Photo Courtesy Laura Jensen
Of all the breeds we work with at The Livestock Conservancy (TLC), the Meishan is among the oldest and most unique. Dating back thousands of years in central China, they were a classic “village pig,” treasured in the countryside of the Taihu Lake region, near the city of Shanghai. Meishans’ wrinkled face gives them the appearance of a Shar-Pei dog, and the curve of their jaws makes it seem like they’re always smiling.
These smallish, grey-colored pigs reach a mature weight of 350 to 400 pounds by about 3 years of age. Perhaps the most well-known value of the Meishan is its prolificacy: Sows can produce enormous litters of more than 20 piglets. They typically have 16 to 18 teats (though some have more than 20), which allow them to easily raise large litters. Because of their productivity, Meishans were imported to Europe in the 1800s. Many floppy-eared European pigs we see today owe that characteristic to the Meishan.
The breed served as a valuable food resource until recently, when native pigs in Asia began to be replaced with modern commercial animals. Only about 1,600 purebred Meishans remain in the world today, with nearly 80 breeding pigs in the United States. The remaining pigs in China are under strict governmental control, and are mostly used for crossbreeding. At TLC, the breed has made the Conservation Priority List.
Photo courtesy Laura Jensen
Coming to America
The story of the Meishan in the United States starts with the importation of 99 pigs in 1989 for a joint research project conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Iowa State University, and the University of Illinois. These animals were split into three herds, which were used to study the breed’s hyper-productivity. The study concluded in 2008 with some of the pigs being butchered, and, by 2016, the remaining descendants of the original 99 pigs had been dispersed.
It was around that time that Rico Silvera of God’s Blessing Farm in rural Tennessee became involved with the breed after reading about the docile pigs in an online article his wife showed him. Since then, it’s been a long journey for Rico (literally). Once he decided the Meishan was the right pig for his farm, he spent the next several years traveling over 4,500 miles to find what was left of the research herds.
When asked what attracted him to the breed, Silvera says, “They seemed to have everything I was looking for in a pig: manageable size, easy temperament, and a great product for the table. I love the fact that you can do a lot with this breed on a small plot of land.”
Not long after the pigs arrived at his farm, Silvera began the tedious task of gathering pedigree data with the intent of starting a breed registry and creating the American Meishan Breeders Association (AMBA). To prevent unscrupulous breeders from crossbreeding or taking advantage of the group’s hard work, the AMBA applied for and received the trademark “AMBA Certified Meishan Pork” from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Only certified breeder members of the AMBA with registered and pedigreed stock may use this mark when marketing pure Meishan pork from their offspring. “This way, consumers can be confident that they’re purchasing pure, unadulterated Meishan pork,” Silvera says. “They can also be assured that their purchase is contributing to efforts by AMBA and its member breeders to conserve these unique genetics.”
Photo courtesy God’s Blessing Farm
Sometime later, Laura Jensen was looking for the perfect pig for her Georgia farm. “It needed to be small enough and docile enough to roam with my kids, dogs, and chickens without me having to worry,” she recounts. Jensen had tried a few of the larger breeds, but they were all a poor fit. She’d looked into other smaller breeds too, but none had the hanging weight and grow-out time she was looking for.
Jensen then stumbled onto Silvera’s website, and she discovered they knew each other through their livestock guardian dog connections. She learned more about Meishans from Silvera, and eventually lent him a trailer to pick up the remaining pigs that would form his foundation herd. Jensen realized she had a unique opportunity to help revive a breed close to extinction, so she, too, acquired a few Meishan pigs and turned them loose in her pastures.
She was pleased that the pigs were as docile as reported, and that both her chickens and her dogs found them acceptable napping partners. The Meishan project at Jensen’s farm quickly changed focus, however, as she decided to serve the breed by specializing in meat production instead of breeding. Although there was a processing plant nearby, the company didn’t provide any value-added services, such as curing. Jensen’s family had discovered they were pretty good at making bacon and hams themselves, so they took the leap to build a custom curing facility for their Meishan pork value-added products, and Jensen Reserve Artisan Meats was born. The family continues to use the local processor for slaughter, but built a USDA-inspected commercial kitchen for curing, and they operate a licensed meat market for retail sales. “We provide a valuable service in creating a market for feeder pigs from farmers who want to concentrate on the conservation breeding side of the Meishan’s recovery,” Jensen says.
Photo by Jeannette beranger
Small Breed, Big Benefits
Colin Smorawski of Roaring Lion Farm has raised other breeds of meat pigs, but found what he really wanted on his Maine property, was a smaller animal with a good temperament. He also wanted a breed that thrived on grass, of which he had plenty. He learned about the Meishan breed, and, after acquiring some stock two years ago, was immediately hooked. He particularly likes the breed’s carcass size and growth rate. “They take a little bit longer to grow, but we’re not in a rush,” Smorawski says. “When it’s done, it’s done. Local chefs love the product. The chops are naturally smaller than bigger breeds, so to compensate, I have them cut thicker. That way, my customers have no problem with the transition to this smaller breed.”
“The biggest challenge with the Meishan is you go from two pigs to 30 in no time, so you have to be prepared,” Smorawski continues. “The Meishan is everything a pig should be. They take care of themselves, and don’t do nearly as much damage to the pasture as some other breeds. In the end, you have to like the Meishan for what it is — a great small-farm pig. My wife can go out and feed 30, and I don’t need to worry about her getting bowled over. That in itself makes it well worth our efforts with these pigs.”
The Smorawskis also emphasize the importance of registering their animals. “There are crossed pigs out there being marketed as the real deal, and they’re not,” Smorawski says.
Photo courtesy Laura Jensen
Dining with Fine Swine
As part of my personal adventure in learning about Meishans, breeders arranged for me to try samples of the meat so I could speak from experience. Both Laura Jensen and Colin Smorawski were kind enough to send some to the TLC office. After doing a little research and getting advice from the producers, I was ready to prepare a tasting for our staff.
Jensen’s box arrived with some T-bone pork chops and prosciutto. She’s the only person in the country producing Meishan prosciutto, and it was a rare treat to try some. I cut the strips in half and wrapped them around pieces of cantaloupe. For most prosciutto, this is a great go-to appetizer, but in this case, the ripe cantaloupe overwhelmed the Meishan. With this in mind, everyone chose to eat the meat first and then a piece of cantaloupe to follow so we could enjoy the prosciutto’s full flavor. All agreed the fat was delicious and the meat was flavorful, with an almost nutty taste. We also loved that the meat wasn’t too salty. When we ate the leftover prosciutto the following day, it was a different story: The prosciutto flavor permeated the cantaloupe and was a match made in heaven for our taste buds.
Photo by Jeannette Beranger
As for the chops, I don’t think I’ve been so nervous to cook meat since I first tried my hand at goose years ago. I worried needlessly, however, as the chops turned out perfectly moist with a beautiful pink interior. Everyone in the office was able to try some. Most of the comments centered on the meat being delicious and flavorful, but not overpowering. We all noted that it was sweeter than any pork we’d had. The texture was pleasant; the fat offered great mouthfeel. There was unanimous approval from everyone who tasted it. One coworker even asked, “Is this what pork is supposed to be?”
If you’d like to recreate our experience for yourself, here’s how: Begin with two 1-pound T-bone pork chops, brought to room temperature. Season them minimally with sea salt, black pepper, and a pinch of herbes de Provence. Using a cast-iron pan, sear the chops for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until browned. Place the chops on a rack-in baking pan, uncovered, with a little water under the rack to add humidity. Cook at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 minutes, and then check the internal temperature. You want the chops to reach 145 degrees. Continue to cook, checking with a thermometer every 10 minutes, until the chops reach the appropriate temperature. Let rest for 20 minutes before serving.
Photo by Jeannette Beranger
Smorawski’s box arrived a few days later and contained a Boston butt roast and a package of ground meat. As with the pork chops, I kept the seasoning simple when cooking the roast, coating it with a mix of Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, and garlic. I cooked the roast in the oven at 325 degrees for 4 hours, until it reached an internal temperature of 145 degrees. I let it rest for about 25 minutes before serving.
I made the ground meat into small meatballs, seasoning them with salt, pepper, thyme, and a little bit of soy sauce. I pan-fried them, and then cooked them in the oven on parchment paper at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. They came out moist, and tasted perfect.
The TLC staff loved the meat, and all were stunned by how tasty and tender the fat was, as if it melted in our mouths. A friend of our director, who specializes in Puerto Rican cuisine, happened to stop by the office that day. After eating a piece of the pork, he charged into my office to say, “I never thought I’d see the day when someone else could cook pork better than me.” I told him it was the meat doing all the heavy lifting.
Photo by Jeannette Beranger
Meishan pork made its debut to the public during a special tasting at Insa, a Korean restaurant in Brooklyn. The chef and owner, Sohui Kim, was delighted to have the rare opportunity to work with the meat, which is similar to the traditional pork she remembers from her home country of Korea. The event was hosted by actress-turned-breed-conservationist Isabella Rossellini. She’s been working to promote the use of heritage breeds at local events in and around New York City and Long Island, and hopes to host more events like this in the future.
Meishan pigs have a bright future, and seem to be in good hands, but the AMBA is always looking for new stewards to continue the work of building the U.S. population. For more information on the breed, visit the AMBA website, or The Livestock Conservancy website.