Living in a housing estate in a big city can be pretty limiting for those of us who like the idea of growing or raising our own food. Allotments can certainly plug the gap for our fruit and veg needs, but meat is another story. It’s not just being able to enjoy quality produce that is important here; the welfare of the animal while it is alive makes a huge difference to the meat in the end. In Ireland, beef is of excellent quality at very good prices, and very good free range chickens are available in supermarkets. But it is impossible to buy outdoor-reared pork in the same way, and honestly, once you’ve tasted the difference in the meat, you’d do whatever necessary not to eat the water-pumped, force-fed pork that is all that’s available normally.
It’s been a few years now since we have gone the whole hog…pun intended! Thanks to an online butchery course Shaun found through River Cottage, he felt confident enough to have a go at cutting up a pig in our outhouse. It can take a while to find outdoor-reared pigs for sale at all; we have even travelled across the border to Armagh on a couple of occasions, as it is expensive to feed a pig in this manner. Some providers offer a whole or half pig for sale pre-butchered. It’s quite an outlay initially, around €300-400, though it’s cheaper if you do the butchery yourself. Then it’s lots of fun attempting to carry the two halves of the pig from the boot of our car through the front garden in our very busy housing estate without people calling the police thinking we’ve got a body!
One of the best thing about getting a whole pig is that you can decide based on the time of year what pieces of meat you want; for example in the springtime we might decide to have as many ribs as possible, looking forward to summer barbecues, and in autumn we might decide on more pork chops for wintery meals with mash and root veg. Leg meat can be frozen to be cured later as hams, or roasted as pork. If you’re really organised you can decide on curing hams and making bacon for rashers immediately – we buy 25kgs bags of salt from a Chinese supermarket. Then there’s the sausages…oh the sausages!
Making sausages can take a lot of time so we rarely do it the day the pig arrives, rather we freeze the meat and do it later. Then Shaun can work out his flavourings and order the skins and rusk if necessary.
This year we also made a lot of white pudding; easy to make and so much nicer than most of the puddings available in shops. We invested in this sausage-stuffing machine a few years ago and use it perhaps four to six times a year to make sausages and puddings – you make a lot at a time! The difference between puddings and sausages – apart from the size – is that the puddings are poached once stuffed, then sliced and fried to be eaten.
Left to right: Shaun stuffing white pudding; the puddings being tied off; poaching; finished product before frying.
White pudding recipes vary depending on both region and the cook. Shaun’s particular version holds a few secrets, but the general mix is pork shoulder and belly, pork fat, onion, oatmeal and lots of seasoning including pepper, coriander, nutmeg, sage, mace, all spice, ginger and nutmeg. To help bind the mix, a few eggs were added. When it’s fried it’s delicious spread on a slice of toast, or added to a can of beans for a nice warming lunch.
As a family we are still enjoying the pig we got last August. While the cost seems to be a lot when you buy all that meat up front, we have found that we use the meat sparingly and also fully. If there are leftovers from a roast pork, they get used up the next day in a Chinese stir fry, for example. We don’t live on pork until it’s all gone; rather we try to use it over a number of months and not have to find the money and time to deal with another pig until it’s convenient for us. Of course, we eat other meat too. But we rarely have pork from a supermarket or butcher’s shop as the difference in the taste and texture of the outdoor-reared meat is so great.
We have no prospect of keeping a pig in our suburban back garden, and no wish to move to a small-holding, so we hope will be able to continue to source outdoor-reared pork for the future.