Raising the Ossabaw

Pig IMG 2650.5a0336c3d8690
Photo credit: Brad Kaplan
OINK, OINK: The Ossabaw pigs blend into the earth, their white hairs stained by the rust-colored soil.

Marc Mousseau likes to tell a story. He's in a room full of people in Atlanta, asking four progressively more challenging questions about their familiarity with the Ossabaw pig. The story ends with a single audience member holding his hand up, the lone individual in the crowd who has not only heard of Ossabaw Island and the Ossabaw Island pig breed, but has actually eaten Ossabaw pork more than once in his lifetime. The point of Mousseau's story is that a shocking few have had the opportunity to taste the singular meat (and fat) of the Ossabaw, that this rare breed is a uniquely Georgia underdog, and that Mousseau himself a farmer committed to raising Ossabaw pigs with due respect is equally an underdog, on a some-might-say quixotic quest to get more hands up in the air.

An increasing number of Atlanta chefs agree that championing Ossabaw pork is a noble cause, due in large part to Marc and his wife Lydia's crusade. The Mousseaus run an Ossabaw operation they call Hamthropology. The farm itself is unassuming a forested 50-acre plot not far from Lake Sinclair and the town of Milledgeville. Several hundred pigs there are kept in "family" pens and rotated through acres of untouched land, where they can forage for grubs and seek out every last acorn that has fallen to the silty, often-muddy forest floor.

What really distinguishes the Mousseaus' Ossabaw, though, is the couple's dogged dedication to treating the breed right, and to working with governing bodies like the USDA and the Georgia Department of Agriculture to create a regulatory environment they hope will help protect and promote this Georgia-born breed. The Mousseaus' farm is the only one in the state (and, well, the world) to claim "USDA and Georgia Department of Agriculture certified and verified pasture raised registered Ossabaw Island pork." It's a mouthful, but an important series of designations when it comes to getting this meat onto Georgia's tables.

The Hamthropology pigs can be traced directly back to Ossabaw Island a task that has proven difficult for many farmers, since the state has prohibited carrying pigs off the island since the 1970s, except under very specific conditions, typically including mandatory quarantines. At the Mousseaus' farm, the pigs get inspected and blood-tested every three months to look out for contamination. Careful fencing keeps out feral hogs and other breeds. There are detailed bio-security plans to protect the integrity of the herd. And, like the pigs of Ossabaw, Hamthropology's pigs forage and root out many of their meals directly from Georgia soil.

But if the pork tastes good, who really cares that the Mousseaus are going over the top with their planning and testing? Why should we, as consumers, care? Here's why the Ossabaw and the Mousseaus' Ossabaw in particular matter, in four progressively more challenging questions.

Who here has heard of Ossabaw Island?

On the coast of Georgia, there is a string of barrier islands, some known as the Golden Isles, stretching south from Savannah all the way to the Florida line. Beachgoers know names like Tybee, Jekyll, St. Simons and Sea Island. Nature enthusiasts know of Cumberland National Seashore on Cumberland Island. Diners may have heard of Sapelo, famous for its clams, which show up frequently on Atlanta menus. And then there's Ossabaw.

If you've heard of Ossabaw Island, you most likely have a vague recollection of a story about a wonderfully eccentric heiress who lived there in a pink mansion, inviting artists and scientists to soak in Ossabaw's beauty as a source of inspiration. When she fell on hard times in the 1970s, she negotiated with the state of Georgia to hand over the whole of her property on the island ... upon her death. Forty years later, Sandy West is still living, now 104 years old, but relocated to Savannah for health reasons. The state is still waiting to take full control of her property, and Ossabaw remains a wild and isolated spot 20 minutes by boat from the nearest sign of civilization, an unpolished jewel among Georgia's barrier islands.

If the story of Sandy West doesn't ring a bell, but you recall hearing something about Ossabaw, then maybe, just maybe, you've heard of the Ossabaw pigs, several of whom actually shared that pink mansion with West for most of her life on the island.

Who here has heard of Ossabaw Island pigs?

Let's start with a simple fact: Most people are not familiar with Ossabaw Island pigs. If you're a farmer or chef, your odds go up. If you live in that stretch of coastal Georgia between Savannah and Brunswick, same thing. Heck, if you've been to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, you have a leg up, too, since two Ossabaw pigs (Savannah and Carolina) reside in the Kids' Farm section there a testament to the breed's importance in the canon of American livestock.

DSC0017TEAM OSSABAW: Lydia and Marc Mousseau at 5 Seasons Westside, one of their best customers.Brad KaplanEven if you have heard of Ossabaw pigs, though, you probably don't know their full story. It's a story that Marc Mousseau and his wife, Lydia, love to share. The Mousseaus don't quite fit the profile of pioneering pig prophets, if there is such a thing. They're middle-aged empty nesters that have run a successful trade show business for years and look like they could be right out of a typical sitcom family (actually, think Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in The Big Sick, a down to earth husband and wife prone to finishing each other's sentences as they grapple with a challenging situation with a hearty sense of humor). But the Mousseaus have taken to the Ossabaw pigs with enthusiasm.

The first time I met the couple, over a beer at 5 Seasons Brewing in Midtown during one of their frequent visits to see Atlanta chefs, Marc launched right into an impassioned plea. "The Ossabaw pig is Georgia's pig. It is to Atlanta what crawfish are to Louisiana, or lobsters are to Maine. The problem is, people who have lived here all their lives have no idea."

Mousseau explains that Ossabaw pigs were first brought to the state of Georgia by Spanish explorers around the year 1500, well before there even was a state of Georgia. For many years, the pigs were thought to be of Spanish stock and related to Iberico pigs, famed for their world-class ham, and the Hamthropology website isn't shy about this comparison. However, recent DNA testing suggests that the original Ossabaw pigs were more likely a breed from the Canary Islands a popular stopover for the 15th century Spanish ships making their way across the Atlantic to the new world. Regardless of provenance, the pigs have lived on Ossabaw Island for centuries now, detached from the mainland, isolated from other breeds, adapting to the island's mix of salt marsh, palmetto-ringed beach dunes, and forests of live oak and loblolly pine. The Ossabaw remain unique in the pantheon of pig breeds, at once a look back to the era of European exploration and a reflection of the unspoiled Georgia habitat upon which the pigs still roam free.

According to the Livestock Conservancy, which tracks and researches heritage livestock breeds, it's the combination of history and geographic isolation that makes the Ossabaw pigs so unique and important for farmers, academics and eaters alike. They call the Ossabaw "a long-term natural population," with a unique physiology "shaped by natural selection in a challenging environment known for heat, humidity, and seasonal scarcity of food." Alas, the breed's status is rated as "critical" the highest level on the Livestock Conservancy's conservation priority scale.

The fact that the state of Georgia deems the Ossabaw pigs a nuisance (and has strictly regulated keeping them off the mainland except under very specific conditions) doesn't help the situation. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources maintains an eradication program aimed at killing off a large portion of Ossabaw Island's pig population each year to prevent them from overrunning the landscape with their rooting ways. While they are a breed in need of conservation, there is no denying their destructive force upon the island.

So what have these centuries of isolation and adaptation meant for the Ossabaw? Marc likes to point out that they are smaller than most pigs, especially the "Big Ag" pigs found in most supermarkets, but, in the Conservancy's words, able to store "astounding amounts of body fat in order to survive during the seasons when there is little to eat." When I ask the Mousseaus what makes their pigs so special, Lydia jumps to the nutritional aspects: "the protein, the omegas, that the lard is more like olive oil."

But ask any of the chefs who have gotten ahold of one of Hamthropology's pigs, and they'll jump first to the flavor. Or maybe the fat, which is completely unlike that found on commercial pigs or even other heritage breeds. Somehow, those centuries of isolation on Ossabaw island led to one undeniable fact Ossabaw pork is damn delicious.

Who out there has actually tasted Ossabaw pork?

This is the point in Marc's story where only a few of the people in the room still have their hand in the air, proudly waving to show off the fact that they've tried the rare Ossabaw pork. Of course, the Mousseaus wax poetic about the pork from their farm the depth of flavor, the purity but like the chefs I spoke with, their excitement peaks when talking about the myriad things that can be done with Ossabaw's luxuriant lard, which elevates even basic frying. Lydia gushes that it "makes the best darn French fries you've ever had in your life."

Sure enough, Hamthropology wouldn't exist today were it not for chefs eager to get their hands on more Ossabaw. One particular chef, David Larkworthy of 5 Seasons Brewing (where I sat down with the Mousseaus), was instrumental in pushing the couple into the farming business in 2013. "He was the one who threw us off the plane and said, pull the shoot, pull the shoot!" laughs Marc.

IMG2634ON THE FARM: Marc stops for a minute to say hello to one of his favorite pigs.Brad KaplanA few weeks after our meeting at 5 Seasons, on a steamy late summer day, the Mousseaus took me on a walk through their farm outside Milledgeville, a plot they owned before the idea of raising Ossabaw even came up. A ring of fenced-off areas, each containing groups of pigs foraging around trees, surrounds an old shed in the middle. A couple of roosters wander around, pitching in to the general cacophony of pig grunts and squeals. Beyond the central pens, acres of ungroomed forest extends outward land that the pigs rotate through for roaming, wallowing, and feeding on what the earth has to offer. Marc tells me it was back in 2010, after he read a Smithsonian magazine story about the sustainable farming practices of Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms in Virginia, that he started looking for ways "to make the land productive." While the Mousseaus didn't have much in the way of pig farming experience, Marc did grow up on what he calls a "gentleman's farm" (a small family operation worked more for pleasure than necessity), then studied animal science and wildlife management at Texas Tech. After a good bit of research, he and Lydia focused in on the Ossabaw pig as a path forward, based in large part on the breed's unique place in Georgia, both historically and literally.

As he recounts the history of their farm, Marc pauses to point out what makes it well-suited to raising Ossabaw, then goes off on a tangent about the trees. "Just look at how loaded that tree is with acorns, just amazing..."

Lydia has a knack for jumping in when her husband goes slightly off track. She gently steers the conversation back. "When we learned about this heritage pig, that it was endangered and possibly going extinct ... well, we've been in the tradeshow business for 14 years on our own, but it just doesn't have the same heart," she says. "The legacy of doing this work with the Ossabaw has been one we've both felt very deeply about." Marc nods, but reminds his wife, "when we first ran across the Ossabaw pigs, Lydia was like, you are out of your effin' mind!"

But Marc was dogged in his pursuit. He started creating and revising business plans, then revising them again, which led to the idea of using spent brewing grains as part of the feeding plan for the pigs. "I was doing my research," he says, "and called Crawford Moran at 5 Seasons Brewing. Then chef David Larkworthy called me back he had just heard that we were working with heritage pigs, and he was curious if it might be Ossabaw. I asked how he knew, but he had just guessed. Then he promised to help us any way he could, and he has ever since, along with Patrick Gebrayel from Heywood's Provision Company in Marietta. Without them, we wouldn't be here."

In the spring of 2013, Mousseau was able to get his hands on 31 Ossabaw pigs from a farmer in West Virginia who was moving to Texas. This herd, what Marc calls "the Bridge Line Ossabaws," had a direct lineage back to Ossabaw Island, having been taken off the island then managed by a conservation-minded former board member of the Livestock Conservancy. Two of the boars from that first group are still on the Mousseuas' farm today, among about 370 Ossabaw in all, depending on the week. Marc estimates his is "the largest conservation herd of Ossabaw pigs in the world, and probably half of the world's population outside the feral pigs on the island itself."

It was December 2013 when the Mousseaus delivered their very first Ossabaw to Atlanta. It went to Larkworthy at 5 Seasons, and immediately, the chef was hooked. "There are so many delicious things in the world," Larkworthy says, "and pigs are certainly one of those, but what's so special about the Ossabaw pigs is that they are such a unique breed — the musculature, the fat ... and that it's something really, really, really old. They're more Georgia than Georgia is."

Since that first Ossabaw in 2013, Larkworthy has been the Mousseaus' best customer. He says he's made "hundreds if not thousands of things with their Ossabaw pork." Beyond the obvious smoked shoulders and grilled chops, the chef has, "cured the heads, served the testicles, made chicharrones from the skin and bone broths for ramen, then used the lard for ice cream, potato chips, kettle corn ... you name it." Since Hamthropology can only provide so much Ossabaw Larkworthy gets roughly a pig a week the pork tends to show up on the daily specials rather than as a full-time menu item. Which leads us to the final question.

Who here has had the pleasure of eating Ossabaw more than once?

As much as chefs enthuse over the Mousseaus' Ossabaw pork, the business of actually getting it onto menus across Atlanta has not been easy. For one, the supply has been limited to the growth available through selective breeding of the existing herd the Mousseaus' goal is to be able to deliver 250 pigs a year to market (they'll do about 150 in 2017). And since Ossabaws are on the small side, they live longer on the farm than other breeds to reach a maturity level and flavor profile that Marc is happy with roughly 400 to 500 days instead of the more typical 180 to 220 days for other pigs. Raising Ossabaw with the kind of attention to detail that Marc insists upon is expensive.

"One thing that's real important," Marc says, is that "when we're selling this, we get a premium, but we make less per pound and less per pig than standard pig farmers. I hate to say this, and Lydia please correct me, but we're not necessarily in this for the money." Lydia nods in agreement, saying that the last four years of getting their Ossabaw to market, "has taken twice as much work, money, patience, prayers" she pauses. "It is a passion project, but we believe in it, and we do believe it will get to a point where it will keep itself going."

Getting through to some chefs, the skeptical ones at least, has proven difficult. "I'd like to think that a lot of chefs have seen Ossabaw come and go, and that it was a difficult pig to get traction because a lot of farmers, without understanding the physiology of the Ossabaw pig, end up delivering an obese pig," says Marc. He laments that other farmers have somewhat tarnished the Ossabaw name, giving it a reputation for being difficult to work with in the restaurant kitchen too much fat, not enough of what a chef would call a "sellable cut." And he proudly goes into the details of his proprietary feeding plans that produce a better balance of fat and meat. "We looked at Ossabaw Island and what these pigs had there, and we took that into consideration when developing our feed and finishing regimen."

Lydia nods. "The state of Georgia has regulatory principles ... we spend a lot of time and energy keeping our pigs healthy, with bio-security plans, and we actually appealed to the state ... saying we wanted to be compliant and go the extra mile. It has worked out for us, so it's been good. Not every farm goes to the lengths that we do."

Marc sets off on a tangent about bio-security, prompting Lydia to break it down to layman's terms. "What matters to the public," she says, "is that the pigs are naturally raised in family groups. The fencing keeps wild pigs out and keeps our pigs happy." Of course, Marc jumps right back to the ins and outs of of the challenges inherent in USDA verification. "You try to wrangle a 400 pound boar and stick a needle in his neck!"

IMG2675NOTHING WASTED: Marc loads barrels with spent grains from brewers in Atlanta, destined to be part of the feeding regimen on the farm.Brad KaplanIt's clear that the Mousseaus efforts with the state have begun to pay off. They've had their Ossabaw pork on the menu at the Georgia Grown dinner at New York's James Beard House two times now. "We've been invited three times," Marc interjects, "but we had to turn down the first one since we didn't have inventory."

The Mousseaus central question remains: If you build it, will they come? The inventory has to be there for most restaurants to consider Ossabaw pork as more than an infrequent special. That said, Marc knows that chefs love it once they use it. He pulls out his iPhone and shows me a video from the recent Peach Fest in Atlanta, where Bryan Furman of B's Cracklin BBQ, known for his use of heritage breed pigs (he raises his own), shares some love for the Ossabaw: "Awesome pig. Honestly, it's my favorite pig, and I'm not just saying that."

As we loop back on our walk around the farm, Marc approaches one of the fences and can't help but enthuse over a few of his favorite pigs, all of whom he has named. The pigs are a mottled mix of black and what I see as a brownish-red reminiscent of Georgia clay red, though Marc corrects me that they're actually black and white the brownish-red is purely from the mud they wallow in. "If you came in after a rain storm, that would be bright white," he says, calling out a specific boar, named Valentino. "He's special. A sweetheart, such a sweet disposition."

Marc notes that the special ones have a combination of size and character smart, strong, not easily spooked. "Good Ossabaw pigs are square, as opposed to most pigs you see which are round in the back because they're bred for big hams. Ossabaws have smaller hams but bigger shoulders. In a sow we look for a flat or slightly arched back, in a boar we look for straight. That's what makes a good pig."

Marc and Lydia linger and watch over the pigs for a few minutes more. One of their roosters crows in the distance, and Marc snaps back into storytelling mode. "My concern is sustainability of the heritage breeds, since there are very few people who are able to make a profitable operation. Ossabaws and mass production don't mix. We had other jobs, so we can do this, but how long can we do it?"

At this point, the answer sits not only with the Mousseaus, but with the chefs and diners of Atlanta. As more and more of them taste and then taste again what Ossabaw Island pork has to offer, the Mousseaus' crusade may just succeed.

Atlanta chefs share the Ossabaw love

While the Mousseaus' Ossabaw pork may be hard to find, a few local chefs are dedicated to the stuff. Here, they share in their own words what they think of Georgia's pig.

Matthew Ridgway of Cooks & Soldiers:

I love Ossabaw. It's smaller than a normal variety, but packed with flavor. Guests can expect it any given time in our pork belly confit dish, blood sausage, and headcheese dishes. And it has very similar characteristics to black footed pigs like the Iberico from Spain. They are smaller and pack on great inter-muscular fat, which makes great sausages and cured meats. Marc's Ossabaw is super consistent with great marbling and super rich meat.
Matthew Basford of Canoe:

I try and use the Ossabaw pork in different ways every time I get it. I have had success doing whole roasts with it more, though. The slow-smoking helps that wonderful flavor, the fat, permeate through the muscles. I have also had success with making country hams, and the fat makes a spectacular lardo, with a very clean taste. The history certainly plays a part, also the fact that they are purebred. It gives you a glimpse to how great pork is as a protein and that having a little extra fat can make an extreme difference. As a chef, you are always looking for people that share your passion for ingredients. Marc has a great respect and admiration for the pork that he processes.

Patrick Gebrayel of Heywood's Provision Company in Marietta:

The Ossabaw is a very unique animal. I see a lot of benefits ... though it's probably not the most commercially viable thing for everyone ... the ratio of fat to meat is high, and it has a difficult time in certain types of ground charcuterie due to the fat. But ... we've created an Ossabaw whipped lardo, and it's the most incredible "butter" you've ever had clean and rich a little goes a long way. We've done it with pimenton, and with truffle zest. That's a great way to utilize the animal. And people on paleo diets love it.

I've worked with Mangalitsas, Berkshires, Tamworths ... this stuff is completely different. We've got prosciutto, coppa, pancetta, lomo air-dried loin in a few flavors like rosemary lavender, but honestly, the biggest so far is the whipped lardo. It melts right into a sauce at the end, adding a very rich texture, and can put right on top of a pork chop or spread on warm, toasty bread with something like fresh fig. It's so rich. It's incredible.

Matt Marcus, formerly of BlueTop in Chamblee:

I've really been behind this breed ever since I first came across it. I've known about the island, and even had friends who hunted there way back in the day. The Ossabaw is just very Georgia, and having traveled around the South, I've tasted lots of heritage breeds and nothing else is like this. I really like the fat structure, and the size. The Ossabaw being so small ... they're not being slaughtered early like other breeds, so they can develop their fat properly. Plus, Marc's love and care for the Ossabaw really translates into the product. I think what Marc does differently is that he actually loves these pigs and where they come from.

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