We had a field, I worked from home… I was brought up by parents who’d pretty much done it all before. So after almost two decades of raising a family I’d come to the decision that there was no reason ‘not’ to raise our own pigs. In fact there was much in favour to get on with it.
It had taken a lot to get me to this point… most of it driven by an inner sense of guilt that’s perhaps familiar to a lot of carnivores: If I’m happy enough to keep on cooking meat for my family, then surely I should at least make every possible effort to ensure that the animal who provided for us actually had a decent life, was treated with respect and kindness, and at the end of their journey, had a swift and humane death. As more and more stories came to light of the plight of farm animals destined for the table, I found myself moving from Sainsburys’ cheapest, vacuumed packed deals to those marked with the feel-good tags of ‘free-range’, ‘happy’ and ‘free-to-roam’’. And yes it felt better, for sure. But something was missing, and I still felt a gnawing sense that I wasn’t exactly being honest with myself... in most marketing efforts the process from ‘field to fork’ is still decidedly myopic on the details. I felt that regardless of where each of us may sit on the spectrum (committed carnivore to one of ignorant convenience) if we were going to continue to eat meat then we as a family should get involved, take some responsibility for the process and in so doing hopefully make more educated choices about whether we wanted to continue to eat meat..
We took delivery of two young male pigs on 30th March. We’d filled an ark with sweet smelling straw and a metal ‘sombrero’ feeder with pig nuts. Once lifted in, they skittered excitedly around their wired enclosure on the edge of our field, two small chubby black fellows, with huge ears curtaining beady, beetle-bright eyes; immediately our middle child (Ellie) climbed in, knelt down and began gently calling to these two nervous little bundles. To be honest, we were all smitten. We’d made solemn promises to not name them, but Ellie went right ahead and christened them Harrison and Oswald. (For me they were clearly Little and Large, but I kept that very quiet.)
Within two days Little and Large had escaped and led us on an unplanned half marathon through 7 acres of neighbouring woodland. They had a blast. We laughed, hollered, herded and eventually tempted them back to their square of field, acutely aware of the neighbours finding out. We’d not cleared it with them as yet, which was perhaps daft, but I was hopeful that if any ‘issues’ arose then the promise of a string of sausages might go some way to smooth any concerns.
By the end of the first week, they’d learnt that a rattle of stones in a metal jug meant food was on its way and so every morning and evening they’d be waiting heads tilted back to watch my approach, noses twitching in anticipation. I’d pour their food into the Mexican hat and they’d climb in with a show of boundless enthusiasm.
By week six they could only fit their front feet in the Mexican hat, and were consuming almost twice the amount of pignuts, left over kale, sprouting broccoli from the veg plot, and all the fruit and veg waste from the house that would’ve normally been the rich pickings for our chickens. The chickens would occasionally slip beneath the wire to investigate, while the dogs watched from a safe distance.
Visitors would coo and marvel at these beautiful boys, leaning over the fencing to tickle chins and pat flanks, and we would of course lose our badly walled up sense of resolve and join in. In truth all of us (usually individually and when others were elsewhere) would head over for a little chat, a tummy rub, a scratch behind the ears. They were undeniably characters, and at times very very charming ones at that. During the hot summer days we took to pressing a thumb over the end of hosepipe and spraying them down with a cool flow of water, which they seemed to love, dancing around, nodding their heads and jostling for a closer spot to the source of joy. We made huge puddles in the ground for them to wallow in, and moved them every 2 weeks to give them fresh foraging and rootling opportunities. And as those weeks sped by, there’s no doubt that we all grew very fond of them.
Endeavouring to remain as unattached as possible, I put my head down and focussed on the next chapter which was looming ever closer, that of slaughter and butchering. The alternative word that’s the current favourite is ‘dispatch’. But that would suggest a simple clinical procedure that is over in a blink with no emotional involvement or indeed responsibility... something easy to contemplate, easy to forget.
In truth this was the bit that had plagued us all, particularly Ellie, who I noticed had taken a step back from being quite so involved with them. They were far more boisterous and less inclined to wait for food, charging with great enthusiasm at anybody holding the bowl of veg bed rejects. With 70 kg galloping at you it was true that (for visitors in particular) they’d lost their perceived cuteness. To me however they were still our boys and I was driven to ensure that this final chapter should be made as stress-free as possible for them.
Through several days of research and many many phone calls, I found a woman who ran a small and local abattoir that dealt with a very low number of cows and pigs. There was no queuing, no hanging about for the animals. She prided herself on her treatment of each animal, ensuring they were dealt with swiftly and effectively. We spoke at length, talked about the procedure and I grew certain that this was the best solution. Sadly, killing them here, with neighbours on either side wasn’t an option. The boys would have to travel.
The sun rose and then smartly hid on the day our boys were collected. A jolly pair of pot bellied farmer brothers turned up, shirts tucked, braces pulling at Big Top trousers. They chatted with Little and Large, patting their bottoms and scratching behind their ears. We all drank big mugs of tea, while the pigs enjoyed welcoming drafts of cider and, in their own time, slowly made their way up a ramp and into the back of the trailer I’d filled with fresh straw.
And then they were gone. We all looked at one another, checking for the tell-tale signs of upset. All three of our children had been drilled on this, months before, but here we all stood suddenly pig-less. And of course there’s nothing quite so sobering as an empty field, with an empty pig ark. The knowledge that we’d sent them off to be slaughtered rested like a large cold stone in each of our bellies.
How did it feel? It felt crap. Truly crap. But this is what we’d signed up for.
Head down once more, organising online movement papers, slaughter papers and the delivery to my local butcher, Graham, who’d very kindly agreed to hold my hand and guide me through the butchering of our boys.
Turning up at his place two days later, I’d prepared myself to see two black bodies – one little one large- hanging in his cool room. But instead I saw four pink halves, wholly unrecognisable except for their ear tags. This startling vision was just enough to enable me to take a step back emotionally; the deafening self chatter quietened, and I took my first deep breath in 3 days.
And so the next chapter of the journey unfolded.
At this point I could go into the extraordinarily art form that is butchering but that would suggest that I knew what I was doing. The artist here was undoubtedly Graham. I just fumbled along in the clear and certain knowledge that without him standing there to watch my efforts, I would’ve ended up with a truly strange array of abstract cuts! He was brilliant, patient . And with endless encouragement and good humour from him, I managed to prepare one of the pigs while he (in half the time, that included a lunch break) took charge of the other.
A year has passed, and we all (even Ellie) have enjoyed the pork.
But without a doubt this journey has left an indelible impression on us.
We all still enjoy meat, but we buy and eat a lot. It’s become more of a ‘treat’ than a regular feature during the week. It’s changed the way we think about the whole meat industry. It’s made me a deeply suspicious shopper: HOW can meat be ‘that’ cheap and yet guarantee that the living animal had a good life, a life that was fulfilling, stress free and safe.
During this last year I’ve made every part of our pigs count. Nothing has been taken for granted, every meal is eaten with genuine reverence, and we always raise a glass to our boys in the true knowledge that they unwittingly made the ultimate sacrifice.
I’ve wrangled the comical art of sausage making, I’ve cured salamis and bacon, slow cooked shoulders, marvelled at the cheeks (who knew?!) and am air drying a leg that has just a couple of months to go. Our freezer is considerably emptier now, with just a few cuts left. But I’ve managed to save a couple of loins for perhaps one of my most favourite recipes that I’ve adapted from a video I found, created by Jamie Oliver. Ridiculously easy, yet deeply satisfying and umami-rich!
Balsamic Loin of Pork with the Best Crackling
It’s difficult to gauge size as I tend to reach into the freezer and grab at whatever’s near the surface. But the couple of sirloin joints I have left are around the 2kg mark. This feeds my family of five very generously.
All of my joints still have the bone in, and for this recipe you need to remove it, so although taking it out is a relatively easy job (and very satisfying) you can always ask your butcher to do this for you if it’s not already been deboned.
Choose a joint with the skin on. We’ve just had an American couple to stay and she was bemoaning the fact that they’re unable to buy any pork joints with the skin still on, which is a bit sad…. Perhaps they consider crackling an unhealthy and unnecessary indulgence!
With a sharp knife, carefully remove the skin in one piece, leaving about half an inch of fat still on the joint. Score the skin with long deep strikes and then set aside.
With the same knife, scored the joint in a crisscross of shallow strikes.
Grab a generous handful of herbs… Jamie uses rosemary and thyme, beautiful robust flavours, but I also like marjoram, oregano and sage as they work well with the toffee sweetness of the balsamic gravy.
Chop finely and rub this mix into the skin on both sides and the joint, both sides; you can use a little olive oil here to help it stick.
Place the skin in a hot, non-stick pan, fat side down and with a pair of tongs gently press it down into the pan just to lightly brown. Remove it from the pan and place to one side.
Pop the joint in the pan skin side down and brown it off quickly, then using tongs turn it over and do the same on the other side. Turn the joint back over and turn the heat down to medium. Over about 10 minutes slowly work up a lovely caramelised outer all over and then pour half a bottle of balsamic vinegar over the joint and into the pan. Jamie suggests 250ml… I’ve actually upped that to about around 350ml. This will ultimately be your gravy…
Turn the joint over a couple times to ensure the balsamic has completely smotherd the outside, and then lift it into a roasting, and pour over the juices from the pan.
With the side of a knife blade, lightly crush skin-on garlic cloves.. about a dozen or more. We love garlic, and as the balsamic and herbs combine to make a very rich flavour the gravy can handle more garlic if you prefer… I tend to edge towards a generous handful of around 20 cloves.
Drop them into the roasting tin, all around the joint and then place the roasting tin on the lower rungs of a preheated oven (temp 180oC or 350oF).
Place a rack directly above the joint and pop the skin on this. The fat will drip down onto the loin that’s bathing in balsamic below, and the result is a very moist joint, and a very crackly crackling. It should take about an hour. Keep an eye on the joint and the crackling, turning them occasionally to ensure they’re evenly cooked. Watch the crackling to avoid it burning.
Once cooked, remove both from the oven. While the meat is left to rest, pop the crackling on a chopping board and with a large sharp knife press down on the crackling to break it up into generous pieces.
Once the meat is rested remove it from the pan of juices and place on a warm plate.
Pour the juices into a jug and let the fat float to the top. If you’ve a gravy separating jug then this makes it a whole lot easier. I don’t so a steady hand and a bit of patience will do just fine. Allow the fat to cool, and pop it in the fridge… Sunday breakfasts are much enhanced with pork fat fried bread!
Take the remaining balsamic gravy and pour it through a sieve and into a jug, crushing the garlic cloves in the sieve so you don’t lose any of their flavour.
You can leave this, as is… it’s a delicious gravy in its own right, or pop it back in the roasting pan, and back on the heat. Once bubbling add a small glass of white wine, stir through a teaspoon of grainy mustard and add a crack of black pepper and flaked salt. Stir while bubbling for a couple of minutes, then taste and season further if required. Pour this into a warm jug.
I tend to slice the meat up and place it on a wooden chopping board, alongside the crackling, and place it on the table for the family to help themselves… the jug of gravy to the side.
We’ve young potatoes pushing through at the moment, so these are great to boil, and serve up with the meat, perfect little gravy sponges.
With the veg plot in full swing a favourite is steamed and skinned broad beans stirred through butter-wilted kale.