The future of meat is based in cheese. Sounds weird, right? Turns out, among cheesemakers and pork farmers, the pairing is incredibly natural.
And now, Foster Sundry, opened in December by Aaron Foster—veteran of Murray’s Cheese and Brooklyn Kitchen—is taking sustainably- and ethically-raised pork to a new level by sourcing pigs from cheesemakers Jasper Hill Farm, who have begun a new whey-fed pig pork program, VT99 Meats, in collaboration with a nearby vegetable farm, Pete’s Greens of Vermont. Whey is a protein-rich liquid byproduct of the cheesemaking process. And while it is too acidic for people to digest much of, pigs can down it, and in high volumes. The pork that whey-fed pigs render, according to Foster, is clean and rich in flavor, its color much brighter, and fat much clearer, even more than standard pasture-raised pigs.
Foster is the first retailer in New York City to source whey-fed pigs, though the practice was begun centuries ago by cheesemakers in Europe. Feeding pigs whey is an efficient tool to transition liquid protein into solid protein—as bacon, ham, mortadella and the like—rather than abandoning it as an inert waste product, dumped down the drain. But the VT99 whey-fed pork program, in partnership with Pete’s Greens, is exceptionally good for the environment: The pigs’s whey-based diet is supplemented with vegetable scraps from Pete’s post-harvest fields. Pigs clean up the vegetables’s remnant scraps and re-fertilize the soil with their own waste as they furrow, till, and arrogate the ground, using their snouts to dig up things like insects. The whole process is a big, beautiful economy of self-sustaining vegetable, cheese, and meat production.
“The pigs are pastured—and we source pastured pigs anyway,” says Foster of their other supplier of pork, Arcadian Pastures—which is good, says Foster, because that means all of their pigs get to roam free, using their snouts to root for grubs and acorns, and that, in turn “activates their brains so they’re not bored and self destructive.” But VT99’s whey-fed pigs produce meat with additional vibrancy in color and taste. “Ultimately, we’re not beating around the bush, we’re eating the pigs,” says Foster. “But it’s important to me and important to the flavor and quality of the animals that they had a good life before that.”
Because Foster has been in the meat and cheesemaking world for more than a decade, he has formed more close relationships with dozens of high quality meat and cheese makers than most. “Oh, man, I’ve known Aaron for 10 years now,” says Zoe Brickley, at VT99 and Jasper Hill Farm, who just overlapped with Foster at Murray’s. Today, Brickley is helping to grow the whey-fed pig program at VT99. She moved to the Northeast Kingdom, a sub-arctic climate zone near the Canadian Border, seven years ago from New York City when Jasper Hill hired her as a sales person. “I am a big fan of Aaron Foster,” says Brickley.
At Jasper Hill, pigs were initially given to employees around Christmas time as a kind of bonus, and those pigs were already feeding on leftover whey. But one day, over beers with neighbors Pete’s Greens, the two operations realized they had the opportunity to scale the whey- and veggie-fed pork business up, if they collaborated.
“It seemed complimentary as a joint operation,” says Brickley. “We figured out a way to share responsibility and hired a manager to take care of breeding and pasturing, someone who knows what they’re doing to manage genetics and farrowing.” They also hired a second lynch pin manager, who Brickley describes as a “meat-cutting savant.” “It really allowed our companies to grow and up productivity.” And while the pigs are processed at a USDA-inspeced facility, VT99’s sausage and charcuterie are made in a large, converted farmhouse space on site. “To my knowledge, that makes us very unique,” says Brickley.
Foster Sundry has committed to two whole pigs from VT99 monthly, which comprises 20 percent of VT99’s current production. “We’re looking right now for more whole pig customers. It’s awesome to see someone use an animal in that way, those are the kinds of customers we are excited about finding,” says Brickley.
And in the meantime, in Bushwick, Foster Sundry is making the most of their whey- and pasture-fed pork. They unleashed a salivating-inducing sandwich program last week, using hams, house-made mortadella, salami and bacon from the VT99 pigs. “We’ve been blowing through bacon and ham,” says Foster. “The first day we sold 50 sandwiches, 100 on the second. It’s a great problem to have, but it’s been nuts.”
So it seems what the man is making, the people are loving. And it may be just a matter of time before others get on board. “We’re fortunate, I think we have earlier and better access to whey-fed pork,” says Foster. “But I think it will be a lot bigger in the next couple of years as cheesemakers are able to set up infrastructure to turn their whey, which is often a waste product, into something that can generate revenue in pork.”
Photos courtesy of Foster Sundry