Dozens of states across the country have a problem with feral hogs. Originally released centuries ago by early explorers to breed and later be hunted, they are aggressive and can damage property and crops, and occasionally hurt people.
They are reportedly a growing problem, with 39 states having reported sightings of them, according to a recent report from NBC News. But just as some chefs have taken to eating other invasive species, such as lionfish or blue catfish, they are also finding a ready market for these hogs.
Generally called by the more appetizing name of wild boar, which isn’t exactly the same thing but close enough for menu writers, they provide meat that is sometimes a bit gamy and somewhat tougher than mainstream pork, but with more flavor and a compelling story in conservation.
Ed Chiles, owner of The Chiles Group, which operates three restaurants — Sandbar Seafood & Spirits, Beach House Waterfront Restaurant and Mar Vista Dockside & Pub — on Anna Maria Island in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, is a big fan of Shogun Farms and uses its boar fairly often, especially at Sandbar.
Chiles said he appreciates the fact that Shogun is finding a partial solution to the state’s wild boar infestation.
“What we have is an invasive species that is lemons, and what this guy [at Shogun Farms] is doing is taking lemons and making limoncello,” he said.
Chiles’ butcher, Toffer Jacob, buys the boars whole and makes coppa and other ham, head cheese, sausage, porchetta, etc.
“We use every bit of it,” he said. The snout goes into head cheese, the bones go into stock.
He described the taste as “gamy but clean.”
Different suppliers take different approaches to the product. Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Texas, traps feral hogs and brings them to its USDA inspected slaughter facilities.
Shogun, meanwhile, adds a step by feeding the hogs for several months on a diet of local produce and acorns before slaughtering, processing and selling them.
“You definitely taste the acorns,” Jacob said, as well as the fact that it’s “not quite pork. You’re tasting the ingredients more, especially in the fat.”
Chiles said his company will also roast the hogs whole for special occasions such as the PINC festival (People Ideas Nature Creativity) that was held in Sarasota, Fla., in January.
Jacob said the leaf fat “is absolutely amazing,” and the restaurant group uses it in pizza dough and in the bread recipe for Cubano sandwiches.
“When you put the fat into breads, there’s something that coats your tongue whenever you bite into it. It’s magical,” Jacob said. “It makes the bread really, really flaky. And when you make bacon, it’s absolutely amazing.”
Wild boar is also a pest on the Big Island of Hawaii, where Junior Ulep, chef de cuisine of Meridia at the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort on the Kohala Coast, is roasting them whole, braising them with pappardelle pasta — a traditional Italian custom from Tuscany — and serving the sausage as part of his paella dish.
“You’d think it would be gamy. It’s not gamy at all,” he said. “It tastes like regular pork, but a little more firm, because they’re running around. … To me it’s the number one product on the Big Island.”
For luaus, Ulep buys a whole boar, splits it open and cooks it in a roasting box called a caja china, or digs a pit oven called an Imu, builds a wood fire in the river pit, surrounds it with rock, lets the rocks heat up and then adds shredded ti leaves or banana leaves. He lays the hog on the leaves and then covers it with more leaves and burlap soaked in water. Then he covers it all with earth and lets it cook for around 10 hours.
“It’s kind of like a steaming method,” he said.
He also puts wild boar sausage on flatbreads as well as in paella and a separate dish that, like the paella, is cooked in a hinged pot called cataplana. There it’s cooked with local clams, Kaua’i shrimp, white wine, polenta croutons and chile from the restaurant’s garden.
Ulep saves the boar fat both for that cataplana dish and for laulau, or steamed fish in taro leaves.
For the pappardelle dish, Ulep braises the pork in chicken stock with bay leaves, lemongrass, Meyer lemon, red wine, turmeric, smoked Spanish paprika, basil, tarragon, thyme and garlic at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 24 hours.
Then the liquid is drained, the meat is picked and at service the meat is reheated in the jus with cream, salt and pepper. He lets that reduce, adds the cooked pasta, finishes it with more basil and tarragon and serves it with Parmesan-style cheese made from local goat milk.
He saves the boars’ heads and legs to make head cheese.
Brandon Hicks, chef of The Battery, a private club in San Francisco, uses wild boar bacon that he buys from Broadleaf Specialty Game Meats just south of San Antonio, Texas, which purchases boar trapped in Texas hill country.
He uses that instead of guanciale in the club’s Campanelle Carbonara, which also has cream, egg yolks and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Hicks says the bacon is leaner and more nutty in flavor than conventional pork. “It’s actually one of the biggest sellers on our dinner menu,” he said.
Daniel Orr, chef and owner of Farm Bloomington restaurant in Bloomington, Ind., has been cooking wild boar for most of his career, including when he was at La Grenouille and Guastavino restaurants in New York.
Back then he cooked it in the style of a French civet stew, marinating it in red wine and then slowly cooking it with rosemary, thyme and sometimes lavender “to bring out some of the porky earthiness,” he said.
These days he gets most of his boar from Broken Arrow Ranch and uses it for more American applications.
He makes a breakfast sausage with sage, ground mustard, cayenne pepper and diced apples, plus some minced bacon because, like most wild meat, the boar is fairly lean.
He said the apples bring moisture to the sausage, too, and for further moistness he recently served the sausage in a turnover with apple and sage. He plated it with a curried apricot coulis, local eggs and arugula.
“But for myself, I prefer to eat the more glamorous loins and chops,” Orr said.
He said cooking it requires a fairly light touch: If you cook it too fast, it gets dry and crusty, and if you cook it beyond around 145 degrees Fahrenheit it gets “very dry.”
He said that, while the wild boar sausage is popular, there are other reasons to have it on the menu. “It has a certain cachet. … To have some wild stuff on the menu once in a while keeps people intrigued,” he said.
Brian Jupiter, chef of Frontier in Chicago, also believes that wild boar has cachet while still not being scary to eat.
“It gives people a chance to be adventurous but not go too far outside the box,” he said.
Jupiter smokes whole wild boar as an option for Frontier’s “Whole Animal Experience,” which also comes with seasonal vegetables, rolls, Caesar salad and mac ‘n’ cheese. He also uses boar for specials featuring the shoulders or chops. He has offered a boar burger, too.
“We like using it not necessarily in place of pork, but as a different type of pork,” he said.
He agreed that it’s leaner than conventional pork, and said the meat is darker and has “a little bit of sweetness to it that standard pork doesn’t have.”
“Boar was something that one of our purveyors was getting pretty regularly out of Texas. It just kind of stuck,” he said.
To cook the whole animal, Jupiter buys a boar in the 30-40-pound range, rubs it with a spice mix and smokes it with apple and cherry wood for six to seven hours. He said it serves 12-15 people. He said that buying it whole, it costs about twice what conventional pork costs, but people are willing to pay a premium for it.
“[Customers] don’t really hesitate to spend more for the boar, or any of the wild game,” Jupiter said.
When cooking the loins or chops, Jupiter likes to add extra fat. One approach is wrapping boar shoulder in caul fat and cooking it in sous-vide, then finishing it on the grill.
Not all wild boar is domestic. The feral hogs have also long been a pest in the Italian countryside, and that’s where Mimmo Ferraro, executive chef of Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar, a 37-year-old destination in Las Vegas, gets his wild boar. He was inspired to do so during a visit to Tuscany around 10 years ago, when he had a wild boar ragù with pasta that he said was “mind-boggling.”
Ferraro makes his own version of that dish, braising cubed pieces of boar shoulder for two-and-a-half to three hours in vegetable stock, white wine, mirepoix, mushrooms, fennel and some pancetta, plus herbs including thyme, rosemary, parsley and sage.
He imports his boar from the Italian region of Piedmont, on the border with France.
Ferraro said the meat he uses does have some gaminess to it, particularly in the fat, “but it’s just a richer flavor — more intense,” he said.
He’s serving the ragù with pici pasta, but he has also cooked the tenderloin and served it with a blueberry demiglace reduction. He has made sausage out of the shoulder, too.
“We do a lot of game and really authentic off-the-boat dishes,” he said. “People understand that we are not a red-sauce Italian restaurant. They know they’re going to come to us and get authentic, quality ingredients.”