I'll be honest: The words "Give Mama a kiss" were not what I was expecting to hear from rancher Valerie Fogel.
At least not at that moment. She was leaning over a wall and puckering up for an unlikely object of affection. He answers to the name of Lloydie, and he's a 300-pound Russian wild boar, complete with a bruising heft, primordial snout, an impressive pair of tusks, a coat of espresso-colored bristles and an enthusiastic snort.
Although he may not look the part, Lloydie is the Brad Pitt of Money Creek Buffalo Ranch, a prize stud who sires a steady stream of equally prized animals. Heritage breeds are all the rage among the nation's ever-growing number of pork aficionados, and nothing epitomizes this blast-to-porcine-past greater than the beasts on this fascinating Houston, Minn., spread.
"All pigs are derived from the Russian boar," said Mike Fogel, Valerie's husband. "They are the original prehistoric pig."
He ought to know. Mike has been carefully raising Russian wild boar, as well as buffalo and Highland cattle, for 35 years. He and his hard-working family -- the crew includes daughter Nicole and son Derek -- are the last source for wild boar in the state, if not the Midwest. Restricted-species legislation has all but quashed the Russian wild boar in this part of the country; the Fogels' operation was grandfathered in and, should they ever stop, that will spell the end of this incredible animal for Minnesota diners.
As it is, it's a select group of fortunate humans who are able to experience the flavorful glory that is the locally raised Russian wild boar. Lenny Russo, chef/co-owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, is the Fogels' longest and steadiest Twin Cities customer. He's been buying for eight years.
"I don't know that we've ever been so welcomed by a chef," said Valerie.
"For him, price is not the issue. It's 'How are they raised?' and 'What are they fed?'"
Such are the queries for the flavor- and quality-obsessed. Russian wild boar are much leaner than their standard-issue domesticated pig brethren, but their meat is far richer. "I don't want to use the word 'gamey,'" said Russo. "It has a feral quality that other pigs just don't have. Let me put it this way: When you taste it, you can tell exactly what it is."
Mike Fogel shorthands it: "It's what pork used to taste like."
Flavor isn't the only draw, at least not for Russo. "It's not something you see on everyone else's menu, so it helps us stand out," he said. "It's popular with our guests. Our work becomes more interesting by virtue of having this product, and you can't put a price on that. There's really nothing that I don't like about it, except that it's expensive."
How much? "It's nearly twice as much as a pig the same size," said Russo. "But once you start tasting the stuff, it's worth every penny."
Nothing goes to waste
Unlike the vast majority of Twin Cities restaurants, Heartland is a true snout-to-hoof operation -- nothing goes to waste -- and Russo's use of the Fogels' Russian wild boar plays that out. The animals, which tip the scales at between 125 and 175 pounds, come from the processor (a small family-owned operation in Eyota, Minn., about 40 miles from the Fogels' ranch). They arrive in four to six pieces, making it easier to store, and more convenient to deal with, than a whole boar.
Most of the animal is reserved for chops and roasts. The liver becomes braunschweiger and the kidneys end up in cassoulet -- or the organs are marinated and grilled. The tongue gets pickled, the head becomes head cheese, and the legs make a long, steady climb toward prosciutto. "The only thing we don't use is the oink," said Russo with a laugh.
Another Twin Cities source: Cooks of Crocus Hill, where co-owner Karl Benson reserves a small allotment for its crop-share program.
"It's exactly what we like, which is when a quality product aligns with a great story," he said. "Besides, doesn't 'Russian wild boar' sound really cool? And it tastes good, too. It's that simple."
Still, the Fogels sell the lion's share of their inventory through their website, and the Web's immediacy has proven to be a game-changer. Pre-Internet, the family would try to sell surplus product through brokers, not always with success. Now Nicole sends an e-mail blast to their 12,000 subscribers, and the orders flood in; an average week can see shipments to hundreds of customers nationwide, with no middlemen taking their cut.
"The Internet has changed the whole way we do business," said Mike. "We wouldn't be here today without it."
Keeping a lid on it
The ranch, located in the state's southeastern corner, lies in the wooded crook of a winding, narrow valley, a picturesque shock from the dully undulating plains that motorists experience while zipping along Interstate 90. The Fogels' 250-head buffalo herd grazes on the fields above; a nearby community of Catholic nuns, living in silence, adds a spiritual element to the windswept landscape. Down below, a weathered red barn is surrounded by an unusual sight: a ring of tall concrete slabs, the kind usually associated with airport anti-terrorism defenses.
It's actually a concentric pair of walls, and they comprise the half-dozen neat-as-a-pin pens that the Russian wild boars call home.
"They're intelligent problem-solvers, they're very athletic -- they can leap over low fences -- and they're survivors. They'll eat anything," said Valerie.
Which explains why these animals have been decried in state capitols; they slip from domesticated to feral in a flash, and can wreak havoc when left to their own devices and allowed to multiply. No wonder security, which is tighter than your average correctional facility, has become second nature to the Fogels. "Lenny pays almost $500 a pig," said Mike. "For that price, you think we're going to let them run wild?"
(By the way, how can the word "wild" be invoked if the animal is farm-raised? Russo uses "wild" on his menu, despite the animals being farm-raised. "You can still call a wolf a wolf, even if it's raised in the house," he said with a laugh.)
The high-metabolism animals eat very well, feasting on corncobs, high-moisture hay, oat pellets and other roughage. The diet is supplemented by produce raised by the Fogels' farmer friends, who trade their surplus crops -- apples and pumpkins were a huge hit during my October visit -- for the ranch's meat.
The Fogels are beginning to cross breeds, in an effort to expand their product line. Their Russian wild boar herd, which hovers around 100, is closed -- all animals are bred on the premises -- and males and females are raised separately. Males live about 18 months before they are slaughtered -- longer than an average pig, which is one reason why the animal commands a higher price. The breeding gals are kept around for several years, enjoying life in the barn, listening to country music and watching over their little ones, which, as they scamper underfoot, suggest major adorable-pet potential. One look at the reality of their Jabba the Hutt-like mothers will rid even the softest-hearted of that notion.
After delivering three or four litters, the sows become sources for bacon. That bacon -- correction, that amazing, life-changing bacon, a bargain at $14 per pound -- is so popular that the Fogels can't keep it in stock. "We don't even eat it ourselves. We save it for sale, that's how popular it is," said Valerie. "Keeping this breed going, that's a legacy that we'd like. Besides, nothing tastes better than a well-loved animal."
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757