At first glance, the Red Wattle pig gives no telltale signs that it’s the source of what leading culinary professionals consider the highest quality pork money can buy. The distinctive sags of skin that hang from either side of its neck look almost like defects, and the pleasing pink hue that one might expect has been replaced by a dark red. Over the past year, however, this almost-extinct breed of pig has moved back onto breeders’ radar and is now making its way onto diners’ plates at a few local restaurants.
“I couldn’t find Red Wattle anywhere,” says Owen McGlynn, executive chef at Storm Rhum Bar & Bistro in downtown Asheville. Although many locals patronize the place for its extensive selection of rums and cocktails, Storm takes its food offerings equally seriously, changing its menu every two weeks and featuring specialty meats, cheeses and seasonal produce. Sugar Creek Meats, Western North Carolina’s only Red Wattle pig farm, has just two commercial customers at this point, and McGlynn is one of them.
A year or so ago, the budding specialty operation in Leicester was just a seedling of an idea in first-generation farmer Tyler Charles De Francisco’s mind. Hailing from a large Sicilian family near the Jersey Shore, De Francisco had taken a liking to wine and honey but ultimately decided to try his hand at raising heritage sheep and pigs. His 4.3 acres of self-proclaimed “pig paradise” are now home to a dozen 8-week-old Red Wattle piglets as well as six Red Wattle adults, four lambs and an attack llama appropriately named “Bitches.”
The main reasons for Red Wattle pork’s considerable cachet, De Francisco explains, are its “beefy texture and high intramuscular fat marbling, almost like a Kobe.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali (one of De Francisco’s heroes) and Bon Appétit would agree: Both often reference the heritage breed in recipes for premium dishes.
Although the land is owned jointly by De Francisco and his father, Sugar Creek Meats is a one-man operation, which is one reason McGlynn likes doing business with them. “I’ve never had this much direct contact with a farm before,” the chef explains. “Tyler calls me about twice a week to give me an update, and he’s asked me what I want to finish the pigs on, whether hazelnuts or acorns, to get that nutty flavor in the meat.”
A few months ago, De Francisco cold-called more than 50 area restaurants to tout his product; McGlynn was the first to take the bait. Soon after, McGlynn and his sous-chef, Ryan Kline, went out to take a look. “Once I saw what he was doing, I was like, this is perfect! The animals weren’t in cages and were being treated very well.”
De Francisco says he’s doing his best to raise premium, stress-free meat. Feeding them a high-quality diet of fermented local corn and proteins, the 31-year-old farmer calls his pigs “employees,” noting, “If I treat them well, they’ll treat me well in the end.” Because the meat is so unique, it commands top dollar, and De Francisco asks partner restaurants for a 50-percent deposit — which McGlynn says he has no problem with, due to his confidence in both De Francisco and the farm. The chef has bought two lambs from Sugar Creek Meats and expects delivery on his first Red Wattle pig Nov. 18.
Sugar Creek’s lamb, De Francisco explains, is very different from what most folks have had. Raised in a low-stress, low-population environment, the Dorset lambs yield a smaller amount of exceptionally flavorful meat, without the distinctly gamy taste lamb sometimes has. “Ninety percent of people raise meat sheep because they produce a bigger carcass, but the flavor is watered down,” the farmer reports. “I’m incredibly happy with the flavor profile of these guys. I have eight more coming soon.”
De Francisco has partnered with specialty butcher Wells, Jenkins & Wells of Forest City, N.C., which uses pens designed to give a natural feel to the slaughtering process. That partnership, De Francisco maintains, is a key part of pleasing his customers. “Adrenaline and fear give a tangible flavor, so we do our best to avoid that.”
De Francisco has also done business with noted Asheville restaurateur Hector Diaz, providing meat to Salsa’s, Chorizo and Modesto. McGlynn, meanwhile, has promised to buy a pig a month, ensuring that Red Wattle will be consistently available at Storm. He plans to begin featuring the meat on Nov. 18 and continue through the Thanksgiving holiday.
McGlynn likens the restaurant to “a well-traveled man, and these are things he’s eaten and collected along the way.” A nose-to-tail restaurant, Storm uses “every part of every animal,” and the charcuterie plate is one of its best-sellers.
Eventually, Storm hopes to offer duck and quail sourced from Sugar Creek Meats as well, once De Francisco proceeds with plans to build a pond for the birds. He also wants to start sprouting his own barley for the pigs, to give them a diet that’s higher in protein and amino acids. And down the road, he’s even considering beginning a Red Wattle breeding program.
McGlynn, meanwhile, says he’s excited about offering Storm patrons his first Red Wattle pork, knowing he’ll be giving them “a quality product that was raised properly by a passionate farmer.”
Storm Rhum Bar & Bistro is at 125 S. Lexington Ave. in Asheville. Tyler De Francisco also sells both meat and CSA boxes to the general public. For more information, email email@example.com.