Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pigs, Pork, and Associated Perils

WARNING:  WHAT FOLLOWS IS A POST ABOUT THE RAISING OF ANIMALS AS A SOURCE OF FOOD.  IT IS INTENDED FOR AUDIENCES INTERESTED IN SUCH PURSUITS.  IT IS NOT INTENDED TO OFFEND THOSE WHO ARE NOT.  THE BEST WAY TO AVOID THIS OFFENSE IS TO SKIP TO ANOTHER POST.  THIS BLOG IS NOT A SITE FOR DEBATE.  I LIKE DEBATE.  BUT THIS IS NOT A FORUM FOR SUCH DISCUSSIONS.  CARRY ON.

Back in May we welcomed four piglets to the farm, our spring pig project had begun.  It is a five month experiment in raising our own animals, caring for them, and eventually harvesting those animals for food.  There is a lot of rationale for such an endeavor, and many benefits, but I am not here to convince you of the merits of such a thing, only to share our experience in it.  I assume if you are reading this that you have come to terms with your omnivorous nature and won't begrudge me my own.  If you have committed yourself to other ways of feeding the wondrous machine that is your body without animal proteins, then you have my admiration and well-wishes.

Our young pigs back in June, starting to grow.
Pigs are fantastic animals.  And I'm not just talking about their unparalleled superiority in the minds of the culinary world.  It has been a lot of fun to raise our four hogs up on the farm this year.  They started out at about 20-25 lbs each, cute as a button and full of fun. They were pretty skittish upon moving into their new digs in May, but it didn't take more than a week before they had warmed up to their caretakers and their new home.  The kids enjoyed coming by to see them and I liked running the length of paddock with a stampeding porcine herd in pursuit.

Taken in July sometime, I think.....showing a little more size.
Able to feed freely, they have grown rapidly.  These days they are all over the 200lb mark, our big girl is going to finish at 300lbs, I'm convinced.  At this size they are something to reckon with and the pig pasture has been a kid-free zone for some time now.  A curious sow can throw a wheelbarrow with one toss of her head (even if that wheelbarrow is loaded with manure and stacked with rake and shovel....ask me how I know) and their propensity to test things with an exploratory bite means that you don't really want to turn your attention away from them for too long lest you find your boot or your calf in their powerful jaws.  But they remain good-natured and our experience with them has been overall very positive.
Taken in early September, getting big now.
However, harvest time continues to approach.  These four pigs are being divided between six families, providing food for more than 20 people, not including friends and family.  We are going to be handling the whole process ourselves from a to z, snout to tail, slaughter to sausage.  It is a big task, one with no small amount of gravitas in it.  And so we are already starting preparations.

In the information age, there is a great deal of help out there for people interested in taking on work like this for themselves.  And, of course, such a pursuit has a niche community out there that is passionate about such things.  There are the foodies, the hunter-sorts, the homesteaders, paleo-dieters, and a whole crop of people coming to this through the agrarian renaissance.  One such voice comes from the good folks at Farmstead Meatsmith, an amazing resource located here in the Northwest.  They have published a series of beautiful (no really, you should go watch) instructional videos on their site that not only give some of the practical steps to farm butchery but also do a good job of introducing much of the rationale that drives so many of us to seek a different way of life, or perhaps I should say a different way of food.

In mid-October I will be taking part in a hands-on experience in side-butchery with the Farmstead Meatsmith folks over on Whidbey Island.  I have been tooling up for our own harvest, collecting knives and knowledge, and in general getting very excited about the culinary benefits of this process.  I can recommend several books that have helped in the planning, including Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing;  Stéphane Reynaud's Pork and Sons ( a beautifully photographed book about pig harvest and charcuterie in provincial France); and The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, by Fergus Henderson.

Harvest is going to happen sometime around the first week of November.  In the meantime the pigs are eating cull apples and pears, zuchinni and squash, and even the occasional early pumpkin.  They like extra eggs from the chickens when they can get them and nearly took my hand off the other day when I delivered a bag full of over-ripe plums and apricots.  We've liked the experience and are already making plans for next year.  More updates to come as we get to harvest time.....wait until I tell you all about salami!



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