Dale and Tina Stevens are in hog heaven -- literally.
The Stevenses own Sand Ridge Farm, a hog farm just outside Lucedale, but it isn't the typical commercial-type hog farm that comes to most people's minds when they hear the term "hog farm."
"I just love these hogs," Dale said recently while walking across a muddy field.
That might sound like an odd sentiment, but not for Dale, whose day job is being a fisheries and methods and equipment specialist with NOAA.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Sun Herald
Raising red wattle hogs, however, is his passion.
"When I was young my friends wanted to be doctors and race car drivers," he said. "All I ever wanted was to be a hog farmer."
He was in the commercial shrimp industry for many years before he moved to NOAA, but the hog farm was always his destination.
Two years ago the opportunity arrived when he was Googling "heritage hogs" and found some information on red wattles. That was all it took.
"I just like the way they looked, the red color, and the idea that they were lean and the meat was red, like beef and marbled like a good steak," Dale said. "I also like the idea that they were considered an endangered species for a while. I was intrigued."
What followed next was a nationwide search for breeding stock. Dale and his wife, Tina, traveled thousands of miles, from Texas to Kentucky and Tennessee. They ended up with a 750-pound boar hog and two gilts, or female hogs, that had not been bred.
Two years have gone by and today Sand Ridge Farm has half a hundred hogs that range freely on the large farm, and eat an all-natural diet that would be any hog's dream come true.
It is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting, for hog or man, than the rolling hills on Sand Ridge Farm, with its vibrant green, knee-deep fields of grass the Stevenses planted for the hogs to eat.
On a recent visit, the hogs had just been released to feed on the grass, and all of them had their heads down while enjoying lunch. Despite their preoccupation, when Stevens called them, "Here pee-pee!" they all came running.
"I want to sell to a small handful of fine-dining restaurants," Dale said of the business plan.
That goal is halfway accomplished. Plenty of chefs are visiting the farm, and word is spreading that the pork produced on Sand Ridge Farm is amazing.
"It is just delicious," Dale said of the marbled and red meat.
If you want to try Sand Ridge Farm pork, you will have to visit Vestige in Ocean Springs, BR Prime, Stalla or Jia at the Beau Rivage Casino and Resort, Corks & Cleaver Wine Bistro in Gulfport or Keg and Barrel in Hattiesburg.
This spring you will be able to find Dale and Tina at the Lucedale farmers market, but that is the only place to buy this pork commercially. Several other restaurants are interested and plan to visit the farm soon, Dale said.
Here is my favorite recipe for a pork roast or ham. It is simple and delicious.
SIMPLE ROAST PORK
1 pork roast, well marbled and not too lean
6-8 cloves of garlic
Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning
Pre-heat the oven to 400F. Season the pork aggressively with Tony's. If you want, add a little freshly ground black pepper as well. Slice the garlic into thin slivers. Using a boning knife or other thin-bladed knife, make cuts about 1- 1/2 inches deep, keep the knife in the cut, push the knife to one side, and insert the slices of garlic. It is hard to think of using too much garlic, but keep them about 2-3 inches apart. Place in an oven-proof pan, and roast for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 250F and roast slowly until fork-tender. Let rest 10-15 minutes, and serve hot.
Julian Brunt, who is from a family with deep Southern roots, writes Coast Cooking in Wednesday's Sun Herald and has a blog at sunherald.com.