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Porchetta: A Taste of Italy

Porchetta: A Taste of Italy
November 30, 2004 |

If a gourmet pork product called
porchetta proves as popular as
promoters are predicting, it
could put the profit back into pork
production for some Alabama producers.So says Frank Owsley, animal
sciences swine specialist in
Auburn University’s College of
Agriculture.”The problem for several years
now has been that most independent
producers in Alabama don’t
have a processing plant to take
their pigs to,” Owsley says. “If you don’t have a market, there’s no reason to raise them.”Porchetta will require animals
raised specifically for its production,
and that could become profitable
for producers who can meet
those specs,” he says.Porchetta is a pig–either the
whole animal or just the loin and
belly–that has been completely
deboned by hand, seasoned with a
distinct blend of herbs and spices,
then rolled, tied and roasted in a high-tech stainless steel oven for
several hours at high heat, until
the skin is deliciously crisp and the
meat mouthwateringly tender.Porchetta is not a new food
product. In fact, it’s been around
since before the time of Christ in
Ariccia, Italy, an ancient city 20
miles south of Rome where
porchetta originated and where the
authentic stuff (there are plenty of
imitations) still is exclusively produced,
sold and consumed. Or it
was, until Sept. 25 when the
Auburn product, which is being
marketed as Porchetta Originale,
made its public debut via free samples
given to AU versus Citadel
game-goers.The product, served to 5,000-
plus AU fans, met with rave
reviews, with 95 percent rating it a
four or five out of a possible five on
taste and with that many saying
they’d be likely or very likely to
purchase Porchetta Originale.This is all good news for the
state’s pork producers, whose numbers
in Alabama have been in a
freefall for two decades. In 1984,
some 9,500 of Alabama’s 52,000
farms had hogs, but by 1994, barely
break-even prices and urban
encroachment had pushed that
number down to 2,500 of 46,000
farms. Today, with roughly the same number of farms in
the state, it’s down to an
estimated 300-500 pork
operations. Hog and pig
inventory has declined
from about 350,000 in
1985 to 165,000 today.The final blow for
many independent producers
came in the late
1990s when the Georgia
packing plant where the
majority of Alabama hog
farmers sold their animals
closed. And while
west Alabama producers
still have access to a
Mississippi processing
plant, small farms may
not meet their minimum
lot size.”Producers, especially smallscale,
have either gotten out completely,
or they have scaled way
back and just started either taking
a few at the time to a small processor
somewhere or selling directly
to customers,” Owsley says.So for many of the producers
who remain, Porchetta Originale–
if it goes over in Auburn and, eventually,
the United States–would be
the first bright spot in Alabama’s
pork industry in a long time
because it would mean a brand-new
specialty market, with an accompanying
increased demand for hogs
from independent producers.Brian Hardin, director of
Alabama Pork Producers, a division
of the Alabama Farmers
Federation, said his group is
encouraged by the work being done
at Auburn and hopes Owsley is
correct about what it could mean
for Alabama’s pork industry.”Alabama Pork Producers
wants to be part of developing new
opportunities for the state’s farmers,”
Hardin said. “With the many
changes in the landscape of
Alabama’s swine industry, we are
optimistic this has potential to be
another alternative marketing
option for growers.”In Ariccia, only pigs meeting
specific standards, including leanness
and heavy muscling, are used
for porchetta production. Initially
in Auburn, carcasses are being
purchased for the product. But if
signs are that there’s a market for
porchetta, the same type pigs that
go into porchetta in Ariccia will be
crucial to the product’s long-term
success locally, statewide and,
eventually, nationwide. And the
more demand for porchetta, the
hotter the market for the lean animals
needed for it.Owsley traveled to Ariccia in
late October to study the genetics
of porchetta pigs. He also observed
the way the pigs are fed and the
growing conditions under which
they are raised. He will now use
that information to develop the
bred-for-porchetta pig at AU’s
Swine Research Unit.The Alabama Pork Producers,
which is comprised of swine farmers
with operations of all sizes
from across the state, has given a
nod to Owsley’s research and the
notion of porchetta.”I’m an advisor to the Alabama
Pork Producers, and I met with the
state committee several months ago
to let them know of this opportunity
and to get their feedback,”
Owsley says. “They were in favor of
at least exploring the possibility.”Because porchetta is a new product
that is yet unproven
in the American market,
nothing is certain.
However, it has met with
rave reviews at special
“tastings” in Auburn, and
AU ag economist and
Alabama Agricultural
Experiment Station
researcher Bob Nelson is
test-marketing porchetta
morsels statewide to see
whether Southerners cotton
to the flavor of the
Italian gourmet pork
product.There are many other
“untils” in porchetta,
Owsley says. Until the
porchetta production
process is refined, until it
is determined whether supply will
meet demand and vice versa, and
until Owsley has developed the
suitable animal, all pigs for
porchetta will be raised at the
Auburn research unit. Once those
issues are resolved–within one to
two years, Owsley surmises–
porchetta pigs could be a “go” for
small-scale hog operations.Meanwhile, Owsley is in the
midst of a comprehensive research
project called AU-SPICE (Swine
Production in Concert with the
Environment), that could give state
pork farmers other niche markets,
such as grass-fed hogs.”It isn’t porchetta or nothing,”
Owsley says. “We’re looking at
several marketing opportunities for
small-scale producers. But porchetta–
oh, yeah, I’m excited about it.
If it’s handled correctly, it can be
an economic boost to rural
Alabama and the entire state.”The bottom line is that
Alabama’s pork industry is in serious
jeopardy, and porchetta could
be one way to revive it.”

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