In 1991, there were 198 Mangalica hogs alive. To put that in perspective, animals considered "endangered" number in the thousands. To spare these pigs the indignity of extinction, animal geneticist Péter Tóth bought them all—yes, all 198 of them—and set to work making the Mangalica the icon it deserves to be their its Hungary.
Twenty-five years later, Tóth, now president of the Hungarian National Association of Mangalica Breeders, stood in front of a projection screen at Ibiza Next Door sharing his work with an American audience for the first time. Last night's four-course dinner was the United States debut of real-deal Mangalica meat raised and farmed in Hungary. Attendees, essentially, were making food history (whether they realized it or not) over the meal.
The dinner was the result of a six-year effort backed by Phillip Aronoff, a native Houstonian and the honorary consul general of Hungary, who was determined to bring the luxury meat to America—one of the last major world markets to approve its importation. Orsolya Szerdahelyi, export sales advisor for the North American market, said last night that Japan has been especially receptive to the pork.
That the Japanese should be taken with the Mangalica is no surprise. The pigs possess a great deal of intramuscular fat (i.e., marbling), on the order of Kobe beef, the Japanese luxury meat that's similarly taken the culinary world by storm. But the pig also boasts a thick layer of external lard that has made them popular in Spain, where their anatomical similarities to Iberian hogs makes them ideal for curing into ham. By the way, chances are that if you've eaten "Mangalica" before in the United States, it was either domestically grown or in the form of Spanish mangalitsa ham.
Although fat, curly-haired pigs that resemble Mangalicas appeared on Augustan-era Roman coins, the breed as we know it was created in 1833 from a combination of Hungarian breeds, Serbian Šumadija pigs and native wild boars. As Tóth put it, "When you taste the meat, you taste the meat from 200 years ago in Europe." Not long after, in 1869, salami company Pick Szeged was founded. Soon, its slaughterhouses will be the ones to supply the U.S. with its first-ever supply of Mangalica. Pick plays a role in every step of the food system that brings the pigs from farm to table, including growing the plants that will one day sustain the hogs for their two, pampered years on earth.
That feed adheres to tight laws Tóth has helped to institute, along with carefully controlled genetics. If you are eating Mangalica, it is certain that the animal never saw soy or a GMO product in its diet (the latter is banned in Hungary anyway), and that it spent its life dining on a combination of grains, vitamins and perhaps most importantly, sunflower seeds.
Like acorns to the Iberico, the seeds lend the Mangalica's meat a nutty flavor vastly different from American pork. This was immediately apparent in the first dish last night, a braised belly with Portuguese octopus presented over a saffron soubise. Each bite of the seared flesh was pleasantly unctuous, similar to fattier cuts of full-blood wagyu beef, which, like Mangalica, is low in saturated fat and high in essential fatty acids.
A leaner cut, the pig's collar, was well-marbled, but it was a reservoir of pure fat in the center that was most interesting. Tóth explained that Mangalica lard has a lower melting point than other breeds, so what looked like it might be tough and worthy of trimming was like a mouth-coating sauce unto itself.
The local chefs assembled last night (and any others who want to serve it in their homes, stores, bars or restaurants) will be able to purchase Hungarian Mangalica beginning in early December, said Aronoff, who promised: "It will be ready for Christmas!" Look for the Mangalica at at Selected Food & Beverage, a local supplier of international delicacies which also provided last night's excellent Hungarian wines.
Luckily, these are pigs that, in a way, actually want you to eat them. As Tóth put it, the only way to ensure the rare breed continues to thrive is by fueling the meat industry. "You are saving the animal by eating it," he said. Well, if we must.