Cochon Heritage Fire

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Chef John Fink at Heritage Fire. Photo by Laiko Bahrs
Chef John Fink at Heritage Fire. Photo: Laiko Bahrs

  • Juicy Loins, Tender Rumps
  • Bacon, the Gateway Meat
  • Needs Salt
  • Smells Good in Here
  • Ms. Delicious
  • Pigs are Magic

And let's not forget my very favorite bit of meat geekery, Bacon Gives Me a Lardon.

What is it about studly-butcher culture that loves a pun? (The fondness for bacon needs no explanation.) Whatever it is about long days spent with a knife and cleaver, or all-nighters tending the smoky maw of the barbecue pit, the t-shirt slogans that result are always worth wearing. Especially if you've stained it, proudly, with the ducky goodness dripping off something as mind-bendingly awesome as a handmade duck hot dog piled high with duck confit, chicharrones, diced duck egg and duck foie gras.

Sausages from Smoakville. Photo by Laiko Bahrs
Sausages from Smoakville. Photo: Laiko Bahrs

But even if, like me, you arrived just a little too late to snatch up one of those already legendary duck dogs, there was plenty of meat for the munching on offer at last Saturday's Cochon Heritage Fire in St. Helena. Cochon 555, the parent organization, is known for its celebrity chef spectacles celebrating the pig across the country ("cochon" is French for "pig"). But once a year, in Napa, the all-pig menu is diversified to celebrate heritage breeds of beef, lamb, goat, and poultry, many of which are staked whole and slow-cooked outdoors over a wood fire.


Perhaps the setting--the shady emerald lawn, complete with fountain, fairy lights and gazebo, of the very posh Charles Krug winery--inspired a little more decorum in this year's organizers and chefs. Participants couldn't really wander from roasting goat to spitted feet-dangling chickens as they could at last year's slightly more rustic event (then called Primal Napa). Whole beasts were definitely being cooked, but their funkier bits weren’t so much in evidence. No pumpkins filled with pork liver, no skewers of heart, no smoky lamb jawbones (tongues included) for Neanderthal gnawing. The offerings were a little more restaurant-refined, the gluttony a little less greasy. The butchering demos, by Dave the Butcher (Marina Meats, the pork happy hour at Fatted Calf) and Joshua Applestone (Fleisher’s), were held upstairs at the tasting room, not with the meaty carcasses strung up on a rock-star stage in the middle of the feast.

Whole animals cooking at Heritage Fire. Photo by Laiko Bahrs.
Whole animals cooking at Heritage Fire. Photo: Laiko Bahrs

That said, the meats on offer were absolutely delicious. What did I love best, the pink, tender slices of lamb cupped in Boston lettuce leaves with fresh mint and pickled red onion, or the succulent Indian-spiced lamb masala patties? The crackling skin sliced off the enormous chanterelle-stuffed porchetta, as good as any I’ve had at farmers' markets in Italy? The moist chunks of fennel-rubbed rabbit? John Fink of the Whole Beast's treyf special, roasted tandoori-spiced goat with goat yogurt? The snappy, ruddy Italian sausages from Smoakville BBQ in Napa? The long, slow chew of Woodlands Pork's country Mountain Ham, made from forest-reared, terroir-expressing pigs rooting through the hollers of West Virginia? According to Woodlands' Irish-born president and ham obsessive Nicholas Heckett, this is no dainty appetizer ham. Said Heckett, "I like it after dinner, with whiskey and a fine cigar." The finish is so long, and the taste so concentrated and intense, he explains, that it would knock out any less robust entrée to follow. Like the famous French chef Joel Robuchon, who frequently included a plate of utterly unadorned jamon iberico as part of his tasting menus, Heckett staunchly believes that high-quality ham needs no adornments. (Then again, Robuchon, sad man, has probably never had a warm Southern-made buttermilk biscuit, split and stuffed with slivers of country ham and a dab of homemade peach chutney.)

Rabbit menu from Heritage Fire. Photo by Laiko Bahrs
Rabbit menu from Heritage Fire. Photo: Laiko Bahrs

We end up, as one does at these events, lying under the trees, drinking wine out of GoVino’s reusable plastic cups (picture a Riedel stemless wine glass, reimagined for picnicking), conjuring up the outrageousness of meats past. "Remember those bacon eclairs?" says one friend, dreamily. They were thumb-sized, she said, filled with something bacon-fatty, with a crunchy slice of bacon on top, where the chocolate glaze would otherwise go. Another friend toyed with recipe ideas for the twine-wrapped package of lamb liver that he’d begged off the crew doing the lamb butchering demonstration, using a whole lamb from local Stemple Creek. (The various cuts of meat from each demo were raffled off at the end of the evening.)

This being a chef event, the eating and drinking had to continue at an after-party held down the street at Farmstead. And naturally, there had to be a fire, in this case a roaring bonfire built in the sand pit out back by Heather Shouse, a red-headed, Southern-twanged food writer on hand from Chicago. Shouse, the author of Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels, is criss-crossing the country as a Cochon camp follower as she works on an upcoming Cochon cookbook. Before becoming a writer, "I worked in restaurants all my life," she said, and she has the tattoo sleeves to prove it. One chef brought out a plate of salmon he'd smoked the day before; another crew arrived bearing a deep hotel pan filled with bite-sized chunks of pork, juicy and sweet, carved off the last animal left over the coals. A bright full moon shone down. There was meat, beer, cigars, and a ring of sweaty, smoky men and women kicking back after doing what they do best: taking care of the people who love to eat.