"Give us the luxuries of life, and we will dispense with its necessaries."
–Oliver Wendell Holmes
The economy is stagnant, but our appetite for the opulent does not wane. Certainly, four or five dinners out each week may be but a fleeting memory; cross-town jaunts just for the sake of doing so may be out of the gasoline budget; the newest iPod may be a purchase held off in anticipation of winning the lottery. But, we still like to eat well, be it at home now rather than in a white tablecloth restaurant. The best ingredients are still readily available and we have an insatiable hunger for exploring each and every one of them. Really amazing bottles of unfiltered olive oil are numerous on the shelves at Claudio's in South Philly. The selection of expertly crafted artisanal cheeses has never been greater at Dean & Deluca's. The variety of heirloom tomatoes, be speckling the produce stand at the Reading Terminal market like sunlight through a stained glass window has never been so bountiful. So, there may be a few less sheckles to spend on food; that which we do spend is going for the really good stuff. Oliver Wendell Holmes was way ahead of his time when he said "Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense with its necessities." I, for one, would gladly skip a lunch or two to belly up to a piece of bluefin tuna. So, when given the opportunity to sample some of Vande Rose Farm's products arose, I made a hasty decision, giving up some of life's necessities, to bask in the glow of, almost certainly, the Rolls Royce of pig.
The family at Vande Rose brings the majestic Duroc pig to the table. The history of this particular breed goes back to the mid-nineteenth century and is prized for the breed's muscle quality and fast-growing tendencies. The good folks at Vande Rose tout the absence of antibiotics and growth stimulants. The family proudly makes evident that their animals' health and stress-free existence is penultimate in importance. I do not know about all that – I will take that at face value; I am a cook, so what I know is when I popped open the package of ham, it looked different than other varieties I have sampled. And it smelled amazing.
The muscle composition was obviously different from ‘off the shelf' varieties. The strands of pinkish, scarlet meat were plump and distinguishable, rather than an amalgam of washed-out Pepto Bismal-hued clumps. The meat was dense and hearty, obviously not water-pumped. The aroma was nothing like what I had experienced. I was not surprise that the pork master himself, Bruce Aidells, had a hand in formulating the cure for the Applewood Smoked Ham. But, the payoff is in the flavor. How do you, objectively, sample a product? On what grounds can you describe something with which we have some history of eating? So, I tapped the taste buds and olfactory systems of about twenty tasters.
Like trying a pizza place for the first time, the sample should be unadulterated; no mushrooms, no pineapple, no small dead fish. So, the ham was baked, per the Farm's directions included with the ham and allowed to rest. No glaze, no sauce and as naked as the day it was, well, packaged.
I sampled the products, including the ham and the dry-cured bacon, to a group of twenty-three high school students, as well as my own home team of one teenager, one pre-teen, one pre-pre-teen boy with a voracious appetite for anything that comes from a pig; and Lastly, my wife, who has a special connection with little, pink piggies. She grew up on a farm and her family pet, Arnold, became her family Christmas meal. So, while she is no stranger to Familial Swine Consumption Trauma Syndrome, she is coping by continuing her therapy with regular doses of expensive pork products.
Flavor is subjective. What I like, you may not. Not because my heightened sense of flavor is more acute, refined or complex than yours, but we all like different things. I liken cooking food to performing music. Both are very much open to interpretation by the cook or performer. Both can offer a product that has a connection to something in our past; something with which we can relate… or not. Both are creative expressions with varying degrees of interpretation. And, ultimately, both are, for whatever inexplicable reason, appealing to us… or not. So, I asked the tasters to sample the Artisan Ham and the bacon in whatever method they deemed appropriate; closely scrutinize its appearance, absorb the aroma, chomp it, whatever. And rather than inundate me with an avalanche of quips from their sensory perception not quite catching up to their babbling, but to only offer me one word as a descriptor. This is an old teacher trick; being forced to narrow your opinion to but one word causes the taster to actively engage the thinking process to search for just that right word; a difficult process, really. Try it the next time you dine out.
From the obvious "flavorful," "savory" and "juicy" to the remarkably apropos "pure," "amazing," "rich" and "majestic," the feedback was undeniably positive. The kitchen filled with a real smoky aroma that cannot be duplicated with cheap imitators; the nose-quality of both the bacon and ham was way, way over the top of the primeval scale of "how good was that?" The ham had a salt "bite" to it that was pleasant, in stark contrast to acrid and obtrusive with less expensive specimens. The brown sugar plays a clutch role in the flavor of the ham without being overbearing; think celebrity making a cameo, rather than stealing the spotlight. Aidells unquestionably knows how to make his mark on the pork world. This food is good eating! Equally so, this hearty bacon is the benchmark for what bacon should be. Thick-cut, gentle pepper crusting along the fatty side of the rashers, the meatiness is unlike even some of the pricier supermarket varieties. This is not bacon that you want to cut up for a Cobb salad. This is the bacon of which you want to wake early Sunday morning to eat the entire package before anybody realizes your transgression.
Post Game Wrap-up
The Vande Rose Farm Duroc products were, unquestionably, fantastic. The depth of flavor was only outdone by the quality of the products themselves. These pedigree porkers have earned hallmark status and Aidells capitalizes on the foundation of starting with exemplary food. One of the reviewers, in their forced succinctitude said it best – "deep."