Bringing Home the Bacon—With a Rifle
The below full-length feature version of Bringing Home the Bacon—With a Rifle by Hank Shaw appears in the current issue of Gourmet Live. Download the free Gourmet Live app for this story and more.
The battered pickup lurched to a halt. Without a sound, one of the guides whipped up a pair of binoculars to his face and stared. “That’s a good pig. That’s a real good pig.” We all looked off into the vast barley field on our right, still colorless in the predawn gloom. Far off, at the field’s edge, was a black dot. It was moving. A wild boar!
“Who wants the shot? Hank, you ready?” Tom, the guide, leaned into the backseat looking expectantly at me and a young man from Fresno who operated a fruit– packing shed—this was the young man’s big hunting weekend, and he’d repeatedly told us he wanted a trophy boar to hang on his wall.
But Tom was focusing on me, asking, “Hank, you ready?” My feet went cold. I’d shot exactly two big game animals at that point—this was six years ago—′both deer, and had never even seen a wild boar, let alone shot one.
“I think I’ll pass on this one, Tom. It’s still early.”
No sooner had the words left my lips than Mr. Fresno jammed a cartridge into his rifle, worked the bolt and crept out of the truck. He was ready. He steadied his rifle on a fence post and squeezed the trigger before any of us had thought he could be set. He wasn’t, and, barely noticing the errant shot, the boar simply looked up from its breakfast of barley.
“Shoot him again!” Tom hissed.
Mr. Fresno took more careful aim this time, and this time the boar jumped. But then it started running.
“Hit him again! He’s not going down!”
Two more shots, one from a wild ride through the barley field in the back of an open pickup, and the old boar was down for good. Jesus, I thought. Is this what boar hunting is all about? Can I even do this? But I had committed myself to hunting for all my meat, and I wanted to eat pork. That meant wild pork, and that meant I had to shoot it.
With Mr. Fresno done for the day, the hunt was down to me and Mike, the other guide. Mike was not like Tom. Tom was a classic, garrulous potbellied farmer. Mike was quieter, leaner, and seemed less like a farmer and more like what my mental image of a hunting guide would be. As he drove the pickup into California’s Coast Range, we did not talk for a long while. The sun rose behind us. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Just so you know, that’s not how it’s supposed to be done. We’ll do it right.”
I was glad to get a good guide, which is important when pursuing hogs in California, unless you are an experienced hunter with access to private land. Wild pigs can be tough to hunt, and can be dangerous. Hunters have been injured by charging pigs more than once. It’s always good to have someone around who’s seen the worst wild pigs can dish out.
Hunting for wild boar in California is a matter of getting yourself into remote areas and spending hours with binoculars scanning hillsides, juniper bushes, oak chaparral—all in search of that black dot. When you find the pigs, you then must devise a plan to get close enough to them for a shot. Rifles, not shotguns, are de rigueur, as shots of 250 yards or more are not uncommon. I shoot a rifle chambered at .270 caliber, which is an ideal pig–hunting gun: It shoots fast and flat, and carries enough punch to kill cleanly without breaking your shoulder.
The sun rose higher and the heat began to build. There is no closed season on wild pigs in California—they’re an invasive, non–native species—and one of the best times to hunt them is early summer, after the landscape browns and the hogs are forced to move around more in search of water and food. The downside is that such days can easily reach 100 degrees. Not ideal for the meat, which can spoil quickly at such temperatures. And unlike Mr. Fresno, almost every other pig hunter I’ve met hunts solely for the table.
“Let’s take a walk,” Mike suggested. “I know a little draw that might hold pigs.”
He was right. We’d walked no more than a mile when Mike stopped me: “There. See him?” I didn’t. He pointed into a little bench where the canyon flattened out. I saw it! A black shape, casually moving through the wild oats that coated the berm. It was no more than 75 yards away.
With a gesture, Mike motioned for me to shoot. Offhand. With nothing to rest the rifle on. This is not the easiest shot in the world, and I did not want to repeat the initial failure of Mr. Fresno. A skilled, humane hunter should kill his animal with one shot. My heart pounded in my chest as I wedged my rifle into my shoulder. I jammed my elbow into my ribs to steady the rifle as I looked through the scope at the black shape. It was still oblivious.
A deep breath. You can do this, I thought to myself. Another deep breath. Look through the shot, I thought. It will help your aim. It did. I squeezed the trigger and saw the pig drop in my scope. But then I saw its feet in the air. What? It was rolling into the canyon? Damn.
Mike slapped me on the back. “Congratulations, man! Your first pig! Too bad it fell in that canyon. They always seem to do that.”
My first pig. It felt good. Thoughts of bacon and salami and roast boar shoulder danced through my mind as we hauled the dead hog up through the sticker bushes that lined the sides of the canyon.
Those thoughts were dashed when we finally had the pig skinned and gutted out behind one of the outbuildings on the ranch. It was tiny, not more than 100 pounds or so. And it was lean: No bacon on this pig. Still, Mike said this was a good “eater” pig, not like the giant, stanky old boar Mr. Fresno had shot. And it was true: His pig hung next to mine, and even from five feet away I could smell the stale testosterone and juniper stink on it. My little piggy smelled of nothing more than fresh meat.
I felt bad that we did not save any of the innards, which had hit the dusty ground before I could tell Mike I wanted to save them for making mazzafegati, an Italian liver sausage flavored with coriander and oranges. I managed to stuff the carcass into a giant cooler I’d brought, covered it with several bags of ice, and headed home, three hours to the north.
Back in my kitchen, I was faced with a dilemma: How to butcher this hog? My house has a tiny galley kitchen, and there was no way I’d have enough counter space to disassemble a pig. I eyed my kitchen table. So be it. Fortunately my girlfriend, Holly, puts up with my eccentricities. She merely rolled her eyes as I got to work breaking down the hog.
I’d done this with deer before, and as it happened, hogs are not that much different. They have shorter necks, stockier limbs, and a shoulder blade that curves back toward the animal’s tail in a crescent–moon shape—on large hogs this “armor plate” is what you want to avoid shooting at, since bullets can’t easily penetrate it.
First I removed the limbs. Front legs are not attached to the body by bone, so they are easily removed. The back legs are attached by a ball–and–socket joint, and it takes a little skill not to massacre the hams while doing this. Fortunately I’d studied the classic book Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game by John Mettler. The backstrap (loins) I deboned—I did not feel like breaking out the hacksaw to split the backbone to make proper pork chops, which can be tricky. Sawing off the shanks and ribs was much easier. Love me some wild boar ribs. That left a lot of stray bits all over what remained of the carcass. Sausage meat!
Within a couple hours, I had the makings of a feast.
I used most of the pig for charcuterie: Part of the loins would become lonzino—an Italian dry–cured loin of pork—and I had plans for a dry–cured salami from trimmings. I was not yet ready to make headcheese, but this is what I do now with the heads of all pigs I shoot. (My version is an Italian coppa di testa, stuffed in a beef casing like a giant salami.)
But that still left lots of wild boar to cook fresh. Cooking with wild boar is basically like cooking with any pork, but the meat is denser, leaner, and far more flavorful. And that flavor goes beyond “porky.” Pigs are omnivores, and taste very much of what they’ve been eating—more so, in my experience, than herbivores such as deer or cattle. That’s why gourmands rhapsodize over hogs finished on acorns or peanuts. It’s also why you need to have some idea what the wild pigs in your area are eating. In high summer, life can be tough in arid areas such as Texas and California, and pigs may spend more of their time munching on strong–tasting sages and junipers. That diet will flavor the meat, and not always in a good way.
It was late May when I’d shot that boar, early enough to still be able to get local asparagus. So I decided to sear the tenderloins, roast some asparagus, and serve it with a sauce of green garlic and green onion. I considered serving it with some barley or oats, too—in honor of the grain fields we’d found the hogs in—but it was too hot to think about grains that day.
Holly and I sat down to eat the meal, which I had fussed over. After all, it was the first wild pork I’d ever made, and I wanted it to be good. It was. Dense, juicy, a little pink with a deep porky aroma and just a hint of that sagey–junipery flavor I’d smelled on Mr. Fresno’s old boar. And that touch, that subtle gaminess, had me hooked.
Green Garlic, Pink Pork
Makes 2 servings
Active time: 45 min // Total time: 1 hr
This recipe is adapted from my blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. The only hard part is the sauce, and that isn’t so much difficult as it is time–consuming. And the sauce can be made up to a day ahead. After that, this dish comes together very quickly, so if you have the sauce ready, you can even do this recipe on a weeknight. If you don’t have wild boar tenderloin, use pork tenderloin or even top loin (what you eat in pork chops).
If you do get your hands on wild boar, I’d recommend brining it to keep it moist through cooking. I use a brine of 1/4 cup kosher salt to 4 cups water, and soak boar loins 4–8 hours.
- Kosher salt
- 6 green garlic stalks, or 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 green onions (scallions)
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound wild boar tenderloin or loin (or the same weight in domestic pork)
- 1 pound asparagus
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and salt it well. It should taste like the sea. Separate the white parts of both the green garlic and onions from the green parts. Boil the white parts 3–4 minutes, then toss in green parts and boil all for 2 minutes.
- Remove vegetables and dump them into a large bowl of ice water to cool. Remove from water and chop vegetables roughly. Put them all into a food processor and puree, scraping down the sides from time to time. Now the hard part: Push puree through a fine–meshed sieve. This will require some effort. Take your time and keep at it for about 10 minutes or so, or until there are only fibers in the mesh. Set aside the strained puree.
- Salt the boar pieces well and set aside; turn on your broiler.
- Coat the asparagus well with olive oil; salt to taste. Put asparagus under the broiler.
- Put 1 tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan set on high heat. When butter melts, turn the heat down to medium–high. Sauté boar tenderloin, turning to hit all sides. You are looking for medium here—about 145 degrees with an instant–read thermometer, which will give the meat just a blush of pink. When the tenderloin is about done, remove the asparagus (the timing should work out). Let both rest under foil.
- Pour green onion and garlic puree into a small pot set on medium–low heat; add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and swirl to combine. Do not let this boil. Add salt to taste. The second the sauce begins to simmer, turn off the heat and put some sauce on each of the 2 plates. Set asparagus on each plate, then top with thinly cut tenderloin.
Hank Shaw is a New Jersey native who worked as a political reporter for various newspapers for 18 years until becoming a full–time food writer, outdoorsman, and cook in 2010. He is the author of the recently published Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast (Rodale, 2011) and blogs at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.