So really, this was more of a pork-off – but we can’t call it that, because it sounds rude. We blind-tasted pork from four farms, all in chops about 1″ thick with a reasonable fat cap on the outside. We roasted them to medium doneness, with just salt, pepper, and olive oil.
The four samples represented different combinations of breed and raising practices – all the pigs were pastured, and had access to grain, but there were significant differences in how much woodland (with attendant acorns, nuts, roots, &c.) they had access to. A couple were also fed vegetable scraps from their farms. Both breed and diet seemed to have an effect, but the effect of diet, at least within this range, was clearly stronger. Texture and flavor were both uniformly good – we’d have been quite happy to be served any of these chops in a restaurant, and a couple were positively stellar. All were miles better on any organic or conventional pork we’ve ever had from a supermarket.
Sample one was from purebred Gloucester Old Spots, raised on frequently rotated pasture, with some woodland in their enclosure. A couple of us thought this produced the best meat, deeply, intensely porky. Fat was good, sweet and clean, but some found the fat a little simple.
Sample two was from Gloucester Old Spots crossed with Landrace-Yorkshire crosses. Frequently rotated pasture, less woodland. Meat was good, with concentrated flavor, but not as clearly piggy as the first. Fat was very good, with clear nuttiness.
Sample three was from Tamworth-Yorkshire crosses, on pasture with almost no trees. This was the most delicate meat, almost clean, with distinct savoryness. The fat was less distinct, though, and perhaps a little muddy.
Sample four was from Yorkshires (a lean, relatively modern breed, and pretty much the backbone of industrial pork production) which had been pastured on heavily wooded land. Their meat was possibly the most intense, with a gamy quality that reminded some of us of cured meat. The fat was a clear winner, rich and nutty.
We also tasted beef from a couple of different places – it wasn’t as fair a test, because we couldn’t get the same cuts from both places, with flank from one place, and something called cube steak from the other (it looked like a slice of top round that had been run through a Jaccard or similar). One farm had Beltie-Scotch Highland crosses, entirely grass-fed, and the other Black Angus, grazed then grain-finished. The surprise here was two-fold. Firstly, the grain-finished Angus was still clearly grassy – much more so than other grain-finished beef we’ve had, even from farms where the cows ate mostly grass. Secondly, one of the samples had a much rounder – we hesitate to say more complex – grass-fed taste than the other. Both had distinct grass flavor, but you could really taste the quality of the pasture – one steer had been grazing on well-developed, diverse pasture, and the other on land that was only recently converted to pasture, and hadn’t developed quite the same biodiversity. We can’t hazard a guess as to whether soil quality or relief had much effect, though.