Comment: Craig Hickman Dairyman @dairymanNZ thought he knew all about pork, but discovered there was much more to chops and ribs than he thought.
I thought I knew a lot about pork: I know it's a red meat; I know how to get perfect crackling on a pork roast, and I know the destruction of three barbecues due to fat-induced conflagration means I should never be trusted with a pork chop again.
I've bought pork from a butcher; I've raised my own pork, and I've eaten wild pork. I've had so much pork delivered to my house in a single day I seriously thought I'd need to buy a third freezer. I know my pork – or at least I thought I did.
I recently walked into a restaurant in Austin, Texas, and ordered a pork chop. It's a meal I don't cook often due to the high risk of catastrophic barbecue loss and it was a dish where I felt confident I knew what I'd be getting – a large pale slab of firm meat, possibly slightly greasy but delicious and filling.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
What appeared before me was definitely delicious and filling, but it was so dark I thought they'd mistakenly served me beef.
My waiter told me I was eating free-range Mangalitsa, a Hungarian breed of pig with a thick woolly coat like a sheep and marbled muscles like wagyu cattle.
The meat quite simply dissolved in my mouth with a burst of flavour and just a hint of smoke from the oak-fired grill it had been cooked on.
Unforgettable Mangalitsa pork
That single pork chop was so indelibly seared into my memory that on my return home I contacted Naya Brangenberg who, along with her partner Jeremy Wilhelm, has spent 10 years breeding free-range Duroc pigs on their Wairarapa farm, Longbush Free Range Pork.
Naya gently broke the news to me that Mangalitsa genetics weren't available in New Zealand and probably never would be, but she spoke with such passion about her Duroc, Hampshire and Large Black pigs that I felt I had to try some.
Since it was clear from my Austin experience that I knew far less about pork than I originally thought, and having been paralysed by the range on offer through their online retailer Woody's Farm, I gave Naya my budget and asked her to make the selection for me.
Two days later I was excited to open the refrigerated box the courier had dropped off, and the first thing that struck me was the deep rosy pink hue of the meat; these pigs had obviously been getting a healthy dose of iron from rooting in the soil.
The second thing I noticed was the heft of the cuts; the chops were thickly cut but felt way heavier than they had any right to.
I've watched enough of Jeremy's (@Longbushpork) videos online to know the pigs are well exercised and appear very happy. The density of the chops was testament to their free-range life.
Finally, I noticed that Naya must have cheerfully ignored my budgetary constraints because not only did the pack contain four loin chops and four shoulder chops, but also two racks of competition St Louis-style pork ribs.
Unlike spareribs, St Louis-style is basically the middle of the pig, the pork belly stays attached which makes it a very meaty but expensive cut in New Zealand; the belly is generally worth far more to the butcher as bacon than left attached to ribs.
To get St Louis-style you often have to buy imported pork, usually from Canada or Spain, and while I'm all for consumer choice and keeping prices down you have to weigh that up against the much lower animal welfare standards Spanish producers are required to adhere to.
I set the ribs aside because I was nervous about tackling such a majestic cut and told Naya I was going to cook the pork chops first. Nice, she replied, what brine recipe are you going to use?
Brine!? I had never brined anything in my life but the link Naya shared with me claimed it was the secret to juicy and tender pork chops, so into a tub of saltwater and rosemary leaves they went for a relaxing overnight bath.
Cooking over charcoal
Given my propensity for destroying barbecues with pork chops I decided to cook these ones over charcoal.
Not only was it a prudent safety measure, it also allowed me to tweet that I was cooking over charcoal made from sustainably harvested organic heritage apple wood; in reality I'd picked up a couple of dead branches from the orchard.
There's no point comparing the Duroc to the Mangalitsa – they're bred to produce vastly different types of meat – but those Longbush pork chops were the best I have ever cooked; meaty and flavoursome, tender and juicy, big and bold.
Far better than anything I've bought from a supermarket and better than any pork I've raised myself.
I brined some of my own chops a little later and cooked them the same way; it was a vast improvement over my normal scorched earth method but still didn't elevate them to the level of those Duroc chops.
YouTube was my saviour when it came to cooking the ribs; the process was almost as much fun as eating them.
I broke out some of the rubs I'd brought back from Texas and liberally coated both racks before placing them in my home-built smoker for a couple of hours.
Then I wrapped them in tinfoil with brown sugar and half a block of butter each and a liberal application of espresso barbecue sauce from Franklin's in Austin.
Back into the smoker they went for another hour before being unwrapped and cooked some more to allow the glaze to set.
I don't know what to tell you except those ribs have ruined my sons and me for all other ribs. They were so meaty they did us for dinner that night and lunch the next day and induced a request to buy more before the boys head back to university.
With Christmas just around the corner and free-range hams available on the Woody's Farm website, I strongly suspect that a Longbush ham may turn my family against all other hams, but it's a risk I'm happily willing to take.
- Craig Hickman is a dairy farmer and avid Twitter proponent from Ashburton.