The Finest Pork in the World
“Once I started thinking about acorns, it did not take long to get
to pigs,” Milikowsky said on a tour of her farm in Westhampton,
Massachusetts. She admits that she didn’t initially realize there
was a connection. “The irony is that I’m Jewish. Clearly, I don’t
keep kosher, and I’m not extremely religious. Nonetheless, I did
not grow up eating a lot of pork.” But the acorn-pig connection
will come as no surprise to connoisseurs. The finest (and most
expensive) pork in the world is jamón ibérico de bellota, made
from Iberian pigs finished on a diet of acorns.
What makes this acorn-fed Spanish pork so good? The acorn
diet raises the proportion of oleic and omega- 3 fatty acids in the
pig fat. In addition to their health benefits, fats containing these
acids have lower melting points. The fats of thinly sliced jamón
will melt right onto the plate at room temperature. Cooking (or,
even better, curing) the acorn-fed pork spreads the fats and their
nutty flavor throughout the meat. Then, it quite literally melts
in your mouth.
At first, Milikowsky resisted the idea of working with pigs.
She’d worked on wildlife restoration projects in Hawaii and
Florida, places where introduced pigs had devastated native
ecosystems. Surely, it would not help the cause of conservation
to pasture pigs in the woodlots of New England. Besides, the
highly manipulated, rigorously managed landscapes – called
dehesas – where jamón ibérico is raised were centuries in the
making. It wouldn’t be feasible to recreate that system here.
But Milikowsky couldn’t quite let the idea go. What if there
was a way to create a New England version of the Spanish model?
What if there was a way of doing it without letting pigs run wild
over New England hillsides? What if, instead of bringing pigs to
the acorns, Milikowsky brought the acorns to the pigs?
The Business End of a Pig
It’s a long way from Spain to New England. The oaks are different
species. The pigs are different breeds. Maybe the chemistry
that leads to such tasty meat would be different, too. Maybe the
pigs wouldn’t even eat New England acorns. In the fall of 2013,
Milikowsky embarked on an experiment. She gathered acorns,
found a farmer who was willing to work with her, and put a
deposit on three pigs.
Pouring acorns into the trough for the first time was a moment
of truth. “They got as excited as I’ve ever seen pigs,” she said. The
pigs ate the acorns immediately. And they kept eating them.
In the spring of 2014, Milikowsky was ready to take samples
of her acorn-finished pork to high-end chefs in Connecticut and
Boston. “They were raving about it. Some of them gave me such
detailed feedback about how excited they were: the way the fat
melted, the aromas coming off of it, the nuttiness, the way the
nutty fat melted into the meat. This was really excited, articulate
feedback.” Then they asked when they could buy more.
In addition to her pursuit of a graduate forestry degree,
Milikowsky was also enrolled as an MBA student at the Yale
School of Management; her first business plan was simple – she
wanted to sell acorns to pig farmers. But as she began to learn
about the business of raising pigs, she realized that staying
simple would not be easy. Farmers weren’t quite ready to buy
acorns. If you are a small-scale pig farmer in New England,
you’re in a difficult business. The market is small. You’re
probably not selling to a distributor, so you have to be a sales-
person as well as a farmer. If you’re lucky, there are farmers’
markets nearby where you can find some customers. You hope
that nobody else shows up selling a similar product. Restaurants
would be great customers, except that most of them need a more
consistent supply than you can provide. It’s a high-risk venture.
Most farmers increase the size of their herd only when they have
a guaranteed buyer at the other end. It’s not a type of business
that encourages farmers to take risks on wild, new ideas.
Milikowsky realized that if she wanted to sell acorns, she was
going to have to play matchmaker between farmers and chefs.
Her agroforestry dream changed into a more complex, three-part
food business. Her plan was, first, to find restaurants and markets
that wanted to buy acorn-finished pork; second, to create a network of partner-farmers willing to feed acorns to some of their
pigs; and finally, to supply those farmers with the acorns.
It seemed like a win-win-win. With a wide network of farmers,
restaurants could depend on having acorn-finished pork when
they needed it. Farmers would have guaranteed buyers and
– even better – they wouldn’t have to be salespeople. They could
focus on being farmers. And those farmers would no longer
compete with each other. Instead, they could compete collectively
with the bigger wholesale distributors because they would have
something unusual to offer. This wouldn’t just be local pork.
This would be acorn-finished local pork – pork that chefs and
foodies clearly want.
After spending the fall of 2014 gathering acorns, Milikowsky
From left to right: the fall harvest; Tylan Calcagni learns the Spanish art of carving the
jamón; Walden Hill’s acorn pork salami