They're furry, they're fatty, and apparently delicious.
After nearly facing extinction, the Mangalitsa pig is making a comeback in Europe and the United States thanks to the work of Michigan farmers like Wilhelm Kohl, who was among the first to import the pig to the U.S.
"They are becoming much more popular in the United States, and for that fact in Europe, simply because people have realized that a pig without any fat on it is tasteless," Kohl told MLive.com (http://bit.ly/13qfQJc ). "And factory pig production has reached a point where you have maybe less than 10 percent fat on a regular factory produced pig. So a Mangalitsa pig is like the Kobe beef of pork."
A blonde Mangalitsa carcass is roughly 60 percent fat, said Kohl, a native of Austria who runs the Pure Mangalitsa breeding operation with business partner Marc Santucci on a 51-acre farm in Williamstown Township, about 10 miles outside of Lansing.
The pair recently welcomed breeders from throughout the United States as well as Peter Toth, known as the "Godfather" of this specialty swine, for a daylong meeting capped off with a snout-to-tail dinner of Mangalitsa pork at Red Haven restaurant in Meridian Township.
"They can produce the best taste, quality ever known in pig," Toth said.
The pig, which is gaining popularity among high-end restaurants and retailers, originally was developed for the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire some 200 years ago. They dominated the European lard market until World War II. The introduction of cooking oil and modern meat production largely pushed the Mangalitsa out of the market.
The Hungarian government maintained some pig farms, but those collapsed after the fall of the communist governments, leaving just 198 Mangalitsas alive in 1991, by Toth's count.
Toth, of Hungary, took it upon himself to revive the breed. He now runs the largest Mangalitsa breeding operation in the world. His native country is home to more than 16,500 sows that produce some 70,000 pigs for the market each year.
Their numbers are much smaller in the United States, which has only 400 or 500. Michigan is actually one of the centers for the breeding and sales of this animal, with the other being in the New York and New Jersey area.
Kohl had about 20 on his farm last week, but several were headed to buyers in Missouri and Iowa. He also sells to local restaurants, including Tannin and Red Haven in Meridian Township.
"A lot of upscale restaurants are exactly looking for this type of meat. On top of that, the cooking in the United States has changed in a way that charcuterie, that was basically unused 10 years ago, is now making a major comeback in American cooking," said Kohl, referring to the art of curing and preparing meats and sausages.
Though it's popularly used in charcuterie, it can also be cooked. Red Haven Chef Anthony Maiale said he used everything from the brain and tongue to kidneys and liver for his snout-to-tail dinner last week.
"The taste is out of this world," said Maiale, who co-owns Red Haven with Nina Santucci, daughter of Pure Mangalitsa co-owner Marc Santucci.
Chefs pay a premium for the pork. While a regular pork loin goes for about $2.50 to $3 per pound at the grocery store, Mangalitsa pork is sold on a hanging weight for about $5 per pound. Part of that is the higher cost of production — a Mangalitsa pig takes about 15 months to bring to market, as opposed to six months at a factory farm, Kohl said.
Breeding Mangalitsas is more than a commercial activity for the farmers.
"For me the Mangalitsa, and I think for a lot of people presenting here, it's much more than a simple pig," Toth said. "It's a kind of lifestyle or symbol of living in rural areas and working in a natural way, and going back to our roots..."