After we had moved all the animals to the new farm, worked on setting everything up and settling everyone in, nothing in our lives really settled down. Not yet. That was sort of the point. Andrew had completed his last big stone working installation in the Cities, and was getting things situated on the farm. I was teaching various classes at the co-ops, an article came out in the regional co-op newsletter about my our duck egg business, I was working my day job, milking goats, making soap and cheese, and we had our first Open House at the new farm. We had a potluck together and much to celebrate! It was so exciting to share our new farm with our friends and customers, and talk about our visions for the future. We took them on that big perimeter walk we’d gone on when we first came to see it, showing them the diversity and beauty, just why we’d fallen in love with it. One of our farmer friends said “so, what are you going to DO with all this?” At my old place, I’d gotten to know every nook and cranny out of necessity, I had to utilize every inch. Now we had 20 times the space, and it felt like that 100% intimacy with the land would be lost, at least for a while. Honestly, we didn’t know yet how, or if, we’d be using all of this new land. We planned to let it most of continue as it had been. Then, the plan was, as we learned how to farm together, we could grow into utilizing the vast and various spaces. The truth was, all this land and space was rather overwhelming if you looked at it in terms of “how to make it all productive and profitable.” But that wasn’t our immediate goal. We were just grateful to have found it and to be able to call it ours.
A week after our Open House, we prepared for our first pig harvest. We had found a local butcher who offered mobile on-farm slaughter so we wuldn’t have to transport the pigs and frighten them. My hands were shaking as I made the call to set up the appointment. Roxy and Matilda had plowed and rooted up 4 big garden areas for us in their one month at the new farm, and they were over 300 lbs each. Before the butcher was busy with processing venison from the hunting season opener, we knew it was time to harvest our dear pigs.
We wanted to witness to our pigs’ end, and so did our pork customers. This was a bit tricky to organize since they all were living at least an hour away from the farm. Mike, the Butcher, said he’d call us on the morning that he’d be coming out, and luckily our customers were on board to be “on call.” He called us, we called them, and they came out right away that early afternoon. As we waited for Mike to arrive, we all nervously milled about. Each of us had a relationship with these 2 beautiful porkers. We patted and played with them, said our thank yous and our goodbyes. I could already tell that harvesting these 2 animals, with names and individual personalities, was going to be more intense than harvesting birds. These 2 had been our first introduction to The Pig, and they had been dear, joyful, gluttonous, playful, affectionate and magnificent specimens. Even if they had been naughty when they got out, Roxy and Matilda had been a pleasure to raise and have around. However, pork from happy and well loved pigs had been said to be absolutely delicious, and that was the point of us raising them.
While we waited for Mike to show up, we were all internalizing the imminent harvest of the pigs. As a distraction, after first getting set up, and then eating chocolate brownies, we spent time collecting the prunings and deadwood from some fruit trees around the farmstead. Some of us would be using this apricot, apple and cherry wood to smoke our ham and bacon. The dogs alerted us to Mike’s arrival, and the rumble of his massive truck brought the nervous feeling of sinking stomachs as he pulled in the driveway. His mobile slaughter truck resembled a semi crossed with a tow truck. We showed him where he’d be heading and then we all followed behind with our clean offal buckets.
Mike was cheerful and he smiled warmly, knowingly. He made a little small talk with us as he got out of the truck with his gun. He introduced us to his nephew who was beginning to learn the trade, and then matter of factly explained how the slaughter would happen and asked us to get one of the fence panels of the pigs’ paddock just about ready to open. He told us he’d shoot the pigs in the brain, and they’d be dead immediately, but then he needed to cut the jugular to bleed them out, before the pigs’ body started the “death throes”- the legs will kick and the body will flop around. He said it would be potentially very dangerous to be around while one is holding an extremely sharp knife, so it was important that he cut the jugular ASAP after the kill shot. He also told us that cutting the jugular is a bit tricky with a pig, because it is located deep within the fat folds of the thick and not-really-existent neck. It must be done so that the pig’s still pumping heart can push all the blood out of the body, converting the muscles to meat.
Then Mike went over to the pigs’ pen, with his 22 at his side. He commented on how nice looking the pigs were ( we felt so proud to hear this from a professional butcher), let them smell his glove, and talked soothingly to them while he took aim in the center of the first pig’s forehead and shot immediately. She was instantly dead. I think we all shed a tear or two over the intensity of what had just happened. These pigs had been such a joy to raise, they’d eaten all our surpluses and greeted us excitedly each morning and evening, raced around with glee when we played with them. They’d had a wonderful life at the expense of our time, energy and investment. Now it was their time to contribute back. An instant and peaceful and unknown end is what we all hope for. There was no fear in their hearts. We were so grateful to Mike to be able to facilitate that for our pigs.
After the killing shot, the first pig fell over, landing with a thud on her side. The second pig sensed a change, and smelled the blood. She was curious, but not frightened; pigs are opportunistic omnivores after all. Mike didn’t wait, he took aim, and she went down immediately as well. Mike handed the gun to me, as I was standing closest, and then he got in the pigs’ pen to cut the jugular veins quickly. The first sight of that crimson blood gushing forth was sort of naseauting, sort of beautiful. We asked Mike to hold a bowl by the stream of blood jetting out so that we could try making blood sausage. Blood is good for the soil, so there was no waste with what we didn’t collect. The bodies shook and thrashed for about 30 seconds as the energy and the blood left completely. We all somberly stood there for about 5 minutes, and then we opened the fence panel so he could drag the bodies out of the pen.
Mike brought out 2 long handled hooks which he and his nephew used to drag the heavy bodies over to his truck. He made a cut to expose the space between Achilles tendon and the hock bone on the back leg of the first pig. On the back of his truck, there was a miniature crane-like thing; a hoist, from which a thick steel cable with a stout hook on the end was lowered. The hook caught on the tendon opening, and with the push of finger on a button, all 350 pounds of pig rose up off the ground with it’s head at the low point.
Mike deftly began the skinning process, carefully starting around the bung, raising the pig up a bit more, then starting to skin all the way down and around. He cut off the feet, chatting with us the whole while, telling us about his family, bragging on his blue ribbon winning sausage recipe. It was mesmerizing to watch him carefully cutting between hide and fat, keeping as much of the fat on the carcass as possible. He kept commenting on how nice our pigs looked, how some “organic” pigs he comes across are so scrawny at slaughter; he could tell we fed our pigs well. Mike’s truly a master- he knew how to take us through the transition from pig to pork- by stroking our farmer egos a bit. The fat was snowy white and abundant on the pig’s carcass, with a gill like texture showing sharp blade marks where he worked the skin off from the top to the bottom. As this part of the process was finished, the skin was laid off the pig, but still attached to the head. He removed the head and we set the skin aside to scrape the fat off later. There was much salvageable fat to scrape off of the inside of the skin, no matter how carefully he’d cut it from the carcass.
Using the hydraulic hoist and gravity, Mike’s gutting process was deceptively simple looking, and before we knew it, the entire package of guts had spilled out. While there was a definite odor, it didn’t smell bad because everything stayed intact with Mike’s careful knife work. We asked him to grab the liver and the heart, and had him drop the intestines and other offal into a large bucket for cleaning out. We knew that the stomach, small and large intestines could all be used in all sorts of ways, like chittlins in the south, haggis in Scotland, sausage casings, even primitive storage vessels. We asked him to skin the heads so that we could take off the jowls for curing and make headcheese with the rest. The bones and skull from our organically fed pigs would have loads of nutrient dense nourishment to offer as they were slowly simmered into a rich bone broth. Pork bones don’t have a strong flavor so the broth would be very versatile.
With his hoist, Mike lifted the skinned and gutted carcass into a large tub in the bed of his truck and then proceeded to repeat the process with the second pig. It was incredible to watch this man work, admire his deftness and skill, and listen to his stories, but he didn’t coddle us too much. His time was precious and he gets paid by the job, not by the hour. It was reassuring enough that when he came to harvest these 2 pigs, he was patient, kind, and still professional. No hilly billy “yahoo” when he fired the gun, or crude, dismissive talk about our darling pigs. He didn’t mind that we had our customers with us to witness the slaughter, and he was very open about everything he was doing.
Mike took the pigs back to his locker to hang and cool for a couple days. Raw pork is not aged like sides of beef, but it does take a couple days and very cold temperatures to cool thoroughly. The ham is extremely thick and takes the longest to cool completely to the core. He told us that we needed the pork to be thoroughly cold before butchering, otherwise it will be a greasy, slippery and more perishable meaty mess to try to cut up and package cleanly. To be in compliance with the law, a licensed butcher needed to butcher the halves of pork for our customers, unless they wanted to do it themselves.
After Mike left, we set about using the rest of the day and our frazzled energy to utilize all the piggy bits left behind. Andrew went into the house to make the blood sausage, and we had fat to scrape, trotters to skin, innards to sort through and clean out. Each pig hide weighed around 60 lbs, so it took two of us to haul the hides over to our improvised tables, where we spread them out fat side up and start scraping with sharp paring knives, gathering as much of the beautiful fatty bits as we could. The 8 of us took turns between doing this and cleaning out the intestines for sausage casings. To make natural hog casings, we had to clean the intestines out with a hose, then turn them inside out also using the pressure of the hose, and then, using knitting needles held like chopsticks, we threaded the inside-out intestines carefully through, which sort of scraped off the gummy intestinal lining. We repeated the threading through over and over, pinching the two knitting needles together tighter to carefully scrape off more and more of the lining each time. What was left was translucent and thinner than a shoelace, but when you ran a hose into it, you had a water filled sausage shape. It was gross but absolutely fascinating. It was such delicate work which made us wonder how on earth they made “natural” sausage casings on an industrial scale.
Andrew came back out when the blood sausage was in the oven. He’d made a Spanish version with rice, raisins, and sherry. He brought out the camp stove and a cast iron pan so we could all have our first taste of the fresh pork, as we’d found some meaty chunks attached to the hide when we scraped the fat. I hadn’t had pork in over 14 years and I couldn’t wait to see how our precious pigs tasted, even if these were just random meaty morsels. The pan was heated, and the chunks were rolled around in the pan, sizzling and browning. It smelled soooooo good, and I was impatient. I drove the points of my fork into a little browned cube and carefully nipped off the outer bits. Sweet, juicy, tender….I was not disappointed! All 8 of us had a sampling of the little chunks of delicious pork, we all felt the full circle of what our day had involved close into a scrumptious finale.
All the salvaged and scraped off fat scraps were divided amongst the 4 pork owning entities. We rendered ours that that night into snowy white lard in our crockpot. This was by far the easiest way to render fat into lard, as the covered, low and long heat slowly cooked and melted the fat. The difference between fat and rendered lard is that lard will keep for a long time because it has been cooked and all the raw perishable parts have been purified out. The solids are tiny bits of muscle that may have been hidden inside the fat chunks. They will rise to the surface of the fat after “deep frying” in the hot liquefied lard. We skimmed the cracklings off the top and drained them on paper towels, they were delicious and crunchy, I even found some sweet and savory crackling cookie recipes. After about 8 hours on high in the crock pot, the clear liquified lard was ladled through a mesh strainer into jars. As the jars cooled, the oil firmed into pure white lard. To prevent it from becoming rancid, we put the jars in the freezer.
We were planning to do our own butchering for our own pork, but first we had Mike cool our half pig thoroughly at his locker, as we were just not set up to chill half of a pig safely for several days. We set up our wooden butchering tabletop, which Andrew had made from 2x4s spread across two sturdy saw horses. We sharpened our knives and gathered a stack of hand towels, as well as butcher paper, sharpie markers and masking tape ready for wrapping and labeling the cuts. We picked up our chilled half on a cool day in the back of the car, laying it out on a clean tarp. Even though butchering up a pig carcass is a pretty no-fail proposition, as all that pork is going to be delicious no matter how it is cut up, it was good to follow other people’s experiences and instruction. The butchery books we had bought were consulted frequently as we made the primal cuts – front, mid and back. It was pretty difficult to locate all the various points of attachment, but we ended up with pretty familiar pieces of pork, with somewhat clean cuts. We learned the best way to approach butchery is to go slow and try to make long cuts.
All the trimmings we had after making our cuts was ground by hand and mixed with a special bratwurst recipe of herbs and spices. Then we stuffed the natural casings we’d cleaned with the brat mix. All the trouble it took to clean out those casings was definitely worth it, after frying up the bratwurst links had this irresistable “snap” as you bit into the sausage. The recipe from the Paupered Chef used this spice mixture and it was absolutely the most delicious, nostalgic flavor combination.
We home cured our ham, the hocks and the “picnic” ham, which is the lower part of the shoulder, all according to the recipe found in the River Cottage Cookbook. All and any part of the pig can be cured and smoked, or just one or the other. Charcuterie includes methods of not only curing and preserving, but transforming meat into a whole different range of eating experiences. The thousands of various methods revolve around the use of salt, and sometimes herbs, sugar, wine, and/or garlic. Salt curing is a very old and traditional method of preserving all kinds of meat, but many people are terrified of trying it on their own, for fear of potential food safety issues. We made a very strong sea salt brine, sterilized it by boiling, then cooled it down. After that, the brine was poured it into our brine-ing tub in a cool room, and we then submerged our giant ham and other assorted pork products in it. We held them down below the level of the liquid with a glass plate. The formula was something like 2 days per pound, so our 15 lb ham needed about a month to cure thoroughly. The slabs of raw pork belly were converted into “green” (unsmoked) bacon by curing it in layers with a mix of brown sugar, black pepper and sea salt for about 10 days. Each day I’d take them out and give them a good rub down to make sure the mix was penetrating the fat and muscle evenly. After 10 days, I wiped off the extra salt mix and kept the green bacon slabs in the fridge to wait for the ham to finish it’s curing so we could do the smoking all at once. We also removed the picnic ham from the brine at this point and decided to roast it up. It made fantastic pulled pork!
During the ham’s month long curing process, we had to move the heavy brine tub several times to cooler or warmer areas to keep it in the 30-40 degree temperature range. The uninsulated sun porch worked well, unless it was sunny and as long as it didn’t get too far below freezing temps at night.
Finally the day came to remove the ham from the brine and smoke it. There was no way to find out if the salt had penetrated the ham thoroughly without cutting into it and cooking some of it, so we decided to assume it was good to go and get the smoking process completed. Andrew made an ingenious cold smoker set-up out of a grill, some metal ducts and a metal can which held the fire. We cold smoked the ham and green bacon for 12 hours with oak and the fruit wood we had gathered. The smoke was directed up and away from the fire, through the duct work, into the covered grill where the cured meat sat. This way the meat was not being cooked by hot smoke, just smoked as a way of furthering preservation, as well as adding incredible flavor. As we had our first tastes of our first charcuterie experiments, we tasted that we had definitely over-did it on the amount of salt, the length of curing time and the length of smoking time. We were erring on the side of caution. Since we were not using curing and smoking as the sole methods of preservation- they went into the freezer afterwards- we now know that we don’t have to cure as long or as salty, or smoke as long. 12 hours of smoking made our bacon way too smokey, so we ate it in very small portions, very thinly sliced. We’d prefer to smoke it about half as long.