The tables in the dining room of the Ancaster Old Mill have been pushed together into long rows, so that groups of eight or 10 guests may gather round to enjoy a family-style Sunday-night supper. At the head of one table stands Ancaster's executive chef, Jeff Crump, and from a large platter he is doling out portions of gorgeously unctuous Tamworth pork.
Pork's current bad press be damned - this meat is why 120 people, including Italian Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, Canadian Slow Food president Mara Jernigan, Slow Food delegates (called convivium) from across Canada and a slew of chefs and other epicures have gathered in Ancaster, Ont. On this night, this rare Canadian pig - the Tamworth - is being inducted onto the Slow Food Ark of Taste.
It may appear counterintuitive, and even be upsetting to some, but to save this pig, people must eat it. "If there's a demand for a product like this, if people value it, if they are willing to buy it, then there is a viable future for some of the farmers who are raising it and working hard to protect biodiversity," says Ms. Jernigan, a farmer and chef from Vancouver Island.
Slow Food is the gastronomical movement started by Mr. Petrini in 1986 in Italy as a reaction against fast food. Its mission is to revive age-old traditions of cooking, farming and food production that have fallen by the wayside due to homogenizing forces of industrialization. The Slow Food Ark of Taste was established in 1996 to catalogue and raise awareness about particularly rare and endangered foodstuffs. With chapters in 160 countries, Slow Food has inducted more than 800 items onto the Ark, representing 25 categories such as livestock, crops, breads, wines, fish and cheeses.
The Tamworth is the 11th item on the Canadian Ark, and the first pig. Other items include the Canadienne cow, the Chantecler chicken, the Saskatoon berry and Red Fife wheat.
Hailing originally from Staffordshire, England, Tamworths were imported to Canada in large numbers in the late 19th century. They are a fatty pig, ideal for bacon, and that hardiness made them suitable for harsh Canadian climes.
"Tams were once an extremely important breed in Canada," says Greg Oakes, the chair of Rare Breeds Canada, a non-profit organization based in Guelph, Ont., that tracks endangered domestic livestock breeds.
"Our aim is to restore numbers to the breeds. The reason is that if you maintain various types of genetics, the food supply is less vulnerable."
According to Rare Breeds, which works closely with Slow Food Canada, livestock registration archives show that from 1913 till the late 1950s Tamworth births in Canada ranged between 700 to 1,700 annually. But because the Tamworth is a forager that thrives in open pasture it fell out of favour in the 1960s, with the advent of confinement farming techniques that see pigs spend their entire lives confined to small, crowded pens. Since then, births plummeted, rarely topping 50 since 1970. Changing attitudes toward fat consumption in the late 20th century also contributed to their decline.
"In 2005, only six new Tamworth births were registered," Mr. Oakes says. "But since then, registrations have been slowly climbing." New registrations for 2008 were 69, enough to move the Tamworth off Rare Breeds' "critical" list and into their "endangered" category.
That, of course, is still a long way from safe.
Part of the problem is that the breed is simply not cost-effective for most farmers.
"You can't raise Tams and sell them through the regular pork marketing board because you'll go broke," says Fred de Martines, who along with his son Mark raises Tamworths without the use of hormones or antibiotics in a two-acre pasture on their farm near Stratford, Ont. "They are very marbled with fat, which makes them tasty, but commodity pork [sold in most grocery stores]has to be lean." Prices for such pigs - typically bred from York-Landrace sows crossed with Duroc boars - are established based on meat yield, so any fat on the animal cuts into the farmer's profits.
That's where chefs such as Mr. Crump, as well as other epicures, come in. Fine restaurants, artisanal producers and specialty shops help generate a vital market for Slow Food Ark products that sometimes face barriers to the mainstream.
"For me it is all about the taste," says Mr. Crump, who spit-roasted two of de Martines's Tamworths over apple-wood coals for six hours on Sunday. "I wouldn't serve it if it didn't pass muster."
The pork itself, which Mr. Crump served with creamy Jerusalem artichoke purée, green-garlic gravy and fresh asparagus, has an intensely rich, satisfying and tender succulence. Tasting it, one starts to wonder just how many other treasures of Canada's gastronomical heritage have been lost, or nearly lost, to industrialization.