Saturday, 10 October 2015

Bringing Home The Bacon

I've been away for a while on my annual sojourn to Shetland to hunt rare birds.  It's a bit different to The Fens up there, though the islands are windswept, full of smallholdings and there are Shetland sheep everywhere... so maybe not so different after all!

But just before I flew north, I sent a pig off to piggy heaven. If you follow this blog, you may be confused as I've not actually had any pigs on the smallholding this year.

Sue and I have found that one pig is quite enough to feed us for a year. However, pigs are intelligent, social animals and are best kept with at least one other of their own kind. So this year we were part of a pig co-op. A fellow smallholder raised three pigs, one of which was destined for our freezer. We only ever met our saddleback twice, once when it was just a nipper and then, a couple of weeks ago, to load it into our trailer and take it off to the abattoir.

We are fortunate to live just a few miles from a small abattoir who always give us an excellent service. But finding a butcher to process the carcass for us has been proving tricky. Both this abattoir and another nearby have butchers attached, but they both put your sausage meat into a big batch along with that from all the other pigs they are processing. The result is that, as far as the sausages are concerned, you might as well just buy some good quality sausages from the supermarket.

We did have an excellent arrangement with a very small butchers just a very short walk from Sue's school. They would pick up the carcass direct from the abattoir and cut it according to our wishes. They made an excellent sausage using just our pork. It was sometimes a job to persuade them to produce any more sausages for us than the standard amount produced from all the offcuts, but overall it was a very good arrangement.
However, the butcher who used to do the cutting for us has been poorly for a while and has now left. So the job has fallen to the one who makes the sausages. Unfortunately he clearly does not want to take on this job - our lambs last year came back not even labelled! His default answer to any request seemed to be "no".
And so we came up with a different plan for this year's pig. A real character we know who lives down in the central fens is also a butcher. In fact, it's the same person who transformed Daisy into sausages last year.
The third time I met my pig!
The downside is that it's quite a journey and I have to transport the carcass to him in the back of the car. The upside is that I get to help out and I really enjoy his company.
So just before I left for Shetland I took our pig along to him. It took only a couple of hours to turn half of it into chops and joints, as well as a box full of tasty sausages and a long string of boiling sausages.
The sausages are so tasty that we will not be selling any this year!
The other half of the pig was prepared for bacon and placed in a brine bath. When we started keeping pigs, we dreamed of sausages, ham, bacon and gammon. But there is an art to making these products and so far we have never really been happy with our own attempts, especially at bacon. Paul still uses traditional methods to make bacon and gammon.
It's not really a complicated process, but a skilled curer's experience can make all the difference, judging things just right between under and over curing. Paul has come up with a great way to achieve this on a small scale. After cutting half the pig into about four great lumps, these went into a cooling box which was filled with a brine mix, containing salt, a very little saltpetre, herbs, spices and sugar. A few milk cartons of frozen water help to keep the temperature down and weigh down the meat to keep it submerged.

And so I headed off to Shetland, half a pig in the freezer and half left at Paul's to cure. There is no waste either. The bones go to Boris or will be boiled up for stock, along with the skin. The flare fat from inside the carcass will be used to produce more of that wonderful leaf lard which makes such excellent pastry and lardy cake.

Sue will hate me for publishing this photo,
but the main subject is the smoked bacon
Fast forward two weeks and today we went back to Paul's to pick up the bacon. It had come out of the brine and been smoked in Paul's home-made smoker, made from a hollowed out upside-down fridge.
He showed us how to use his slicer and we set to work slicing while Paul cut up the large leg ham into more manageable gammon joints for us.
Fast forward another few hours and we've just enjoyed our first taste of the bacon, along with a few of the sausages, a couple of our own eggs and some fried mushrooms. All I can say is that we most definitely won;t be selling any of the bacon either!

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