Praising the Lard at COCHON 555

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in downtown Atlanta a congregation rose to its feet, lifted glasses of Pinot Noir and exclaimed, “Praise the Lard!”

The reason: COCHON 555, a 10 city tour bringing together 5 chefs, 5 pigs, 5 winemakers and hundreds of pork fans to celebrate and raise awareness for heritage breed pigs.

As the clever expression from creator Brady Lowe might indicate, COCHON 555 was a sinfully fun way to end the weekend.  With more than 750 pounds of pork, more than a dozen wines and two beers to taste, the sin of gluttony certainly comes to mind.

But how could you not want to pig out?  The five chefs, selected because of their support of local agriculture and ranches, had prepared a sumptuous spread with their own take on the other white meat.  With so many different dishes I wanted to try them all!

Last year’s “Prince of Porc” Chef Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun’s in Atlanta looked like he could take the title again.  Guests swarmed his table to get a taste of his Berkshire pork flan and dumplings; they were so popular that they were gone in just over an hour.

Chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s Restaurant in Charleston was also a hit from the start.  He had a host of pork dishes that disappeared almost as soon as they were placed on the table.  From a spicy pork sausage to chicharrones, to the rich and creamy pork liver (my favorite), Chef Brock made great use of his Ossabaw/Berkshire cross.

Chef Mike Lata of FIG Restaurant (Food Is Good) joined his fellow Charleston chef in presenting a variety of dishes using his Tamworth pig.  His ten tasty offerings included pork skin polenta, pork belly with watermelon pickles, lard crackers with pimento cheese, corn “hogs” with rhubarb ketchup and bourbon lard caramels.  Considering the impressive spread, I was surprised to find out that Chef Lata only has two pork items on his menu; it’s the restaurant’s fresh fish and vegetable dishes of which he’s most proud.  On a side note, chatting with Chef Lata made me want to plan a trip to his restaurant right away.

Considering the recent pork belly craze, I asked Chef Lata what he thought the next pig trend will be.  His answer: pigs’ trotters.  They’re in low demand from local farms which makes them easier to get, and taste great when slow-cooked.  Chef Lata says diners love FIG’s crispy pork trotters.

Besides promoting heritage breed pigs, COCHON 555 aims to promote family-owned farms.  It’s a sentiment all the chefs support.  As Chef Todd Mussman of Muss & Turner’s in Atlanta handed me his dish that he called an “entire pig in a bowl” (pancetta di porchetta over smoked pork consommé with a bitter herb salad and ham jerkey), he told me he’s been serving local produce and proteins for ten years and won’t serve food unless it is fresh.

The participating wineries at COCHON 555 are also family-owned.  I was really impressed by the wines I tasted — I can’t recall another recent tasting when I’ve enjoyed every single wine.

I started with the crisp and refreshing Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle blend from Buty Winery in Walla Walla.  It made a great pairing with Chef Kelly English’s dish.  The chef from Restaurant Iris in Memphis served a pork tamale sandwich that combined Latin American and Vietnamese flavors.  I also enjoyed Buty’s two red wines: the elegant 2007 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend and the rich and spicy 2006 Columbia Rediviva, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

I had a hard time picking my favorite Pinot Noir among the wines from Domaine Serene and Anne Amie Vineyards from Oregon and Hirsch Vineyards from Sonoma.  The 2006 Evenstad Reserve (served earlier in the VIP lounge) and the 2007 Yamhill Cuvée from Domaine Serene were lush and complex with nice acidity that went well with some of the more savory pork dishes.  Anne Amie’s Pinots were supple and bursting with flavor, with notes of cherry, plum, cola, toffee and thyme.  I would be thrilled to enjoy a bottle of any of Hirsch Vineyards’ four Pinots, each spicy and intense with well balanced fruit and acidity.  I was glad to find out that all of these wines are available in Atlanta.

As I snacked and sipped it was neat to watch Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats butcher an entire Berkshire pig.  I had never seen a pig breakdown before so it was interesting to watch Ryan’s skills and learn more about the various cuts of meat.  When I asked Ryan about his favorite part of the pig, he said he enjoyed the cheek and neck which become really tender when slow-cooked.  I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for those on restaurant menus.

Before the winner was announced it was time for dessert — more pork!  An entire roasted pig that had been injected with ham hock butter was rolled out and carved by Nick Melvin, the Executive Chef at PARISH.  Guests were able to dive right in, enjoying the meat with a tasty sauce or putting it on sandwiches.

With appetites sated and votes tabulated it was time to reveal the winner.  The title of Atlanta’s 2010 Prince of Pork went to Chef Sean Brock, who impressed with his assortment of delicious dishes.  He will compete against the nine other Princes and Princesses of Porc in June at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where the winner will be crowned King or Queen of Porc.

What a way to honor the protein.

Click here to see more photos from COCHON 555 Atlanta

Earlier: Pig Out Sunday at COCHON 555