Sure,. it’s expensive, probably even considered ridiculously expensive by many sane people.
But it is a beautiful piece of meat that was here for a few years in the early 2000s, and then nowhere to be found for several years — until now.
I caught up with Ossabaw pig farmers Marc and Lydia Mousseau to see how things are coming along.
Q. How did you come to raise such rare and wonderful — very expensive — pigs?
A. Agriculture is not something new to me. I grew up on a gentleman’s farm in New England raising sheep before moving to California during High School. In California, I worked in the orange groves and vineyards during the summers while studying Animal Science and Wildlife Management at Texas Tech University.
However, I graduated from Texas Tech with a Journalism/English degree and began life’s professional journey as a journalist. A few years after graduation, I decided to do my post-graduate studies in behavioral Biology at the University of South Carolina. So, it’s always been in my blood.
In 2000 Lydia and I were fascinated by a sustainable farming article in the Smithsonian Magazine. We immediately knew that this was something special. However, we were not at a time in our lives to make it into a reality. So, Lydia ripped out the article, made a folder and filed it away. Over the years, we would talk about “someday”.
Fast forward to a few years ago. Lydia and I own a tract of land in middle-Georgia and wanted this land to work for us. We were always open to ideas, but nothing really stuck. At the very beginning, like we had done so many times before, we were looking into a new type of possibility. This time it was pigs. Looking a little deeper we uncovered heritage pigs and the Ossabaws and we knew they had potential.
We located a registered herd for sale that had great potential and came with (2) mentors. The entire bloodline had been bred for over 12 years by an animal scientist using “Common Sense Husbandry”. This Common Sense Husbandry produced pigs that, through only selective breeding of registered animals was able to create a larger, gentler Ossabaw Island Pig with a better disposition and meat quality.
There were only 4 farmers breeding for this lineage and husbandry. Byran retired and still owns (2) of the original sows of the bloodline. He remains one of my mentors to this day. Two others sold me their stock to me and the last raises them as a hobby with never more than 4 or 5 adult sows on hand at any given time. Lydia and I were in the right place at the right time and are now entrusted with the well being of an entire lineage and life’s work.
We still had the challenge of introducing this pig to the Atlanta market … or so we thought. It was truly a blessing that I was calling Crawford Moran at 5 Seasons to discuss spent brew grains and happened to mention they were for Ossabaw Island Pigs. Literally, within hours I received a call from Chef David Larkworthy, the executive Chef of 5 Seasons, who proclaimed himself to be the biggest fan of Ossabaw Island Pork.
We discussed Ossabaws briefly and he “strongly” encouraged us to move forward with the support of 5 Seasons.
So, we pulled the trigger. It was a huge undertaking. The land was raw, so we had to start from scratch. 7000 feet of fence, a 600 foot well, a barn, a cabin etc … Because we wanted our animals to be “Free-Range”, we made very large enclosures for family groups without removing the natural vegetation or changing the topography.
Needless to say, our pigs are in Hog Heaven!
Q. What does “registered” Ossabaw Island Pork mean? Is there some sort of certification?
A. All of our breeding stock is registered with the American Large Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). Presently, they are listed as critically endangered with less than 2000 registered animals known to exist.
We want our diners to know that the pork they are eating can trace it lineage back to the island and nearly 500 years to around 1521 and the age of the Conquistador’s exploration of the New World.
Around 1521 these pigs, believed to have been from Iberian stock, were brought to Ossabaw by the Conquistadors during their exploration of the New World. While most of the legends cite Hernando Desoto for bringing these pigs to Ossabaw, we are beginning to think they were brought here in association with the failed St Catherine’s Island (Georgia) settlement.
Regardless, when the Conquistadors returned to Spain they left these pigs on Ossabaw Island to make, what would one day become, Georgia their adopted home.
Because of Ossabaw’s proximity to the Savannah River, the Atlantic Ocean and their associated currents, these pigs have remained isolated from all other feral pigs in the area for all this time.
Q. What makes the Ossabaw Island Pig Different?
A. This pig is unique to Georgia and it is not your ordinary pig. Due to its isolation on the island it needed to adapt to survive. Normally nomadic, these pigs became territorial.
Additionally, they adapted to drink brackish water, which is full of sea salt, as well as developing a thrifty gene in order to store usable fat for the lean months. Their fat is highly unsaturated and is believed to be high in Omega-9, Oleic Acid which is closer to Olive Oil than Animal Fat. At room temperature, their fat is nearly liquid.
All of these things come together to make some of the tastiest pork you will ever eat.
Q. I hear that Chef Dave at 5 Seasons Brewing gives you leftover spent grain to feed the pigs. What does this do for them and why is it so important?
A. First of all, Chef Dave has been great all the way around and has been a great supporter of ours. He’s a great guy and so are Crawford and Grant Kirby.
Ossabaws don’t grow fast. As a matter of fact, they grow downright slow. By comparison, a large scale production pig can be expected to reach 500 pounds in about 6 months whereas the Ossabaw Island Pigs hits about 200 pounds in 14 months. To raise these on commercial feed would be cost prohibitive.
For centuries there has been as symbiotic relationship between farmers and brewers. Once the brewers brew the grains to remove proteins and sugars, they become a by-product. However, not all of the proteins and sugars are removed and this becomes a great feed source for animals. Even our American (French) Bresse chickens and Narragansett Turkeys on the farm love to eat brew grains.
What is great is that we raise our pigs on the by-product of the 5 Seasons brew process so essentially, the pork you are eating was fed by the by-product of the beer you are drinking…. Can’t get much more sustainable than that!
As our operation grows so does our demand for grains. We have been fortunate to have support from Red Brick Brewing as well as the Slice & Pint near Emory and Twain’s in Decatur. All these guys are great.
Q. Do you believe that Ossabaw Island Pork could become a Georgia thing? …an allure worth traveling for?
A. Yes, yes and YES! Maine has Lobster, Memphis has Barbeque, New Orleans has Jambalaya, Kansas City has Steaks and Atlanta has Registered Ossabaw Island Pork! … I think the fact Chef Dave won the Golden Onion Chef challenge with an Ossabaw Island Burger (with the help of this 13 year old daughter as Sous Chef) …. Says volumes.
The cool thing is that mass production of these animals is nearly impossible. It will always be a something special. Both Lydia and I consider ourselves Heritage Stewards … Basically, we’re are here for the pigs and the long-term best interest of the breed. It really is a labor of love.
Q. What are the short-term future hold goals for you and your Ossabaw pig farm?
A. One step at a time;. We understand we will never produce Registered Ossabaw Island Pork for the masses. It’s not our goal. Today, our goal is to raise the best tasting Ossabaw Island Pork for our select chefs without compromising their natural feeds or a free-range environment.
Eventually, we plan to make our pork available to Charcuterie butchers, such as The Spotted Trotter, for retail sale.
We feel privileged and proud to be the ones to bring these animals back home the their adopted Georgia. Lydia and I hope that our Ossabaw Island Pigs will become something that Atlantans… and all of Georgia… can brag about calling our very own.