Every March, Charlie Palmer invites a few friends over to his place for the weekend. The “friends” happen to be celebrity chefs, winemakers and sommeliers. And his “place” is the zen-chic Hotel Healdsburg, in northern California’s Russian River wine country. The result is Pigs & Pinot, a celebration of all things pork and pinot noir. Fortunately, those in the know can join the party.
“Pinot goes great with pork,” says Palmer, who’s renowned for his Aureole, Dry Creek Kitchen and Charlie Palmer Steak restaurants, “The wine’s acid, the fruitiness – with the pork’s richness on the back of the tongue.”
Palmer and pals – last year’s crew included David Burke (Primehouse in Chicago, davidburke & donatella in New York), Nancy Oakes (Boulevard in San Francisco), Australia’s Luke Mangan (restaurants in Sydney, Tokyo, and San Francisco) and France’s Philippe Rispoli (Daniel Boulud Brasserie) – kick it off with a first-night extravaganza of food and wine.
More than 50 pinots from four continents – plus three dozen dishes – are scattered at stations around the hotel. The crowd sports everything from sequins and Jimmy Choos to blue jeans and flannel shirts. That friendly guy with muddy boots who’s trading tasting notes with you might be one of the region’s legendary cult winemakers.
Palmer mans an outdoor grill, chatting with guests as he flips ribs and sauces satay. Other offerings include wild boar sliders (Palmer likes to hunt), pork belly with uni, diver scallops wrapped in lardo, Asian-style rotisserie pig and a cornucopia of desserts.
The next morning, Palmer demonstrates three recipes, along with his twin 11-year old sons (pictured above), and Philippe Rispoli in a “Swine & Wine” seminar. Elsewhere, the swirl-and-spit crowd, guided by master sommeliers, pick their top pinot using a March Madness-style bracket system.
By now, you may want to take a few laps around Healdsburg’s leafy, historic square to clear your head (visit boutiques and galleries, but avoid all tasting rooms – the best wines are yet to come).
At the intimate Saturday dinner, each visiting chef prepares a spectacular signature pork course. And each is paired with not one – but two – limited production pinots, introduced by vintners who may have jetted in from France or Australia for the occasion. The 2008 list included a Boisset 1er Cru, elusive 2005 Kosta Brownes and sought-after Rochioli Estate wines.
But leave it to Palmer to keep things from getting too serious. “You’ve had all the food groups today,” he jokes, “Pork, pork and pork!”
Totals for the weekend: 1350 lbs of pork and 55 cases of pinot. (That’s for everybody, not just me.)
This year, Pigs & Pinot is March 20-21; packages and individual event tickets are available; proceeds benefit Share Our Strength; 707-431-2800; www.HotelHealdsburg.com.
Yes, it sounds pretty disgusting – right up there with bacon mints or bacon toothpicks. And yet…
I attended a special “Bourbon & Bacon” dinner at the new San Francisco restaurant, Orson. The meal started with diminutive bologna sliders (“My baloney has a first name, it’s O-R-S-O-N!”), then detoured around pork terrine, lardo with crawfish, pork belly (served with an amazing smoked and deep-fried egg) and suckling pig – before landing squarely in Baconville for dessert.
What first arrived was the Pigwich: a scoop of bacon-maple ice cream, topped by a thin, crispy pizzelle-style wafer, with tiny cubes of candied sweet potatoes on the side in a zingy vinegar glaze. While the other courses had each been served with an intriguing cocktail, the Pigwich arrived with a straight-up slug of Knob Creek – evocative of the booze bribe that’s usually served beside an order of haggis.
But the Pigwich looked remarkably unthreatening, and tasted divine – sweet, smoky, salty, mapley, tart. “Are there actually customers who don’t like it?” I asked our server. “It’s about fifty-fifty,” she replied. “I tell people it’s just like having pancakes with maple syrup and bacon.” Well, sort of. The textures are far more distinctive – and no, there aren’t bacon bits in the benign-looking vanilla-colored ice cream.
The chocolate chip cookies that followed were another story. The warm, chewy disks were punctuated by savory morsels of bacon, their crunch effectively replacing the usual walnuts. But the sweet-salty combo wouldn’t be disconcerting to anyone who ever munched a handful of honey-roasted peanuts.
If all this nouveau bacon cuisine leaves you a bit unsure of whether to risk it or not, try asking yourself, “What would bacon do?” – or rather, try asking the spinner game of the same name. And while you’re at it, why not pay for the meal with some greenbacks pulled from your bacon wallet.
This special dinner was part of the second annual San Francisco Cocktail Week, a series of events celebrating the cocktail…followed by a series of hangovers.
“Tasty salted pig parts,” the sign on the sidewalk read. “Pig parts! We had to come check it out!” one man exclaimed as he pushed open the door of San Francisco restaurant Incanto. Inside, a new experiment was in progress. Incanto chef Chris Cosentino and business partner Mark Pastore were distributing boxes of pig parts, turned tasty by their new salumi factory, Boccalone.
Pig parts! I had to write about it. You can check out my item in the February issue of Gourmet magazine.
The artisanal cured meats are sold almost exclusively through subscription to the company’s Salumi Society. Members sign up for three months, which entitles them to pick up two goodie boxes per month. Pastore says one of the main reasons for this CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) type of model is that distributing directly to consumers allows them to keep production small and personal. “We’d need to make 8-10 times more product to turn a profit if we were selling through the normal channels,” he figures, “Plus, we get to interact with people, to find out what they like and don’t like.”
Boccalone makes nearly two dozen types of meat products, from dry-cured or brine-cured to fresh sausage. What’s inside the subscription boxes depends on what’s ready at the time. The boxes come in two sizes, the Piglet ($29 for about 2 pounds of products) and the Boar ($49 for about 3.5 pounds).
The crowd was sucking up samples an amazing Prosciutto Cotto, or cooked ham, which was brined with clove, allspice, sugar and pepper – easily the best ham I’ve ever tasted. The Boar box booty included the heavenly ham, plus Spicy Italian Sausage, Mortadella, Soppressata di Calabria, Capocollo and Paté di Campagna. At $14 a pound, this might seem a bit steep – but when you consider the artisanal quality and the fact that there’s no waste, the price isn’t so tough to swallow.
Cosentino and Pastore have even created a manifesto, which implies we can cure society by curing meats:
Salumi encourage us to live a patient life in pursuit of flavor, rather than a relentless hunt for ever-increasing quantity – seek better, not more. This approach is not only good for the individual, it’s better for the world.
After tasting that Prosciutto Cotto, I’m a believer.