In Tuscany, they call it salsiccia cruda. In Germany, it's known as mett. In most of Canada, however, it hovers somewhere between "too gross to contemplate" and "borderline illegal." That hasn't stopped a handful of chefs from venturing where few Canadian diners have dared to tread before: raw pork.
"Raw pork is some of the sweetest-tasting meat I've ever had," said one Toronto chef who asked not to be identified for fear of tipping off the city's public-health inspectors. At his Italian restaurant, he sources his pork directly from a traditional small-scale farm (at $4.50 a pound, more than double what most restaurants pay for pork) and puts it on his menu as salsiccia cruda – literally, raw sausage. Ground in-house on the same day the pig arrives at the restaurant, the meat is seasoned with salt, pepper, fennel, coriander and chili and served on crostini with olive oil.
He is careful to point out that he would never make the traditional Italian delicacy from ground supermarket meat – "in North America, unless you have a farmer, you don't know where your pigs are coming from" – and that his pork is fresh out of the slaughterhouse. By and large, customers are more intrigued than put off when they see the rare delicacy on the menu. "Horse on the menu causes much more of a problem then raw pork," he says.
In Quebec, restaurateurs aren't quite as circumspect when it comes to raw pork (food handling regulations differ from province to province). At Maison Publique, the Montreal British-style pub co-owned by star chef Jamie Oliver, you can order a simple pork tartare that is served with lemon juice, wild garlic and oil pressed from camellia seeds.
Chef de cuisine Phillip Viens said the dish is a little milder than a traditional beef version, with a much creamier texture. "If you like tartare, unless you're [put off by the fact] that it's pork, it's impossible not to like it," Viens said. Like the Toronto chef, he emphasizes that his pork comes from a trusted supplier, adding that the kitchen grinds the meat right before service and keeps it on ice to stave off contamination.
Despite this cheffy enthusiasm, most Canadian diners have grown up wary of eating pork that is even a little pink, let alone raw. Part of that reticence is due to Trichinella, the pesky parasitic roundworm responsible for trichinosis, whose symptoms include nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, and which can occasionally require admission to hospital. The parasite used to be distressingly common in the muscle tissue of North American pigs and in the humans who ate them; a series of autopsies in the 1940s and 1950s put the Canadian infestation rate at about 5.6 per cent. Better farming practices have changed all that: Until this July, when a Bruce County, Ont., boy contracted the disease at a non-commercial farm, the country's last reported case of trichinosis from pork was in 1980.
However, in their book Modernist Cuisine, authors Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet point out, in a compelling rant on outdated food-safety practices, that cultural standards lag behind scientific reality, dooming generation after generation to overcooked chops. "In cases such as those of pork and chicken, misleading the public about a rarely occurring scenario (while ignoring other, larger risks) arguably offers little protection and comes at the cost of millions of unnecessarily awful meals."
Michael Gaenzle, a food microbiologist at the University of Alberta, confirmed that Trichinella is now essentially absent from commercial pork, and that harmful bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter occur in less than 5 per cent of pigs. "If the meat is clean, and it is handled properly in the grinding and serving, the risk is low – but it is not absent," Gaenzle said. "If enough people eat raw pork, then pork containing salmonella or campylobacter will get consumed eventually."
That small risk didn't scare off the guests at a Jan. 30 dinner party in Toronto's Room 203, a private event space and test kitchen run by chef Guy Rawlings. As part of a 17-course tasting menu, he served a thin slice of raw pork loin topped with fermented radish and dried scallop. The idea first came to him, Rawlings said in an e-mail, when he was cleaning off a pork loin. "Once the fat came off and it was cut into a smaller size, it looked a lot like a loin of albacore tuna, which made me think of sashimi." On a trip to Berlin the next summer, he encountered open-faced mett sandwiches, which "sparked the idea some more."
And how did the guests react to a translucent mass of raw pig flesh on their plates? "A few were hesitant at first," Rawlings admitted, adding that his guests know that they're going to have to put some trust in the chef when they come to his events.
Of course, it wasn't so long ago that steak tartare was anathema to Canadian palates. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before raw pork joins raw beef as a staple at every new bistro that opens on Toronto's Roncesvalles Avenue or Vancouver's Main Street. As Maison Publique's Viens pointed out, "They eat raw chicken in Japan, right?"