Colorado.

Next month, Schutte is headed back to Aspen, having won the Chicago competition earlier this year; this time with a Large Black heritage breed pig, and a new partner, Chicago Chef Tim Graham.

Cochon 555 is relatively new; this is its sixth year. At each venue, the Cochon organization selects seven area chefs and pairs them with seven local farmers who raise seven different breeds of heritage pigs.

Cochon is the brainchild of Taste Network’s Brady Lowe. Most consumers don’t understand or appreciate the importance – and flavor – of heritage pork breeds, Lowe believes. He decided the best way to “increase awareness of the sources that support a more natural, sustainable food system ... was through unique culinary experiences.” As the Cochon website says, “The Cochon tour is a journey that … food lovers will want to join, like touring with your favorite band, watching new artists take the stage to showcase their own riffs on pork, and eating your heart out while the band just plays flavor all night long ….  It’s not just farm to table that matters – it’s what happens in between, the how and where, the history of what we eat. The epicurean audiences at every Cochon 555 event enjoys a direct link to the sources, a chance to learn from food experts.”

Just what is a heritage breed pig? Simply put, it’s a breed that has been around for a century; sometimes much longer. Actually, some pigs grown in a CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation that bears little resemblance to most people’s idea of farming) are heritage breeds. They are used because they are fast growing and adaptable to indoor confinement. But the term “heritage breed” these days has come to mean old varieties that, because they’re unsuitable for indoors, have become rare and in some cases, even extinct. As with vegetables such as tomatoes, commercial growers emphasize uniformity and convenience over flavor.

Heritage breeds, whether vegetables or livestock, were developed to be suitable to different conditions, regions, usages and diets, such as acorns or apples. Mangalitsa pigs, for example, were created in Hungary primarily to have large amounts and especially flavorful fat, and used primarily in sausage-making. The first time I ate Schutte’s Tamworth pork, I was instantly taken back to the taste of my mom’s baked pork chops (complete with canned mushroom soup gravy!); there was a depth of flavor I hadn’t experienced in years.

Even some heritage breed names are interesting, particularly British breeds such as Red Wattle and Old Spot. The Large Black pig that won for Schutte and Chef Graham is native to England’s southwest region: Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. Originally called Lop-Eared Black, as the name suggests, the all-black breed’s ears lop forward over their eyes, making them exceptional forgers ill-suited for CAFOs. In 1900, it was one of England’s most numerous breeds, but by the 1960s had become nearly extinct. Today Large Black hogs are beginning to be recognized as a great choice in sustainable pastured systems. But the breed is still rare. As of 2008, there were only about 300 breeding Large Blacks and it remains on the Livestock Conservancy critical watch list. (Tamworths, one step up, are merely in the threatened category.)

And their flavor? “It’s delicate, not at all gamey. Stan finished it with a palette of apples,” says Graham. He’s long been a highly respected chef in Chicago’s food scene, but his first solo venture, Travelle, with its rotating Pan-Mediterranean menu is only 10 months old.

“Stan’s pig was just beautiful, with gorgeous white fat,” Graham says. “I’d call it the Kobe of pork.”

Graham created five dishes with Schutte’s Large Black – Cracklin’ Jacks: pork skin cracklin’s coated with caramel and peanuts; Pork Rillette Candle: curry scented pork fat sitting on top of pork rillettes in a votive candle holder with a wick (the wick burns to melt the fat and then the guests eat the rillettes); Chermoulah Pork Taco; Blood Mole Soup with Blood Sausage; Muffelatta with Paté and Rosemary Pork Loin (the olive salad contained diced heart, kidney, tongue etc.); Piri Piri Pork Belly with Smoked Pineapple and Ramps.

Graham says that he was under lots of pressure preparing for his first Cochon 555 competition. And Schutte made him even more nervous: “Stan was cellphone stalking me. He kept leaving messages like ‘I’m nervous.’ Or ‘I want to win this.’” Graham laughed. Even so, both enjoyed working together.

Schutte doesn’t spend all his time raising heritage pork for competition. Triple S Farms also sells beef and poultry. As such, he’s received local, national and even international recognition. In 2006, the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service named him Organic Farmer of the Year. That same year Joel Smith, Midwest Governor of Slow Food USA took Schutte to Terra Madre, a biannual, international Slow Food event held in Turin, Italy. In 2008, Schutte’s son, Ryan, was sent to Turin. Then a UIUC agriculture student, Ryan now farms with his dad.

Schutte’s willingness to try something new, and his success in converting his family’s farm into a viable business has earned him the respect of sustainable agriculture advocates. It was the devastation of family farms for want of a decent living that made Schutte turn to organic and sustainable farming. “Ironically, my dad was very progressive in the 40s and 50s, using chemicals for weed and insect control,” Schutte says. “By the 60s and 70s, we were one of the biggest farms around.”

Schutte’s dad died, and by the 90s, the effects of Nixon agriculture secretary Earl Butz’s stated policy of “get big or get out” were taking hold. Even moderately large farms such as Schutte’s couldn’t keep up. “I had to get a factory job to pay just the interest on a $100,000 note for buying equipment,” Schutte says. For Schutte, the ’97 “hog [price] crash” was a seminal moment “I broke down and cried,” he says. “I realized something’s got to change. To keep farming, I had to do something different.”

Local farmers markets brought him the first signs of sustainable success. And at each location, Schutte initiated a buyers club, now his “bread and butter.” For a small one-time fee, customers receive a discount on every purchase. In winter, Schutte makes monthly deliveries to each city, ensuring that club members receive his products year-round.

Schutte’s innovative business approaches have become a model for others. But his methods would be meaningless if he didn’t combine them with sensitivity and sensibility.

As Smith puts it: “When it comes to the animals, Stan has so much more native intelligence than most. Those smarts come from being an astute observer of nature and from a lifetime of farming experience – good and bad – that seems to have taught him that the best way to farm is to work with nature, instead of always fighting her. That transfers to how he works with his animals as valuable, important members of his farm’s biological community. You get the sense that he sees them as proxies for the health of his entire farm, as well as sentinels of any problems.”

Good luck in Aspen again, Stan. We’ll be rooting for you!

Stan Schutte is at the Old Capitol Farmers Market each Wednesday. To find out more about his products and buyers club, talk to him there or visit his website, www.triplesfarms.com.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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