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Pitt Cue and its mangalitza pigs

Pitt Cue: the home of the Mangalitza pig

by Tom Shingler 16 January 2018

Tom Shingler talks to Pitt Cue’s head chef Jacob Rosen about some very hairy pigs, the benefits of modern seam butchery and how the restaurant’s specials board puts every part of the animal in the spotlight.

Start out as a street food truck, gain a following and some good reviews, then finally evolve into a permanent, bricks-and-mortar restaurant – it’s a journey that many of London’s new restaurateurs and chefs have been on. Pitt Cue was one of the first, initially opening a small restaurant in Soho before moving into a big, shiny site in the City complete with its own brewery. But while it made its name serving fantastic barbecue, there isn’t a sauce-soaked pulled pork bun in sight. Pitt Cue serves barbecue with a distinctly grown-up, sophisticated vibe; it’s a shrine to the very finest rare-breed meat, where every part of the animal is treated like the finest fillet steak. But while founder Tom Adams and head chef Jacob Rosen see all animals as equal, it appears one pig in particular is more equal than others – the Mangalitza.

With their curly, coiffed fleeces, Mangalitzas are more like plump, personable sheep than pigs. Originally from Hungary, they were all but extinct in the 1990s, but thanks to a small group of dedicated farmers they were brought back from the brink. Large-scale farmers just weren’t interested in them – they produce much less meat than other commercial breeds like the Duroc, so they fell out of favour pretty quickly. In the past few years, however, that’s all changed; Mangalitzas are back on the menu, and it seems people can’t get enough of it.

‘Mangalitzas are such idiosyncratic, friendly pigs – they love a face rub – but they’ve never really been appreciated commercially because they have all these characteristics you wouldn’t want if producing pork on a large scale,’ says Jacob, who works closely with Pitt Cue’s co-founder Tom. ‘They have a very high fat content, produce smaller litters and need more care than other breeds. Their loins – the most expensive part of the pig – are also very small, and they can’t be slaughtered as young as other pigs because you need to wait for them to develop their intramuscular fat. I think most commercial pigs are slaughtered when they’re nine or ten months old, but we wait at least a year and a half with our Mangalitzas.’

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Pitt Cue has grown from a barbecue food truck into a glossy restaurant – complete with on-site brewery – in the City of London
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It specialises in meat smoked or cooked over fire and champions the curly-haired Mangalitza pig above all else

When Jacob says ‘our’ Mangalitzas, he really does mean that – the pigs come from Tom's farming friend Charlie Hart in Cornwall, and Tom has started rearing the breed himself at his own Coombeshead Farm. Once the pigs are slaughtered they’re brought to Pitt Cue as whole carcasses, where Jacob and his team of chefs go to work butchering the animal ready to be cooked. But why go to such trouble for a pig that produces such little meat compared to other breeds?

‘The fat of a Mangalitza is wonderful to eat and nowadays we value all parts of the animal, instead of just prime cuts like the loin,’ explains Jacob. ‘The breed has become so popular in the past five years – chefs like Thomas Keller in the US championed them, and over here Tom was one of the first in the UK to really appreciate them. He knows how important fat is in cooking, and it’s only recently that it’s no longer demonised. I think that’s what probably attracted him to Mangalitzas in particular – their incredible fat.’

Most home cooks know that fat equals flavour, and the Mangalitza has it in spades – after all, it was originally reared for lard. But that doesn’t mean diners at Pitt Cue are chomping down on wobbly chunks of pure fat. ‘The rib-eye and shoulder chop are really lovely cuts because you have all the little bits of fat interspersed throughout the meat which break down when you grill them, resulting in a really soft and juicy texture,’ says Jacob. ‘I also love the jowl on a Mangalitza – it’s so much bigger and fattier than a commercial breed. We turn the cheeks into guanciale and it’s incredibly good.’

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Head chef Jacob Rosen mans the huge grill that takes centre stage in the restaurant, grilling and smoking to perfection
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The Mangalitza pigs are sent as whole carcasses to Pitt Cue from Tom's farm in Cornwall, which means Jacob also needs to know his way around a butcher's knife

Getting the whole pig sent into the restaurant means Jacob has to play the role of butcher as well as chef. But while traditional butchers in the UK focus on creating uniform cuts that can be sold en masse, the team at Pitt Cue utilise modern seam butchery, which cuts along the natural divisions between muscles. ‘Modern seam butchery is really interesting, and it feels like the most natural, logical method as it allows you to take one single muscle or part of the animal and show it off,’ says Jacob. ‘I think it’s more common on the continent than in the UK, as places like Spain and France have such a strong curing culture and seam butchery fits in with that perfectly.’

While Pitt Cue serves other meats and gets in the occasional Tamworth pig, the Mangalitza is always given pride of place. Working with one specific breed so often means Jacob knows it inside-out, something he skilfully proved as he showed me how he breaks down the animal into different cuts. ‘Obviously the muscle structure of a Mangalitza is the same as all other pigs, but there are a few little differences. They tend to have a few less ribs than other pigs, and the belly is a slightly different shape because they have arched backs. The biggest difference is the sheer amount of fat the animal has, so that pretty much dictates the way we structure our menu.’

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Tom and Jacob love Mangalitzas more than any other breed of pig thanks to their high fat content, which bastes and flavours the meat as it cooks
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There are only a limited number of pork cuts on offer every day, in a bid to use the whole animal and make the most of its creamy, pearlescent fat

That brings us on to one of Pitt Cue’s most interesting aspects – the way its precious pork is cooked and sold. While there is a traditional menu, featuring dishes such as smoked beef feather blade or cured and smoked pork jowl, the majority of the cuts Jacob produces from the Mangalitza go up on the specials board. This is because the animal is butchered in-house instead of the kitchen team buying in lots of pre-butchered cuts. One pig can only produce a certain number of shoulder chops, loin steaks or ribs, so there are a very limited number of servings for each.

‘The specials board is how we can get whole pigs in and sell everything we get from it,’ explains Jacob. ‘It doesn’t matter if you only have three pieces of a specific cut – you just put it up as a special and once it’s gone, it’s gone. The restaurant industry used to be a lot more regimented; you had a menu and that was that. You needed 100 chops all exactly the same and weren’t bothered about the rest of the animal. Here, we can put everything up on the board and make the most of every bit of the pig. It’s a great way to work, but the logistics can be a bit mad at times – there’s always someone running around with chalk crossing things out!’

While that might mean a table sitting down for a late dinner might miss out on a precious piece of pork, it makes Pitt Cue a much more sustainable restaurant. Before each service the chefs tot up all the different cuts they have and they’re displayed on the chalkboard until they’re sold. Any trimmings or leftover fat is reserved for making sausages and pâtés. There might only be one serving of a specific cut available that day, so it pays to book an early table if you want the pick of the bunch. ‘It’s a much more natural way of eating which applies to all food. More and more restaurants are using things like carrot tops as well as the carrot, but the majority still end up in the bin. What we grow or rear should dictate what we eat, not the other way around – everyone wanting one particular dish or ingredient makes things unsustainable.’

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Almost all the cooking at Pitt Cue is done on the huge grill, which is heated with sustainable English oak
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Sides and accompaniments are kept simple – often a little sauce or something acidic is all the meat needs

It’s clear that Tom has created a farm-to-table supply chain that celebrates an underappreciated rare-breed pig, which can only be a good thing. But that’s only one part of the story – after all, it would be a shame if that precious pork wasn’t given the same care and attention when it’s cooked. Luckily, Pitt Cue is all about cooking over fire, which is one of the best ways to unlock the innate flavours of properly reared pork. And their grill is a sight to behold.

‘Our grill is the centrepiece of the restaurant and we cook pretty much everything on it. The wheels allow us to raise and lower the grills above the heat, which gives us a lot of control over the speed of which things cook. Cooking the same piece of meat for five minutes over a high heat or half an hour over a low heat produces very different results, especially when it comes to rendering fat, and we’re always experimenting. The wood we use is all sustainable oak from The London Log Company, too – it has a really nice neutral smoke flavour and burns at a consistent temperature.

‘In general our cooking is very simple – we’ll serve our smoked meats with something quite acidic to cut through the fat,’ adds Jacob. ‘We do a lot of fermentation, so there’s always some kimchi or sauerkraut, and we make a lot of fruit ketchups. We might pair a loin chop with a fermented celeriac remoulade and a sauce made from bones and smoked dripping. The role of a chef has changed in recent years – we’re more concerned about sourcing good produce and doing as little to it as possible. All the flavour comes from the time and effort spent rearing the pigs and ageing the meat properly – when it hits the grill or goes into the smoker the work is already done.’

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Mangalitza really is a cut above all other pork – think of it as a top-quality dry-aged piece of beef
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Speciality cuts such as the Denver steak aren't usually seen in butchers, as you only get one or two cuts from the average pig

While I’m sure I couldn’t cook a piece of Mangalitza pork as well as Jacob or his team, I understand what he means. Pitt Cue is about much more than barbecue – it’s a celebration of good farming techniques, of rare-breeds at risk of extinction and of eating what’s available rather than whatever we want. But there’s no denying that none of this would work if Mangalitza pork didn’t taste good. Thankfully, it’s one of the most succulent, flavourful pieces of meat out there, more akin to a good steak than what we normally think of as pork. It’s certainly worth seeking out – and I can’t think of any better place to try it than still smoking from the grill alongside a frosty glass of beer at Pitt Cue.

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