Robert Anderson had no use for the feral hogs he caught on his Cleburne spread a couple of weeks ago, so he had the critters hauled off.
“I don’t want to eat ’em,” said Anderson, who also didn’t want to kill and pay to process the 65- to 70-pound pigs that were eating his deer corn. “You can go to Walmart and get ... Black Forest ham cheaper than that.”
But the peripatetic porkers didn’t go to waste: they became a link in the food chain.
“They make an excellent smoked sausage,” said Tim Bruce, whose Joshua Deer Processing has cut up about 400 feral hogs this year. “We started doing hams five or six years ago. They are outstanding.”
Hunters aren’t the only ones who are hog wild. Thanks to some canny marketing, consumers around the world are paying through the snout for a taste of the free-range Texas treat and begging for more.
“Good marketing has everything to do with catching the consumer’s interest,” Eric Nauwelaers, president of Frontier Meats in Fort Worth, wrote in an email. “Both words, ‘wild’ and ‘boar’ catch the attention of anyone who grew up eating domestically raised pork. We believe that wild boar consumption will continue to soar above other game categories because it offers the general public a meat choice that is easy to accept by being similar to popular domestic pork. However, it takes the next step by bringing a rich nutty flavor to the table due to its natural grazing habits. The product sells itself due to being ‘all natural’ by default, lean with healthy attributes and adds a sense of excitement to the eating experience.”
A key to converting the animals from marauding menace to menu item was surprisingly simple: a name change to wild boar from feral hog.
“They are the same thing,” said Chris Hughes, owner of Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram. “It’s what I had for Thanksgiving. It was great.”
Hughes has been selling wild boar for 15 or 20 years, but the taste for alternative meats is heating up demand.
Hughes said in the late 1980s, his dad persuaded the United States Department of Agriculture to okay labeling feral hog meat as wild boar. It took some negotiation, since a boar is technically a male animal.
Convincing the government that the critters were truly “wild,” and not the kind of pen-fed animals that find their way onto some game menus, was tough too.
But Hughes, who sells all manner of wild game, said his dad made his point when he invited the inspectors to spend 30 seconds in the pen with a feral hog. If they could do it, he’d drop his claim that they were wild.
The label was apparently approved without much further discussion.
Making a silk purse
out of a pork butt:
Texas agriculture officials don’t have much information on the economic impact of processing, cooking and marketing the state’s estimated two million wild pigs, but there’s not a lot of argument about the nature of the beast itself.
“What we’ve got in America is a mutt,” said Hughes, explaining that the beast is a hybrid, with genes that can vary from animal to animal. “They may be from any number of species.”
Jesse Griffiths, an Austin chef and author, agreed with the “mutt” moniker.
Griffiths recently published “Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish,” and runs Dai Due Supper Club. He also sells wild-boar sausages in Austin farmers markets.
“They come from three lineages: Spanish; escaped [domestic pigs] and Russian boars,” said Griffiths in a phone call. “We call it wild boar for marketing reasons.”
Any way you slice it, wild-boar meat, which has what Hughes’ website calls a nutty/bacon flavor, represents a tasty opportunity for meat purveyors and chefs.
Frontier is rolling out wild-boar tenderloin strips this week and is mulling sausage in the near future.
Griffiths has to turn local food enthusiasts away from his $1,875 per person, three-day “hog schools” in the Hill Country, where participants learn to hunt, skin, cut up and cook the critters.
“I killed a 150-pound pig this summer,” he said, adding that the double pork chops were extra toothsome. “It was some of the best meat I’ve ever had.”
For Griffith, hogs got hot about four years ago.
“It’s a resource people don’t know how to deal with,” he said. “I said, ‘Why are we raising pigs when we have an overabundance of feral pigs?’ My goal is to use about 80 percent in our pork products.”
Unlike Bruce, whose hogs arrive dead and are not processed for sale, commercial processors must have a USDA inspector on site to oversee the conversion of live boar into bacon and other cuts.
Griffiths is so high on the hogs that he’s hoping to build a slaughterhouse, exclusively to process wild boar for his soon-to-be built Austin restaurant/butcher shop.
If his sales of hand-crafted chorizo are an indicator, Grifffith’s investment in pork processing could pay off: sausage volume doubled when he switched from domestic to feral hogs.
Now, two of the four sausages on his permanent menu come from the wild. And there’s no shortage of meat on the hoof. Zach Davis, Johnson County agent for agriculture and natural resources, calls feral hogs an epidemic.
“They have no natural predators,” Davis said. “They can reproduce a couple of times a year.”
That’s fine with Griffiths.
“I mean, between 60 and 80 percent have to be killed every year to keep the population stable,” Griffith said. “But I’m here to help.”
From pest to profit
The trapper who took Anderson’s hogs told him they were going to Frontier Meats. If that’s where they ended up, the hoglets will have plenty of company. Frontier will produce 36,000 feral hogs this year.
Frontier processes wild pigs from holding facilities across Texas, then slaughters the animals. Frontier sends 75 percent of its wild boar to Europe.
“Whether it is England, France, Spain or other countries, the residents have been eating wild boar for many generations as a staple of their diet. The population of animals, animal size and health advantages made the wild boar a prevalent food source,” Nauwelaers wrote. “Europe has continued to lose free-ranging land due to population expansion and new land uses. The feral hog has just run out of unencumbered areas to roam free. Texas provides a perfect environment of thousands of unfenced acres and a climate conducive to increasing the wild boar population. So, we have become a perfect source for the European demand.”
Frontier declined to say what they pay for feral hog on the hoof, but the profit margin can’t be chopped liver: the company’s online site charges $47.99 for a three-pound wild boar “frenched rack.” That’s about $16 per pound. A 2.25 pound order of wild-boar bacon is $35.99.
“They’re basically getting high-quality pork for less than 50 cents a pound,” said Austin-based trapper Brandon Tilford, “which maks it a very profitable business.”
Even though he has a solid clientele, and charges land owners $300 to set up his trap and $30 to $40 per head for each wild boar he removes, Tilford said hog trappers don’t make a killing when fuel, wear and tear on a truck and other expenses are considered.
Tilford gets 35 cents a pound for hogs more than 100 pounds and 10 or 15 cents for 60- to 80-pound live animals he sells for slaughter in Johnson County. If he sells the meat to a customer like Griffiths, they go for $3 to $5 per pound in “hanging weight,” depending on whether the carcass is skinned or still has its hide, head and hooves. Tilford has also sold some of the solar-powered traps, complete with video system that sends an email when an animal walks into a trap, but he still works in advertising three days a week.
“I call it a ‘jobbee,’ he said of his part-time trapping gig. “It’s a paying hobby, which I enjoy.”
Still, he said life is getting harder for hog hunters. The animals aren’t as desperate for food this year as last.
“Now, even though we haven’t had a lot of rain, crops are good.” Tilford said. “The pigs are getting smarter. They’re getting harder to catch. They’re getting used to box traps.”
A sustainable resource
Tempting as it is to call wild boar the other other white meat, the flesh of the carcasses hanging in Bruce’s walk-in freezer are a deep red.
“There is a big difference between this and the other white meat,” said Hughes, of Broken Arrow Ranch. “The pork industry has done a really good job of creating a very large, very moist, very flavorless animal.
“With a wild boar, it has a more distinct flavor,” Hughes said. “We say it tastes more like the way pork used to taste.”
However, you can’t count on them for consistent fat content or coloration: they’re wild, eat whatever is available and come from varying genetic stock.
That’s why the wild boar isn’t even more popular, according to Ariane Daguin, of D’Artagnan gourmet meats in Newark, N.J. She previously imported meat from Saskatchewan, Canada, where there was a source for wild Russian boar, but logistics and costs prompted a change. Now she gets her wild boar from Texas.
Sales are growing, but she said there are limitations.
“To put something on the menu, it has to be the same size, same taste, same texture,” each time a chef uses it, Daguin said in a recent call. “With wild boar from Texas, you have some that are close to [commercial] pork and some that are really feral. If there was a consistency, there would be more sophisticated applications. But the gene pool is a problem. This is a true wild animal. They’re going to catch what they’re going to catch.”
As for the meat, “It goes from pale white to dark red. They send us what they can,” Daguin said.
Griffiths doesn’t mind the inconsistency.
“You don’t get any consistency. That’s life,” he said. “It’s a resource that’s sustainable. It’s totally normal to do this.”
Tim Bruce would agree. He opened the twin doors of his smoker out in front of the shop alongside Texas 174 to check the temperature on the sugar-cured feral hams inside. Frontier anticipates adding locally sourced wild-boar hams to the line in the near future.
“They’re delicious,” Bruce said, tossing another chunk of oak into the smoke chamber. “It’s like eating candy. You’d love it.”