TEN years ago when we first secured the purchase on our ‘dream home’ and the prospect of moving to the countryside became a reality, I went to bed with a cookbook. No flicking through Country Living magazine with glossy pictures of rustic kitchens and pretty china-filled dressers for me! I was straight in with the pigs trotters and brawn recipes.
Rural life meant one thing – food production, the chance to be self-sufficient. Living off the fat of the land – because at last with the purchase of this cottage in the woods we would have land. Our house at the time, a quaint but cramped weavers cottage in Yorkshire didn’t even have a garden. We grew veg in an allotment but this move was what we had been waiting for and I was itching to get going.
Fast forward a decade and the recipe for pig’s trotters is unused on the book shelf. We’ve just never got round to starting the pig project. Living off-grid has proved a bigger deal than we imagined, considerable time and money has been spent simply keeping the house running. Renovating our 200 year-old cottage to accommodate a family-of-four in moderate comfort has also proved a mammoth task. Life, work, kids it’s all got in the way.
I’d still really like to try. A pig is traditionally part of a small holding and for good reason. They will turn excess greens from the garden, windfall apples or less than perfect veg into delicious pork which you can cure in the form of bacons and hams to last the winter without taking up precious room in the freezer. Breed or buy in a few weaners in early spring, fatten then up throughout the summer with garden gluts and free range foraging and then slaughter them in late autumn.
Traditionally the prudent small holder may have collected up waste food from friends, neighbours or local restaurants to boil and feed their pigs entirely for free but following a series of food production scandals (BSE/ foot and mouth) a blanket ban on the use of pig swill was brought in across the EU. Although certain items such as bakery and dairy waste are permitted there are tight and confusing regulations on their use (items are still considered contaminated if they come under the same roof as animal by-products for example). The result is a much greater reliance on bought in pig feed which has environmental consequences, especially when you consider the scale of commercial pig farming.
Despite the fact we can no longer fatten pigs for free there are other reasons to push on with the project. Of all the animals farmed for meat pigs can suffer most terribly in the hands of large commercial farmers. They can be raised indoors on concrete or on plastic slats in their thousands with no opportunity to express natural forms of behaviour. Farrowing crates which confine a lactating sow so that she is unable to lie down or turn around are also widely used. Higher welfare products are available to the discerning consumer. Your best bet is to hunt out small scale free-range local farms or look out for ‘outdoor bred’ products in supermarkets but labelling can be unclear. When we grab a sausage roll or pick up a pork pie for a quick snack it is most likely we are eating these poor suffering pigs.
An interest in small holding has already set me on the road to finding out more about the food we eat and how it is produced. I’ve experimented making home-made sausages using game meat which would otherwise go to waste. But the best way to ensure the pork we eat comes from happy pigs is to keep your own.
Which is why when my friend and neighbour Giant John suggested going halves on half a pig from a fellow smallholder, I jumped at the chance. The practicalities and red tape of rearing your own pork are only half the story. A major learning curve, especially for a relatively inexperienced meat eater like me is how to process and preserve the meat after slaughter and this was an ideal opportunity to get some practice.
“Seven o’clock Tuesday evening, my house,” John said. “Bring some plastic bags and don’t be late,” he added, knowing my reputation for tardiness.
I wasn’t late, but rushing out of the house, did forget the plastic bags.
Arriving at his farmhouse and admitting the omission made John shake his head, but in a friendly kind of way. I tried to push thoughts of hygiene aside as he tipped the debris out of a few old animal feed sacks for me to use to carry the meat home.
Butchering the giant side of pig in the cool of the porch that evening was a very rough and ready affair. John hacked away at the carcass with a saw, naming cuts of meat and suggested uses as I wrapped them in clingfilm and dropped them into the sack, soon soggy with blood. By the time the bag was half full I had already started to forget which piece was what, not helped by the fact we glugged glasses of his home-brew as we worked.
Back home the first task the next morning was to try to identify and label everything I had. Cuts that were destined to remain as ’pork’ i.e. not cured were stuck in the freezer straight away. These included some beautiful chops sawed off the loin which proved excellent grilled and accompanied by some garden veg for a delicious quick midweek dinner.
The rest of the loin went into a wet cure, purchased online and made simply by following the instructions on the packet. Left in the fridge for a few days before frying up in the usual way, it made the most delicious bacon butties which went down a treat with the kids.
One benefit of processing your own pig is the great freedom it offers. You’re not bound by the limited choices served up by the supermarkets. Saltpetre, for example, is a preservative commercially used in the industry to ensure meat retains its appetising pink colour. There have been reports in the media linking this with cancer. Now, I’m a firm believer in everything in moderation (if you eat a healthy balanced diet surely you can be less concerned about dying of bacon induced cancer than getting knocked down crossing the road) but I was still keen to try curing without it. This recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent book Meat was ready in just five days and used only salt flavoured with herbs to create a wonderful streaky bacon.
Another huge success was marinating half a leg in a brine flavoured with spices, sugar and cider for a few days, then boiling it (which left you with a delicious stock) and then roasting it with mustard and sugar. An impressive Sunday dinner.
As part of project pig I bought a mincer and was able to use the ground meat in a whole host of recipes. Highlights included: a great game pate; Mexican style chorizo with lots of spicy cayenne pepper and paprika and a pork lasagne which has quickly become a family favourite.
Top of the hocks (sorry, couldn’t resist that) has got to be the traditional raised pork pie produced using a hot water crust pastry and three different cuts of meat (shoulder, belly and the salt pork I made earlier).
The liquid stock, which you pour into a hole in the warm pie, was made from bones, skin and a trotter thrown in to ensure it would turn to jelly once cooled.
The whole process from pig to pie was incredibly time consuming, although I suspect you would get quicker the more you made – but what really made this worth the effort was the rare chance to practice nose to tail eating. Traditional recipes like these were designed to ensure nothing went to waste. After all that work it was a relief the pie turned out so well – not least because Giant John and I had a small wager on who could produce the best pork pie with our share of the half pig.
John’s homemade pork pie was equally impressive and gathered round his table, laden with pie, thick cut chips and all the trimmings we agreed the competition to be a draw – and there were smiles all round.
All of the photographs in this blog are my own (which may account for the variable quality at times!) However, in this instance, as I didn’t get a chance to take a picture before the pig in question went to slaughter, the main image for this post is from Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash
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