November 2012


These are long days.

After dropping the kids off for school, feeding the animals, doing the washing up, prepping the machine, doing some chores in town, and probably some other stuff, I started slicing the bacon that’s been hanging over the bath.

I borrowed a domestic bacon slicer from a friend for a couple of years, but eventually bought one of our own (add that to the cost of the solar fence, scales, knives etc, when pricing up pig keeping). It heats up after about 15 minutes, which means finding some washing-up to do while it cools down again (which isn’t hard). Or taking a bag full of ham, bacon and sausages round to a friend’s freezer to create space in ours (timing worked out perfectly and I squeezed in a trip to the local dump). Apart from that, I’ve barely set foot outside the kitchen. Eventually, I had to call it a day and put a large mixing bowl full of bacon bits (for cutting into lardons) back in the fridge. Another half day and I think the bacon will be done. Just in time for sausages.

This wasn’t a hard day – just a long one. Now, 20 kg of sausages on a hand-cranked machine – that’s hard. And long. If I have the energy I might even take a photo.

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One of the things you have to remember at this stage is to switch the freezer packs in the brine every morning and evening, to keep the temperature down. That’s the theory anyway. In practice, we allow a certain degree of flexibility (unless you still count lunchtime as morning).

You also have to remember to take the pieces out of the brine when they’ve had the right amount of time, (measured in 12 hours per kilo, but we’re allowing a little longer for the ham). The two smallest pieces have had their hanging-over-the-bath time and are now in the fridge waiting for slicing, one slightly larger piece is hanging over the bath right now, and two more pieces will join it for the night. (The heating’s off and no one will be bathing until the gap between hanging bacon and hanging sausages. Don’t feel sorry for us. Our sausages – and bacon – are amazing.)

In other news, Her Outdoors helped me move the largest bits of the Goose Ark (ex-Pig Ark) into the orchard where I reassembled it this morning. To persuade him to join us on the land, we let Boy have the camera (kids his age don’t go to school on Wednesdays). I like how this shot works:

Today, I had a bonfire to dispose of the bits of pig we don’t eat (essentially, the head – minus cheeks – trotters, guts, fat and skin). We’ve tried eating some of these in the past, but felt the energy (gas) involved in the preparation wasn’t worth it, and so we return those bits to the ground instead. A circle of life thing, if you like.

While I was up there, I took down the pig fence and dismantled the pig house, which will now be home for the geese in the orchard. Obviously, you can leave these to be taken down at some point in the future, but for some reason this turns into a chore that can be resisted. Today I made a point of enjoying the whole process, in a vaguely Californian way – if you’re not enjoying something, you probably shouldn’t be doing it – everything is a choice – etc.

We still have pâté to make this evening (actually, this is Her Outdoors’ department), but there’s a gap here before ham and bacon time.

UPDATE

Remembered to take the two smallest bits of back bacon out of the brine, rinse them off and hang them in a bag over the bath (Pig Weeks always involve a certain amount of inconvenience in the bathing department – wait until you see the sausages in a few days). I forgot to mention the pâté recipe is from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s first “Escape to River Cottage” recipe book. Very hard to go wrong with Hugh. Messy business, making pâté.

If you might be offended by the idea of cutting up a pig, stop reading now. (The headline’s a bit of a clue, here.)

I have no idea if anyone will find any of this useful – or even find it at all. But I’m committed to blogging our last Pig Week and today was a very big part of that.

As always, the carcass was split down the middle and left overnight in the tractor shed to cool. But because he was a big animal (and I’d lost my helper), the pig man cut through the bone on the two sides, which meant I could finish the cut with a knife, and transport the pig in four parts, on my own, in a wheelbarrow. Here are the quantities of meat I took from the four parts:

Front half 1:

Ribs (into freezer)

1.5 kg lean back filet for bacon (into brine)

2.5 kg of streaky (into brine)

Lower front leg into the curry pot

8.5 kg for sausage (into fridge)

(One thing to note: I find the front part of a pig far more time consuming than the back. This is the first time I’ve butchered the front part first and it does make for an easier back end of the day.)

Front half 2:

Ribs (kept for tomorrow)

1.5 kg lean back bacon (into brine)

4 kg streaky (into brine)

Lower front leg for curry

10 kg for sausages (into fridge)

Back part 1:

4.5 kg ham (into brine)

5.25 kg side for bacon (into brine)

Back part 2:

2 kg joint (into freezer)

4.5 kg side for bacon (into brine)

Boned out leg for prosciutto (into dry cure)

One thing we started doing a few pigs ago is putting the meat with lots of tendons into a long, slow-cooked curry pot. It was taking far too long to strip out the tendons and, if put to sausages, was jamming up the machine (which is very annoying – it’s a hand-turned machine).

A few other cuts, like the filet mignons, kidneys and pork steaks are not on this list. Please excuse the lack of details. To describe everything I did today would take far too long, and it’s already been a long day.

Remember that window of opportunity I mentioned before? It closed a bit. The weather warmed up unexpectedly and a friend I assumed (terrible things, assumptions) would be able to help the day after killing the pig can’t make it. So it’s down to me and Her Outdoors – which is Entirely Appropriate as it could be our last ever pig.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The day before you kill your pig, you want to get your brine ready. We use a very clean plastic dustbin. Into this, we pour the brine roughly according to this recipe (which is roughly based on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s with a bit of a John Seymour influence). I’m copying this straight out of Her Outdoors’ notes:

12 litres water

3.5 kg salt

1 kg brown sugar

2 big dollops treacle

2 beers (Guiness this time)

bag of spices (bay leaf, nutmeg, cloves, black peppercorns, juniper)

Bring to boil (and boil for 10 mins), leave to cool with spice bag in

If the weather’s with you, it should cool in time. It’s still a little warm at the moment, but I went ahead with killing the pig today, and I’ll use freezer blocks to bring the temperature down tomorrow. The brine should be (from memory) under 5C. It should drop to 7C tonight but it’s still warmer than I would like, ideally.

Unwary vegetarians look away now: The pig was killed with a shot to the head, immediately bled, and de-haired using scalding water and an old piece of scythe blade. We had to improvise a table using a ladder on blocks, and he was gutted and left overnight to cool. The pig man agreed he’s about 150 kg, which means tomorrow is going to be full and tiring.

Excuse, in advance, the lack of wit in the posts for this week. It takes time to be witty, and that is something that will be in short supply.

For various reasons, some of which I’ve already touched on, we’re taking a (possibly permanent) break from pig keeping. To give you the benefit of our experience over the last five years (and to remind me what I’ve learnt for future reference), I’ve decided to blog our final Pig Week in some detail.

If you are a vegetarian, you might want to unfollow for a couple of weeks.

One of the most troubling parts of rearing pigs for food, for me, especially early on, has been deciding when it’s time for them to leave for the Great Sty in the Sky. Actually being the one responsible for ending a life throws up many emotional and spiritual issues. Fortunately, weather, availability of helpers and other factors, provides a very small window of opportunity. That window has just opened.

Tradition has it that you should only process a pig (my term for killing and butchering) in a month with an “r” in it. Thanks largely to human activity since the industrial revolution, September and October were far too warm this year. Earlier this month, I took advantage of a cold evening to say goodbye to our second-to-last pig – and I’ve just booked someone to come and help me with the final pig. I won’t tell you exactly when. Just that it is soon.

The pig in question is about 18 months old (as compared to factory line pigs that are killed at about six months, I understand) and has spent his life in our woods. He probably weighs around 150kg (I’ve read some UK abattoirs are refusing to process pigs heavier than 100kg) and his size alone will present me with a number of challenges. He has cost about €10 a week while he’s lived here but cost very little to begin with. In all, we’ve probably spent about €800 on the pig and are looking forward to many months of “free” meat.

Our plans are to use one leg for prosciutto, one for a ham stored hung in the air, streaky and back bacon (smoked and unsmoked), sausages, chorizo, salami, some joints and curry. I’ll explain all the details as we go.

I saw something online yesterday about a farm offering courses on a “Pig in a Day”. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also offers courses like this. We’re going to demonstrate how long the process actually takes (in reality, well over a week) to provide some balance. As you’ll see from earlier posts, we’re not novices. This will be the 12th pig who has lived on the smallholding. I have personally killed one and butchered nine and a half of those.

If you’re still with me, I hope you will find the following posts helpful, educational and, above all, respectful.

We’re in full Winter mode at the moment. Which means, for me, strimming bits of the vallée to get it ready for re-growth in the Spring (I like to let our wild orchids die down before cutting paths through the meadow), moving horse manure to a holding area for rotting down, cutting pre-dried wood it to keep the shed full, and working my way through a very long list of admin and fixing jobs. Plus a huge job (not the huge job I’ve already mentioned) that I’ll blog about almost immediately – and then a lot for several days.

Her Outdoors, meanwhile, has spent loads of time in the studio and is now appearing at Christmas markets locally. If you’re new to the blog, she’s an award-winning textile artist by trade who does couturier work for money. Last year she created a line of Christmas tree decorations, which she’s added to this year before opening her first Etsy shop – the kooky caravan.

Here’s a sneak preview of what to expect when you click through…

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