A Pig in a Day

Apr 12, 2015 by

Back in October I was invited to the Saveur Food Festival for the Night of a Thousand Feasts to fund raise for the School of Food in Thomastown Co. Kilkenny. We got a tour of the building site (a disused boys’ primary school) which was to become the headquarters, by Francis Nesbitt. You can read about it here.

Then recently a Twitter pal Helena Fitzgerald tipped me off that there was a pig butchery course coming up by Stephen Lamb from River Cottage. I just had to go back to see the completed project and I also wanted to get some ideas for what to do with my own pork.

So yesterday I headed off south early in the morning. The day was spent running through the finer points of butchering a side of pork. What struck me is there is not a great deal to it provided you have the right equipment and the space. A side of a pig takes up a whole lot of counter top.

Stephen began the day making a statement that his two favourite ingredients were fat and salt. A brave man but he needn’t have worried, he was preaching to the converted.

It was hands on with everyone taking a turn at doing something, gently guided by Stephen. We removed the leg first. There are two sides to a pig obviously, but bet you didn’t know one is called bowed, the other flat. Stephen explained to us that the flat side is the side the pig likes to lie on and may be determined by the way it lay in the womb. When he said this I realised that I had noticed my boar always seemed to lie on his left side and his coat is always flattened and matted here.

Rodney, the resident chef in the School of Food then came in with the other leg which had been boned out and soaked in a brine solution overnight before gently simmering for hours. A participant asked him the exact cooking time. His reply “I’m a chef, I don’t measure or weigh”. I love that. A man after my own heart. You just know when something is cooked. He was then going to roast it in cider, slathered in mustard, honey and brown sugar which he was going to reduce and use as a glaze. It was going to be our lunch. Lots of mouths were already watering.

Then we isolated and gently pulled out the tenderloin or the fillet. He said newbies like myself may not notice that their butcher can easily whip this out and return your pork to you minus it. I actually have had this happen.

Gently guiding the knife to remove the tender loin
No brute force needed just a bit of a hand holding the head

Removing the head was a case of gently working the knife in between the vertebrae and having a lot of patience to get it free. He told us here and in the UK many slaughter houses remove the pig’s head and they go for dog food. He said in Italy if this happened there would be riots on the streets. The pig’s head is full of meat and can be cooked and boned out to make a delicious brawn (using River Cottage recipe). This had been done the previous day and it was also going to be for lunch. He showed us how to remove the pig’s cheek and told us how to make guanciale. A delicious specialty in Italy.

There is a lot of meat on the head

Then we boned out the shoulder to mince for sausages. We were also given an impromptu lesson by a retired and incredibly knowledgeable butcher on the course, on sweet breads and more on the general anatomy of the pig.

Removing the scapula in the shoulder

A heavy duty mincer makes light work of the load

I got a go at using the sausage stuffer

The most important ingredient in making sausages is salt. It should be added at between 1 and 1.5%. After that the other ingredients are flavourings and rusk or breadcrumbs for binding the fat. If you don’t add something to bind the fat and the flavourings it will all just run out when you cook the sausages. He gave us some good ideas for gluten free binders.

I had a go at using the sausage stuffer and trying to link the sausages.

After this we broke for lunch. Two big tables laid out with the by now glazed and sliced ham and brawn. Loads of very appetising salads and some bread rolls made by the school baker.

After lunch we were back to the mincer to make a coarse pork liver pate. We got to taste it at the end but I have to admit I’m not a fan of pork liver and this was particularly strong. I would be tempted to have a go with my own pig’s liver though as when they are fed organically, it’s not as strong.  
Mincing the liver to add to the pork and bacon for pate

The final hour was spent showing us how to cure a belly to make streaky rashers or if you leave it long enough pancetta. So easy. All it takes is patience, salt and brown sugar. No nasty nitrates or as Stephen described it (very aptly) a petrol coloured slick on your packet of bacon. Yuk. Bacon does not have a go-off date. He explained it’s only thanks to our health Gestapo that we have to use dates at all. The whole idea of curing pork is to preserve it. For months and years. Isn’t it amazing how the human race survived before all these “rules”?

Curing pork belly

Then he talked us through making a leg of your own Parma or Serrano ham. This I will definitely try and I have ear marked my wood shed to hang it in it’s muslin sack.
All in all a fantastic day out. I learned loads of little things I didn’t know and got to meet some lovely people some of whom are planning to start keeping pigs and will visit mine here. 
You have to hand it to Kilkenny. Great vision and foresight to think of turning a disused boys’ primary school into such a great facility.
Go and visit.

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  1. I heard whispers about a smoking and curing class in September. Tempting.

  2. I am so envious! Sounds like a great day. Definitely a course I'd like to do in the next year or so. Thanks for the review.

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