THE WHOLE HOG AT NANCARROW FARM
NB This article includes photos and descriptions of butchery.
Last autumn I took on the challenge of keeping pigs for the first time. It was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I brought home five rare breed Cornish black piglets from the Geach family’s farm near Padstow. As a first-timer there were new skills and daily routines to learn – from clearing and preparing their enclosure; providing shelter and water; feeding twice a day through the dark, wet winter months; and dealing with the occasional escapee.
Ultimately it was a hugely satisfying experience to see the process through from endearing piglets at ten weeks old to sending them off for slaughter at just over six months. Despite my best efforts I was sad to see them go, but happy that they had lived a stress-free and happy life. Their life was one of high welfare standards: living outdoors, slow-growing, a good diet, and with space to root and explore means the resulting quality of the pork is second to none.
A few weeks later, I was invited by Nancarrow Farm to join the first course to be held in their new butchery and workshop space. A former garage has been converted to include a walk-in cold store, butchery kitchen and two versatile spaces which can be used as classrooms or dining rooms.
Steve Lamb, River Cottage’s resident expert on smoking and curing meat, led the course. Also taking part on the day was Ross Geach, who provided one of his pigs for the workshop – from the same litter as ours. Ross runs Padstow Kitchen Garden, supplying veg to lots of restaurants in the area, and started keeping pigs to eat up the waste vegetables.
As well as the smoking and curing element of the course, there was a significant part of butchery involved. Working with a halved pig the first job was to break down the carcass into more manageable joints. Starting with the head, this was removed with a combination of meat saw and boning knife.
It then fell to me to halve the head – one part going off to chef Jack Bristow to be hot smoked over the embers in the wood-fired kitchen; with the other Steve showed us how to remove the cheek, which was then put in a dry cure mixture of salt, juniper and other spices to make guanciale – similar to pancetta.
With the group taking turns to break down the carcass, the next job was to remove the tenderloin – sent off to Jack’s kitchen to be hot smoked. Then it was on to the belly, which when boned becomes the most incredible form of streaky bacon: pancetta. Dry cured in the same method as the guanciale, pancetta can last for months and months. To prove the point Jack appeared with some fried rashers of pancetta that had been dry cured 18 months earlier.
Next was a demonstration from Steve on how to prepare a loin joint for roasting – the key here is to separate the skin and fat from the meat, then tie it back together. This method means it’s possible to get both crispy skin and crackling, and meat which is cooked through but not over-done and dried out. It also gives the opportunity to add flavour or seasoning between the layers.
Jack returned to show us how to butcher the middle section of the pig for chops. He then took these off to prepare for our lunch – we watched, sipping on an apple brandy aperitif as he cooked over the wood-fired grill.
Served in the old mill around a big table with king cabbage and garlicky borlotti beans, the chops were the star of the show: subtly smoky, salty and full of flavour. Wrapped up with an amazing rhubarb bakewell tart for pudding – wonderful.
Full of energy for the afternoon we took turns to bone and dice the shoulders to make chorizo-flavoured sausages which would be served at the evening’s feast. Making sausages inevitably turns even the most high-minded folk into sniggering schoolchildren. The hour’s entertainment was only topped by trying out some of the produce, fried up by Jack again: top quality pork seasoned with sweet and smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic and red wine.
The final part of the day looked at the legs – Steve’s recipe for a cider brine is the first stage of producing a gammon joint. After several days curing and taking on the flavours, the gammon is boiled for a few hours, then roasted, and can be served warm or left to cool, at which point it becomes ham. The ham made using the brine is quite unlike anything shop-bought, the apple flavours from the brine add a sweetness and depth of flavour that wonderfully enhances the meat.
With the other leg, Steve showed us how to prepare a whole leg for air drying in the style of prosciutto or jamon Iberico. He assured us that this process can be achieved in the UK – our cool and humid conditions are just what’s required, and starting the process in autumn with the initial dry curing over winter is ideal. Just wait twelve months and it’s ready to go.
Steve Lamb’s excellent book, Curing & Smoking, is part of the River Cottage Handbook series. Available here.
Disclaimer: Jim was a guest of Nancarrow Farm. Find out more details of the courses on offer on Nancarrow’s website: www.nancarrowfarm.co.uk.
Photography: All photos by Jim Michell, apart from the one of Jim sawing the pig’s head in half, which was taken by Adam Sargent.