As I write, sitting warm and snug by the fire in the study, a tremendous gale is lashing South Devon. When the dogs and I set off for the farmyard in drizzle and semi-darkness this morning, the sky was slate grey and the air damp and misty. It never really got light all day. Now as evening falls, a huge storm rages on the hills above; the wind is so strong dogs and I could barely struggle against it as we climbed the vertiginous slopes of Steep Field into the wind swept top fields to check the flock. Rain swept sideways in a great curtain across the hills driven by the south westerly gale. Dartmoor was swallowed in cloud and the river below me barely visible. Old ewes, driven by the ancient instinct of their moorland forbears, sheltered in the hedge safe from the onslaught. Down the hill to the farmyard again the wind threatened to make our descent air born. Dogs raced ahead, the wind in their tales. We fed donkeys and pigs, collected eggs and shut chickens up for the night. Soggily we squelched home through the driving rain as the light faded. What a contrast to this time last year when all was still, silent, white and frozen.
Autumn glowed gentle and golden right into November this year. Sunny days outnumbered rainy one. Roses flowered into December and the nights were frost free until last week. I threw myself into the garden joyfully replanning and replanting for next summer.
But my main job for the last three months has been Number One Farmer! I have made the transition from Farmer’s Wife and Farming Assistant to being The One, not, of course, the boss, you understand, but the One Who Does The farming! Paul, at last, has had the long awaited complete knee replacement. He went into hospital in October shortly after our Japan Adventure. It all went wonderfully well but as he makes a steady excellent recovery animals must be cared for and farming jobs done so I must step “into the breach/up to the plate” etc.
It has been such a wonderful autumn for everything including apples and yet, with so much extra to do, cider and apple juice was simply beyond me. What else to do with all these lovely apples, I pondered as I walked up to the yard every morning? Piggies, of course!
In all the eighteen years of Mondays that Stephen has been working with us, we’ve said to each other year after year, one of these days we‘ll get some pigs. Then suddenly this autumn we made a plan. Paul, with time on his hands, studied the Internet, made phone calls, found weaners and did research. Stephen and I drove across the county to fetch the little chaps, three Berkshires and three Middle Whites.
We bought them from Ian Todd; a champion breeder near Honiton who not only sold them to us but also gave us a thorough piggy tutorial. I can speak pretty fluent “sheep”, in fact we’ve just won second prize for our Whiteface Dartmoor breeding ewes at the Flock Competition this autumn against the really professional “big boys” on the Moor; no mean feat! But my pig knowledge is on a steep learning curve. Thankfully Stephen has a little more experience.
Last week I visited champion pig breeder, Sue Fildes, on her farm near here. She also shows winners and bought her first Berkshires form Ian Todd too. Little did he know all those years ago that she would be bitten by the piggy bug and become his competitor at Shows! Her pigs, like his, are superb, living out on the hill in a piggy paradise.
It was so good to talk to her and she, like him, was so generous with her huge knowledge and expertise. I came away feeling that we were definitely on the right track with our boys.
I have been amused at the reaction of friends and neighbours at my new venture. I can hear them thinking “at your age” although too polite to say. And then the question “And what will you do with them?” inevitably follows that first unspoken thought!
“Well, eat them of course” I reply. A horrified “Eat them!” follows if they are not of the farming or foodie fraternity or, worse still and a real faux pas on my part, vegetarians! “My, they’ll taste good!” say the others
I smile to myself and think of Fergus Henderson’s wonderful book “ Nose to Tail Eating” (Bloomsbury 1999) I was even lucky enough to meet him briefly when he was in the Cookery Theatre where I was helping at the Dartmouth Food Festival in October this year. www.dartmouthfoodfestival.com/blog
James Brown, Gina Carter and Pig Breeder Lesley Goodman with Fergus Henderson at Dartmouth Food festival 2011
I’m dreaming of curing and salting , of hams and brawn, terrines and big roasts. How heartless am I, I hear you ask. But no. I have a much more serious ulterior motive. Yes I do want to cook and eat good quality pork and yes, I am fed up with the nasty stuff imported into this country masquerading as the real thing. Here we have legislation for the humane treatment of pigs. In Britain it is illegal to use sow stalls, sometimes known as gestation crates which prevent the pregnant sow from any movement. The majority of sows live outside in this country and have access to straw bedding and freedom of movement. It is also illegal to castrate young males, a practice widely used abroad without aesthetic.
These are but two examples of better animal husbandry in the UK which, in turn, inevitably makes our pork more expensive. So many supermarkets are importing vast quantities of cheap pork raised in countries without humane animal welfare legislation where pigs are bred and raised in appalling conditions . This has of course led to a reduction in UK pig farming.
If you want to learn more go to www.pigworld.co.uk/ or www.wspa.org.uk and if that’s not enough to convince you to buy British pork then look up, if you can bear it, pig welfare on www.compassioninworldfarming.co.uk . And if British pork is more expensive, why not eat less meat and eat better. Support British farmers and high animal welfare standards.
So my first weaners will have a short but happy life. They will be well cared for and well fed. Stephen and I enjoy them hugely and with the help of other pig farmers, our excellent local abattoir and butcher we, and our friends, will enjoy some really good old fashioned pork in the New Year.
In the meantime I am still reading up on all that curing and salting, sausages, hams! Watch this space…..
Slow Roast Pork
Ideally, if you have time, stuff a boned shoulder of pork with apples and celery, onion and breadcrumbs, sage and lemon, all bound together with soft butter and a beaten egg; salt and pepper of course.
But if you’re in a hurry, on the way to work or taking the children to school, leave out the stuffing or cook it later separately. Score the pork skin with a sharp knife and rub in plenty of oil and salt. You can do this the evening before and leave it in the fridge overnight. In the morning shove it into a hot oven as you grab a coffee, read e mails and make the pack lunches. But do remember to turn the oven down after 30 minutes to a low temperature ; 140 C/ Gas mark 1. Pour over a glass of cider and a little water and leave it alone for 4 or 5 hours. The bottom oven of a range is ideal here.
About an hour before supper turn up the oven to crisp the crackling on the pork. Cook the apple and celery stuffing separately in a dish beside the pork. Keep an eye on the meat while you peel, cook and mash potatoes. Sauté cabbage, carrots or leeks to go with the meat. Take the pork out of the oven and allow to rest. This is essential to allow the juices to soak back into the meat. Meanwhile finish the vegetables and make gravy in the roasting dish deglazing the residue with the vegetable water or a little stock, if you have it, and thickening with a little slaked corn flour. Taste it and add salt and pepper too.
To serve cut the crackling from the meat and break into crisp pieces. Tear the meat into shreds and serve with stuffing , gravy, mashed potatoes and vegetables. Ideal comforting food for a cold December evening with good friends.
And finally a wonderful quote, so close to my heart, from Fergus Henderson’s superb “ Nose to Tail Eating”
“Do not be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know, and misbehave. Enjoy your cooking and the food will behave: moreover it will pass your pleasure on to those who eat it”