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Urban Cowboy: When it comes to pork, Fergus goes whole hog

In this week's Urban Cowboy, Owen Roberts asks if Fergus has what it takes to be the pork capital of Ontario
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Urban Cowboy is Owen Roberts' weekly look at agriculture and food in Guelph.

Melton Mowbray, the smallest borough in England, is about the size of Fergus. Yet it’s gained more than $100 million as a result of food tourism. It’s not unusual to have a dozen buses roll into town on a market day, because it’s positioned itself as the country’s Rural Capital of Food. Key to this self-crowning manoeuvre is that the town has protected status for its Melton Mowbray pork pies.          

Smart!

So, could Fergus do something similar with Ontario pork?

Chris Jess thinks so. Jess, a chef who’s taught culinary arts at the Centre Wellington District High School for the past eight years, wants to make Fergus the pork capital of Ontario.

He might have to wrestle that distinction away from Shakespeare and its Best Little Pork Shoppe and swine seminar.

But based on what I saw at the 3rd Annual Fergus Whole Hog BBQ competition there last Sunday, Jess and Co. have what it takes to permanently put Fergus on the porcine map.

Whole hog musicLive music added a festival feel to the Whole Hog BBQ. Photo courtesy of Mark Kenny.

The whole hog competition is a fundraiser for the Wellington Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and the Food School, a project at the high school that integrates courses in growing and cooking food. The Food School’s mandate is to promote a vibrant and sustainable food system for youth and for community at large.

This year the BBQ drew eight of the best chefs and caterers from Guelph and Fergus, to each barbecue a whole Berkshire hog (donated by Craigmeadow Keig, a family farm located north of town) in whatever fashion they choose.

They then offer their fare to the event’s several hundred attendees, who circulate from station-to-station, trying as many of the very generously sized samples as they’d like, quaffing local beers, sampling Mapleton ice cream, all to a backdrop of live music curated by Elora Riverfest.

Chef Jim Loat from Guelph’s The Block camped out all night tending his superb pulled pork and confit’d pork belly, while another chef arrived on site at 2 a.m. to begin preparing his offering.

And even though the event is only three years old, it’s clearly caught on with the community – it was sold out a week before it took place.

This year, I was fortunate to be asked to be a guest judge, to work with some of the best food minds in the area, including University of Guelph food laureate and Food Day Canada founder Anita Stewart, Breadalbane Inn owner Peter Egger, and University of Guelph food procurement manager Mark Kenny (@100MileMark).

It was tough sledding for the judges.

The assortment of approaches and styles was fantastic, featuring sliders, pate, smoked pork, pork with chutney, pork with mac and cheese, pork au jus and pork on flatbread. There were barbecues, pits and even a steam train engine retrofitted to an oven by Kim MacQuarrie, who attended to demonstrate his one-of-a-kind invention.

Pig roast competitions have changed. In years gone by, it was all about how well the carcass held together on the rotisserie. Now, the emphasis is much more on taste than preparation.

In that light, it’s fascinating to hear those who know what they’re talking about discuss food and food preparation. I took the big view, trying to measure how the various elements of the presented products fit together. But most of the judging debate centred around the meat itself.  “It all comes down to how well a chef cooked that piece of pork,” says Kenny.     

Frying crackling on a Swedish torchChef Schmeler made this crackling extra special by frying it in a skillet on a Swedish torch. Photo courtesy of Anita Stewart for GuelphToday.

In the end, perennial favourite chef Brian Schmeler of Valeriote’s Market on Yorkshire St. N. in Guelph took home both the judges’ first place trophy and the people’s choice award for his creation, a spectacular rendition of a traditional porchetta with crackling flatbread.

Making porchetta is no walk in the park. As food laureate Stewart explains, porchetta requires the whole carcass to be deboned and flattened. Then it’s stuffed with a mixture of more pork, often ground from the same animal, and a huge array of pungent herbs like rosemary. There’s always lots of garlic. 

Fennel is another mainstay of porchetta. But instead, Schmeler roasted pears and added a whack of fresh basil to replace the rosemary. Again, it’s normally tightly rolled with the skin on the outside, salted well and slowly spit-roasted over a wood fire till the skin is richly coloured and the flavour-filled juices run clear.  In this case, however, it was roasted in the converted steam engine – described by Schmeler as “the best cooking gear I have ever used” when he accepted his award.

Team Valeriote Whole Hog BBQThe winning team of chef Brian Schmeler (second from left) included (from left) Larry Valeriote, Kim MacQuarrie and Stacey Kanelos. Photo by Owen Roberts for GuelphToday.

Chef Schmeler’s partner, Valeriote’s talented pastry chef Stacey Kanelos, served the flatbread, smeared with ricotta, topped with arugula and bits of crunchy crackling, a perfect accompaniment for the juicy meat.

This field of competitors would be at home in any national cook off.  

Chef Ben Sasche of The Elora Brewing Company came second in both categories with his spit-roasted, sausage-stuffed Berkshire. On the side, his team had made a jam of heritage apples from the old trees next to the farmhouse, and their own Three Fields Lager. Chef Derek Roberts of Fraberts in Fergus and chef Loat were close runners-up.

Next year’s BBQ will expand to include one more chef. It takes place Sunday, September 10.

In my calendar, the date’s already circled.

Whole hog it is.