Let me paint a quick picture for you.
Drive up to the beautiful Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. It’s ornate, glamorous and overlooks Lady Bird Lake. Check the car at valet, walk through the understated but luxurious lobby, go down the stairs, walk down the hallway and don’t stop until you see tables of empty wine glasses with a sign that says “Take One.” Continue through double doors to arrive at an intimate celebration of local farmers, chefs, winemakers, mixologists and—of course—pork, sweet pork. It’s the ultimate food and wine festival, minus the sweltering heat and mass crowds. It’s Cochon555.
Cochon555 is a traveling national culinary competition with one main mission: educate the public about heritage breed pigs. Their manifesto, in short, reads, “Cochon555 aims to create moments of inspiration, and to engender discussion and action – to buy, to cook, to shop, to donate in the name of a safe, honest, and delicious future to be shared at the table, for, and with our children.” So how does a Sunday afternoon at the Four Seasons accomplish this? Top restaurants, bars and wineries around Austin brought their best bites and sips all aimed to get visitors to try heritage breed pork.
You think I would have learned my lesson at the knockout BBQ festival I attended last year. But of course I didn’t, and once again I arrived at a food fest without a plan. Which means of course, I fell trap to the appetizers and snacks before I even got to the main event. If you’re going to have a station with Whispering Angel and organic pâté from Les Trois Petits Cochons, expect me to stop. Behind me was a long table (with a longer line) of meats, cheese, olives, pickles, bread, jam, etc., and through only sheer will—and promise of meats inside—did I pass it by.
The main event hall almost took my breath away. It was like the scene in the 2013 Great Gatsby movie where Nick Carraway first arrives at Jay Gatsby’s mansion. There’s so much to see, so much to drink, and Gatsby finally turns to Nick and says, “If there’s anything you want, just ask for it, old sport.” And want everything I did. The setup at Cochon555 pleased me to say the least: a food station directly attached to a wine or drink station. This ensured I was never far from the vino, while also giving me an opportunity to try the dishes with wines I may not have paired them with. My two favorite wines of the day came from the Wines from Rioja station. I love tempranillo from near and far, and these wines did not disappoint. Bodegas Ontañón 2005 Reserva Tempranillo-Graciano and Faustino I Gran Reserva 2005 were, in my opinion, the perfect pairings to almost every pork bite I tried at Cochon555. Oh right, the pork. Let’s talk about that.
Five Austin chefs competed: Louis Ciola and Ben Runkle of Salt & Time; Fiore Tedesco of L’Oca D’Oro; April Galindo Lopez and James Flowers of TRIO; Gabriel Erales of Dai Due Taqueria; Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley of Foreign & Domestic. (See the cover photo above for Chef Erales and his team celebrating after being awarded top spot.) But do not be deceived. There were far more than five food stations at Cochon555. These were just the ones competing to move on to the next round.
I’ll be honest, when I first heard about this event I expected to show up to a bunch of BBQ pulled pork. Oh, how wrong I was. Instead I found pork belly ice cream (TRIO), carnitas de cabeza y panza (Dai Due), and black butter chocolate chip cookies with pork fat buttercream (Foreign & Domestic). Not even to mention lasagna, gumbo, pig’s head tortellini, porchetta, and tacos de trompo so special that I can’t stop thinking about them even more than a week later. Dai Due Taqueria offered my personal favorite bites of the event and the judges agreed. Chef Gabriel Erales will move on to the final national competition, Grand Cochon, in October.
Heritage breed pigs are drastically different from the pork we see in today’s grocery store. Commodity pigs share one genetic gene pool so their meat is always consistent. Similar to how a hamburger at McDonalds is always the same no matter where you go, so is the pork that comes from commodity pigs. Heritage breed pigs, on the other hand, are genetically diverse, meaning the meat tastes, looks and cooks differently depending on the breed it comes from. Heritage breed pigs are typically raised on local and family farms. You will likely have to do some research to find heritage breed pork in your area; however, I consistently find it at Austin farmers’ markets all around town. These breeds are hundreds of years old, probably even older than that, and they are dwindling in numbers. So an event like Cochon555 to educate consumers around the country about heritage breed pork is not only fun, but it’s also necessary and vitally important to preserve these breeds.
Ready to try heritage breed pork? Check out these farmers and ranchers: Chubby Dog Farm, Black Hill Ranch, Augustus Ranch, Legend Meats and Peaceful Pork. These are the suppliers behind some of Austin’s best restaurants. Next time you go to dinner, see if there’s heritage pork on the menu and give it a try!
Austin-based Natalie Gould Tomko will always accept an invitation to eat, drink and talk about local agriculture. Find her and her husband wine tasting in the Hill Country, searching for Austin’s best tiramisu, or talking to the tomatoes in their garden (she promises it works). Follow Natalie on Instagram to see mostly in-focus photos of her favorite spots around town and beyond.
Cover: Almost 600 Cochon555 guests gathered recently at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin with full glasses to toast the Austin Prince of Pork, Gabriel Erales of Dai Due Taqueria. Chef Gabriel presented a menu of six dishes featuring a whole Berkshire Red Wattle heritage breed pig. Photo Galdones Photography/COCHON 555