At Stag we often say that the conversation that takes place across the table is as important as the meal that is on it. No more was that the case than a recent dinner that we did with Mesh for the 2013 Mesh Conference. Lisa Gansky, the principle at Mesh called together thought leaders and entrepreneurs of innovative companies both new and old, including GE, Airbnb, Etsy and Barclays to examine what the new economy landscape looks like in a world impacted by climate change, catastrophic economic conditions and technological advances like we have never seen. Stag was tasked to bring these business instigators together in a communal setting around food and drink, at Stag we believe these are the raw ingredients to authentic experiences. Chef Jordan Grosser composed a beautiful family-style feast celebrating the bounty of local farms and featuring locally foraged ingredients. With the help of St. George gin, Almanac Beer and Naked Wines the evening transformed into a festive and thought provoking occasion.
One of the guests in attendance was a man I read about in the pages of Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma. Angelo Garro was Pollan’s hunting mentor. In the book, Garro is the the man who brings Pollan to Healdsburg, California to do a proper field-to-table dinner featuring wild boar. The Omnivore’s Dilemma captivated my attention and opened up a new way of thinking about food and wine. It inspired me to follow in Garro and Pollan’s epic footsteps.
Healdsburg has always held a special place in my development. It captivated my heart in college and opened the doors of wonder to the world of winemaking. I held an informal internship with my Uncle who along with his wife ran a beautiful, self-sustaining vineyard, cave and winery up on West Dry Creek road. I’d heard that there was boar in this area so, one season I began inquiring about the whereabouts of this elusive creature. Living in San Francisco it is hard to fathom that this wilderness is so close to us. That even wild boar, known as the “king of the beasts” run through the hills of Healdsburg.
As the history goes, Russian boars were introduced into the Sonoma coast in the 1700’s by Spanish and Russian settlers. Today, the wild boar in California is a mix of the domesticated pig that has turned feral and the ancestors of the wild boar. Pigs are smart, fast and have an acute sense of smell. Pigs have such strong senses of smell they have been used to find elusive truffles buried in the earth. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUVcxa-wGcE . Their eyesight is pretty spotty but you must be mindful of your smell and the direction of wind. If you don’t have your wind in your favor you will most likely be on a heavily armed nature walk rather than a hunt.
After receiving a rifle from my dear friend Pete I knew I had to muster up the ‘testicular fortitude’ to go into the wild and follow the footsteps of Pollan’s inspirational writing.
On my first hunt I was joined by two long time friends, Ted Fleury and Bret Katsuyama, both interested in farm-to-table cuisine. Ted and Brett are both in the restaurant business at Alembic in San Francisco. Ted as head-chef and Brett behind the legendary bar. We left San Francisco very early in the morning on my birthday to try to be in the field at first light. We met our guide, TJ Birman on the side of the road at 4:30am in Healdsburg. We were in the field by 5:30 and within our first steps we spotted a “sounder” of boar also known as a pack. The pigs can be destructive in groups and had been known to rip up a farmer’s heirloom tomato patch that gave us permission to hunt. This pack had nearly 15 boar. TJ and I walked very slowly and quietly towards the pigs. With the cloak of darkness giving way to dawn every moment counted. We got about 125 yards away from the pack. I wrapped the sling of my 300 Weatherby Magnum around my wrist to assist my hold with the rifle, pulled the scope to my eye and all of the sudden lost sight of the pigs. The magnification on my scope was at 10x and it should have only been at 3x. This posed a big problem with keeping the pigs in the field of vision of my scope. My fumbling cost me the chance to take a shot and the pigs scurried down the back riverbed and out of sight.
TJ busted my balls for a bit about making such a mistake at that range but we quickly packed up and followed them down into the riverbed. By that time the morning light was starting to come through pretty steadily. We didn’t have the pack in sight anymore and took an educated guess that they continued west on the creek bed. We must have walked 400 yards and we came to a clearing and saw the entire sounder of boar running about, playing and grazing on dry wild grasses. Their sweet, funky smell rode through the Sonoma wind. My heart was beating rapidly. It was game time. I grabbed my rifle, set up my shooting stick and found the biggest sow, the exact one I’d struggled to get into my scope only a half hour before. I locked onto the moving target, took a breath, watched the pig jump out from a small ditch and squeezed the trigger.
The Weatherby packed an enormous kick but in that moment I didn’t feel or hear a thing. I watched the pig walk another 10 yards before it fell over. The other pigs scattered not knowing what happened. Ted and Brett caught up with TJ and me as we laid back and waited for the sow to finish bleeding out. We waited 5 minutes and before approaching the fallen pig. The female sow was light grey and tan with some dark spots and weighed about 160 pounds with decent size tusks. The bullet passed through across the ribcage to the sow’s armpit but there was no exit wound. The tough boar hide prevented the bullet from exiting.
We field dressed the pig and carried it back through the blazing Sonoma morning heat. The farmer was waiting and came out to greet us upon our return. He was disappointed that we only shot one but congratulated us on a successful hunt. We tied the pig to a tree and went to work on skinning off the hide. As I mentioned before, the boar skin is incredibly tough and the hide must have weighed 25 pounds at least. We placed the skinned pig into my cooler, thanked TJ, and went back to San Francisco to BBQ. It was time to butcher.
We stopped by Alembic to borrow Daniel Hyatt’s Sawzall and to say hello to our other Stag chef, Jordan Grosser. Brett picked up a much needed bottle of Saison Du Pont that we would need to have on hand for the hours of butchering we had in front of us. Thanks to Ted’s knife skills we were able to get through it quickly. The meat surprised us all, it was deep red with little fat. Ted fried up the backstraps first in butter, rosemary and salt and we opened an appropriate bottle of Pasterick Syrah that was a magical pairing with the gaminess of the rich meat.
Earlier that week, I’d sent out boneheaded pre-hunt email that invited 30 close friends to dinner to celebrate my birthday. I can’t believe it actually paid off, 5 hours later with Ted cooking up wild boar tacos! I had one of my most memorable birthdays and a transformative life experience with food. This hunt and meal changed the trajectory of my life and led me to move out of an office cubicle and into the culinary world. I haven’t been on a successful pig hunt since, which makes that experience all the more meaningful. So when Angelo Garro sat down to eat with us at the MESH dinner I couldn’t help but be overcome by the joy that only serendipity can bring.
As most conversations with hunters go, we exchanged stories about our few successes and many humbling, ‘heavily armed nature walks’. Angelo went on to describe what was currently in his freezer, some of his favorite recipes and above all the pure joy of the pursuit to be in nature and hunt wild pigs… Getting away from cellphone service, slowing down to an almost glacial place, paying attention to the dirt, to the wind and trying to blend into the natural world and into the moment is something you can not experience unless you hunt. I raised a glass and thanked Angelo. And, yes… we are trying to figure out when we can head up to the country to hunt wild pig together.