The Associated Press
TRAVERSE CITY — Luckily for it, the Mangalitsa isn't just another pretty face.
If it were, this heritage breed of Hungarian pig probably wouldn't exist today. And it surely wouldn't be living the good life in Michigan, courtesy of Traverse City businessman Marc Santucci.
Besides a wiry, woolly coat that makes it look like a sheep, what sets the Mangalitsa apart is its thick layer of flavorful fat.
"They're called lard pigs," Santucci said. "They're bred ... because of the fat, so they make the best prosciuttos and salamis," or charcuterie.
Cured hams go for $20 or more a pound. Mangalitsa dinners sell out at trendy restaurants in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, and demand for the meat is rising quickly.
Some two dozen Midwestern chefs and food experts are to attend PigStock in Traverse City this week to see six Michigan Mangalitsas turned into cured meats.
To Santucci, one of few Americans raising them, the excitement underscores the economic benefits of niche farm animals like the Mangalitsa.
"It won't replace the car industry, but farming and agritourism is growing in Michigan and can grow a lot more," he said.
To you, it is peculiar; to gourmets, it's delicious, and to Santucci, it's a potential moneymaker for Michigan farmers.
Factory-farmed pigs are bred to produce lean meat and grow to harvest in just six months. Almost everything about the slow-growing Mangalitsa is different, including the price of its meat — at least four or five times more than ordinary pork.
Because the animals are so much more profitable than other pigs, Santucci and some agriculture experts say Mangalitsas could be a new source of extra income for Michigan small farmers and help boost the state's economy, while also enhancing Michigan's growing reputation as a tourism destination for foodies.
"What (Santucci) is doing is building on people's interest in food; there's a bit of a discovery factor here," said state agriculture Commissioner Don Coe, whose own Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay attracts 90,000 visitors a year.
Further, he said, "animal agriculture has become a game for the very large (producers). Farmers who are small are looking for a way to participate." Even better, he said, the animals would be grown locally, "not in large feedlots, but humanely, on small farms, the way they used to be." The corpulent hog was developed in Hungary in the early 1800s, but tastes changed and they fell from favor. Only 198 were left 20 years ago when a Spanish ham processor and a geneticist began a breeding program to save them. Now there are thousands all over Europe. Mangalitsas are still rare in the U.S.; they're raised in only a few other places, including Washington, New Jersey and California.
Santucci discovered them while looking for unusual products for the Earthy Delights gourmet food business, in which he's an investor. He and Mark Baker of Baker's Green Acres farm near Cadillac found a farmer raising them in Washington state and bought 30 piglets two years ago.
The pigs cost $280 each, compared with $60-$65 for ordinary piglets. But when they were slaughtered a year later, the meat brought $6.95 a pound, compared with 85 cents to $1 for regular pigs.
The men bought 58 more feeder pigs from Washington last year, but when the seller wouldn't lower his price or sell any breeding animals, Santucci began trying to import his own.
Exports had been blocked for several years. But as luck would have it, the window reopened, and in March, he and investor Willi Kohl of Okemos were able to bring in six piglets from Austria for $27,000, including transportation and quarantines.
Unlike the feeder pigs, the six imported animals are destined for breeding. Santucci keeps four on Baker's farm and two on farmer Bill Perkins' land in Swartz Creek, near Flint.
"These older ones will never be killed for eating. They'll live to a ripe old age," he said on a recent visit to Perkins' farm, where a protective mother pig watched over the seven fawn-colored piglets she delivered last month.
Perkins, a sixth-generation farmer, had been raising a few Berkshire pigs in the pen by his barn, but he'd like to switch to the more profitable Mangalitsas. He's a crop farmer, "but I'm interested in anything extra ... that fits with the farm. Everybody's looking for extra income," he said.
Santucci's plan is to develop a breeding herd to produce piglets for sale to small farmers, who would raise them for sale to chefs, charcuterie makers and other processors. Earthy Delights will carry the pork, he said, and so will his main business, Cherry Capital Foods, which distributes locally produced products to restaurants in and around Traverse City.
He also hopes he and chef Brian Polcyn of the Forest Grill in Birmingham can open a charcuterie company, which would buy Michigan Mangalitsa pork.
Polcyn, a nationally known charcuterie expert, is an instructor at PigStock, where Mangalitsas are to be butchered, prepared and processed for charcuterie the European way.
The richly flavored, cured meats, sausages and terrines have never been more popular, and the specialized Mangalitsa pig "will be around as long as real chefs find value in it," said Polcyn, whose restaurant is hosting a special multi-course Mangalitsa dinner Nov. 16.
Santucci has his own plans for introducing more people to the Mangalitsa's charms: Inspired by farm-based swine-roasts in villages all over Austria, he hopes to hold similar events for tourists at his Traverse City farm and cherry orchard next summer.