Becca and I drove up to Suffolk just for the evening last week, to attend the butchering of our friend Claire’s two pigs. They were her first pigs, reared and raised at the bottom of her garden, a space they shared with one cat, a dozen hens and a cockerel called Kevin. The pigs, Bert and Ernie, were well, but not over sentimentally loved, very well fed, and lived what appeared to be very happy lives, in pig terms. I couldn’t claim they died happy, but I can pretty confidently state that they lived happily up until the point they were, as humanely as possible, dispatched.
Whether or not they died happy, they undoubtedly died fat, which in this case, I suspect, amounts to much the same thing, fattened as they were in the last few weeks of their lives, at least, by this autumn’s bumper crop of acorns. Acorns and just a little bit of procrastination on Claire’s part, as she put off committing, or at least commissioning the fell deed. Acorns, procrastination and then finally a snuffle, which one of them – Bert, or Ernie, I’m not sure which – succumbed to shortly before the originally scheduled date, buying them both a stay of execution of about a month, while the administered antibiotics cleared their systems.
Eventually, though, their time had to come, which it did on the Monday of last week. On Thursday, Becca and I joined Claire after hours at her village butcher’s to witness the final part of Bert and Ernie’s journey from pigs to meat. From porkers to pork.
I had hoped, I must admit, that there might have been the chance to do more than witness it, that the chance might arise to participate more actively, and I had optimistically sharpened my knives and brought them along. As it turned out, when Claire had said that the butcher was going to show us how to butcher a pig, it meant he was going to let us watch what he did, rather than give a hands on lesson in butchery. Which is fair enough. He was doing this as a favour, and there was quite enough for the butcher and his lad to be getting on with as it was, without standing over a couple of cack handed amateurs, trying to impart the basics of his trade, and then, no doubt having to salvage the results of their hackery and convert it into serviceable joints of meat.
So we stood to the side and tried to keep out of the way as we watched and admired the skill and speed with which he applied the tools of his trade – of which there were just four: hacksaw; big knife with a ten or twelve inch, curved, slightly spatula shaped blade; small knife with a narrow, tapering six inch blade; big heavy cleaver – to the four vast sides of beheaded and halved pig that hung in his cold store. A cold store, incidentally, that smelt headily mouth watering from the herbs in the great cascading bunches of sausage strings hung from ceiling hooks.
When Becca and I arrived the first of these sides had been jointed and most of it set aside in a second cold store (alongside a whole wall lined floor to ceiling with hanging game birds – pheasant, partridge and mallard), destined for curing and smoking, before coming back to Claire in the form of bacon and gammon. A large plastic palette tray was already more than half full of meaty off cuts intended for sausages and a giant steel pan under the table was similarly filled with trimmed bones, fat and skin. Both of these would be filled to overflowing well before the end of the process. It’s possible that Claire in her understandable keenness not to waste a scrap of her cherished first pigs will end up with more pork stock than she will ever need. She will also end up with a lot of sausages, but I don’t think it’ll add up to more sausages than she’ll ever need. I’m not sure such a thing exists. And that is in no way intended as a personal slight on Claire…
These pigs were big. A measure of how big is that one of the shoulders was cut into a joint that I’d heard of, but don’t recall ever having seen in the flesh, called a hand of pork. Now Matthew Fort, if you click on that link, says nothing about how many his recipe will feed – which normally means a standard 4, as is the stated case for this one – but he does mention that he picked up his hand for 3.99 from his local farmer’s market, and even though he was pointing out what a bargain it was, I think he’d have made rather more of that point had it been capable of feeding 8. Which Claire’s – or rather Bert or Ernie’s – will do, conservatively. Probably 10. Hungry people. He also talks about slow roasting it, at a low temperature in two and a half to three hours. That’s simply not going to do it for Claire’s hand - that baby’s an all-dayer, if ever I saw one, and that was certainly the butcher’s recommendation. I sincerely want to be there when Claire takes the hand out of the freezer, but I have a feeling that it might just be saved for her family Christmas.
There was scarcely a joint cut from Bert or Ernie that would feed less than six, and the meat came wrapped in a thick blanket of fat, inches thick in places. The butcher indeed clearly felt that Claire had allowed them to get too big, and much too fat, which from his point of view you could see might be a problem – both as the man who had to manhandle the carcasses, and who would, in other circumstances have to try and sell the meat to a fat-phobic public. You can see his point. Claire, and Becca and I, on the other hand, just looked at that deep layer of snow white fat, and the marbling that ran through some of the joints like a sirloin in a way you simply never see with pork, and thought flavour. And luscious, succulent flesh that would be more or less impossible to dry out, even if you committed the cardinal sin of overcooking. What the butcher saw as a flaw, we saw as a rare prize. And the very thing that marked this meat out as special. You really wouldn’t be able to buy pork like this in the shops, it seems, not even from the very best butchers. The one thing that concerned Claire was that she’d let Bert and Ernie get too old - 10 months by the time they went to slaughter, rather than the standard 6 - because, as their names suggest, they were male pigs, and as male pigs reach maturity their hormones can make them quite unpleasant. Which is the case with the males of many species, you might observe, but specifically in the case of pigs it can lead to something called ‘boar taint’ spoiling the flavour of their meat. There was, however, not the merest whiff of male pig pheromone in either Bert or Ernie’s meat. They may have been big, fat boars, but they were nice boars - and, like the real Bert and Ernie, there was not the slightest hint of inappropriate sexuality about them...
In little more than an hour, three plastic palettes were stuffed to overflowing with every cut and joint of pork imaginable. And there are many. One of the things that most struck me was how many choices there were to be made at every stage of the process. We’re all familiar with the broad distinctions between the cuts – shoulder, loin, belly, ribs, chops – but not necessarily in the proliferation of different ways those cuts can be shaped and subdivided. I think Claire got at least one example of pretty much every option, but it’s impossible to be sure.
What I can be sure of, because I’ve tasted some of it, is how good each of those many cuts is going to taste, and I’ll cover that, at least some of it, in my next post. Of course the thing that you, or your friend, has raised for food by your/their own hand, be it fruit, vegetable or animal, tastes better than anything bought in a shop. And of course at least part of that may be psychological, not that that would make it any less real, even if that were all it was, particularly if part of the psychology in play was the knowledge that the animals that had died to provide your meat had lived happy lives. But psychology aside, the flavour, succulence and tenderness of the meat we got from Bert and Ernie is real, and stands as an example of something significant. It goes to show, as if we needed showing, that the best meat is obtained from animals that have led good lives, and suffered, in relative terms, a good death.
Now obviously not everyone can raise their own pigs down the end of their gardens. And not every pig can lead as comfy, and cosseted a life as Bert and Ernie did. But if more of the pigs that more people ate led lives that were closer to Bert and Ernie’s than they were to a Danish factory porker, then the world would be, in a small but significant way, a better place. For pigs and the people who eat them.