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Tuesday, September 24, 2002
BRINGING HOME THE BACON
Writing about bacon last week has triggered off a lot of memories for me and I suspect that this offering might make one or two other mouths water as well! Apologies to the vegetarians. The starting point is the picture which shows eight rolls of bacon and eight hams hung up in the kitchen at Cyril Richardson’s farm at Little Stainton in 1976. As if that wasn’t enough, if you look carefully, there are some trays of eggs on the draining board!
In case any of you are wondering where the shoulders are, they have been rolled into the sides with the middle cut. When I ran the grocer’s shop at Sough and we ordered our bacon from Vale of Mowbray, these were always described as ‘spencers’.
I don’t suppose this could happen now, the pigs were born, raised, fed, killed and made into bacon on the farm. The surplus was sold but there was always some bacon or ham kept back to ensure a constant supply at home.
Some of the younger ones will be wondering how this can be. They all know that bacon from the supermarket goes bad if it’s not kept in the fridge and even in there, it goes off within a week once opened. I’m sorry to have to tell you that even though the supermarket calls it bacon, it is nothing like what you see hung up in this kitchen. Covered in muslin to keep the flies off and hung in a draught this bacon and ham has an almost unlimited life!
Let me take you through the process of making good bacon.
First of all you rear the right pig. These sides are from English Large Whites crossed with Landrace. This gives a long pig with medium fat thickness and grows well. Different breeds gave different bacon both in the proportion of meat to fat and the taste as well. A Tamworth is a stronger taste, a Wessex Saddleback gives a big pig but a lot of fat and so on.
Then you feed the pig on good grub: swill, barley meal and milk. You let them run free so they are scavenging in the fields and picking up herbs and whatever they can find in the soil. You let them grow far bigger than a commercial pig today. About 20 score is a good weight. (A ‘score’ is twenty pounds so this means a 400 pound pig.) The reason why commercial pigs are killed younger is that their efficiency in converting food to body weight falls off after about three or four months and they become less profitable. They also have less taste as they haven’t matured.
Once the pig has reached its weight, the travelling slaughter man calls in and the pig is stunned with a captive bolt pistol and then bled by cutting its throat. The blood is collected in a clean bucket, it will be used to make black puddings. Once bled, the pig is washed with boiling water and scraped to get the bristles off it. In Warwickshire, where I learned my farming, they did it slightly differently. Once killed and bled, the pig was laid on a bed of wheat straw and covered with more straw. This was fired and burned the bristles off. It was turned over and the other side treated the same and then it was scrubbed with boiling water.
The carcass was then hung up and split down the centre and divided up into the sides, shoulders and hams. Other parts like the spare ribs, the head and the trotters were used fresh, there was always pig meat to eat on killing day! Once the joints had set they were laid out on slabs in the cellar and salt rubbed into them. This process of rubbing salt in and turning the joints carried on for a month or six weeks until the person curing it was satisfied it was properly preserved. The only other chemical that was used was a bit of nitrate pushed down into the joint of the ham. This ensured that the centre of the ham kept sweet.
Once cured, the sides were boned and rolled and then hung up to dry. Once dry they were sewn into their muslin jackets and there you have it, old fashioned home-cured bacon. The bone was left in the ham.
So how does this differ from the supermarket variety? It kept well without refrigeration. To modern eyes, it would seem very fatty, we always used to say that bacon fat was white meat. A big difference would be noticed when you fried it. There would be none of the white froth that comes out of modern bacon. This is all the chemicals and water that has been used to pickle it. It didn’t shrink as much in the pan and the fat was a delight, just the thing to put on the bread used for your bacon buttie! Above all, it smelled like bacon when you cooked it and tasted like it when you ate it!
Of course, it cost more to make and would be very expensive compared with the modern variety but it was so much better. As for the hams; if you’ve never tasted properly cured and matured home-fed ham, you haven’t lived! Add a couple of eggs from hens that have spent their lives eating good food and scratching about for insects, worms and whatever else they could find or fancied and you have a meal fit for a king!
I realise that the vegetarians among my readers will have recoiled in disgust by now. A lot of the meat eaters will have joined them, they don’t like to imagine where their food has come from. I apologise but I come from a generation that had a very clear sight of these things. We liked our food and many a time we had to kill and prepare it ourselves. I don’t think this makes me a worse person and I’m sure it means that I was better fed. Could this be the reason why I’m so healthy in my old age?
SCG/31 May 2002
A LOAD OF PIG SWILL
Twenty five years ago I was having dinner with a group of friends in California. It was a good steak and I used a piece of bread to mop up the gravy and left my plate clean. I realised that everyone was watching me and it transpired that none of them had ever seen this done before and they were slightly embarrassed! We talked about it and I explained that, having been reared under food rationing, I never left anything on my plate. They had never gone hungry and this was, to them, very unusual behaviour.
Apart from what is left on the plates, every kitchen produces food waste, peelings, outer leaves, trimmings of meat and other stale or discarded food. In America almost every kitchen has a grinder in the waste outlet of the sink and all the edible waste is fed into this, ground to slurry and passes into the sewage system. Historically we have used totally different waste disposal methods in this country.
My picture this week is of a group of students communing with a pig in a sty in the back yard of a reconstructed building at Blist Hill Museum in Shropshire. Younger readers might be wondering why people kept pet pigs in the back yard! This was no pet, it was a vital part of the domestic economy and was common in Barlick 100 years ago. Many families kept a pig or some chickens. They would do this at home if they had room but many were on pens or spare pieces of land near the house if this could be found. The pigs were the main animals for waste disposal. Every bit of edible waste went into the pig food supplemented by some meal from the Corn Mill.
On farms where butter or cheese was made, any surplus skim milk or whey went in to the pigs as well. A cottager would buy a pig in Spring, feed it until the back end and then kill it. Most of the meat was salted for bacon and everything else except the squeal and the tail was either eaten as fresh meat or made into faggots, chitterlings or sausage.
If you kept a pig and your neighbour hadn’t got one they gave you their waste, or ‘swill’ as we called it, and when pig-killing time came round, you gave them some of the meat as a present. If you knew of another source of swill such as a pub or café you gave them a service by removing their waste and perhaps bought two young pigs a year.
During the Great War and the Second World War pig swill was seen as a national asset. The government made swill-feeding of pigs part of the war effort. With the advent of school meals and the growth of the hotel industry waste collection became an industry and specialised pig farms like Marshall’s with feeding units at Bradley and West Marton had a full time wagon and driver collecting swill on a regular basis on contract. Many older readers will remember the row of galvanised bins outside the kitchen at school in those days. Millions of tons of waste was used usefully and produced high quality pig meat and bacon.
This wasn’t low quality food. I used to deliver skim milk to Marshall’s from West Marton Dairy and if you were hungry, the smell of the swill being boiled up and mixed with meal was mouth-watering! Imagine a porridge made up of reasonably fresh left-overs, meal and milk, it was literally good enough to eat! Fresh pig liver from Bradley was a regular item on the breakfast table at Hey Farm.
So what brought pig swill to the top of my mind? I have been following the trial of the owner of the swill-feeding farm in the North East which was one of the first cases of Foot and Mouth disease last year. One of the results of the outbreak has been that swill-feeding has been banned and now 1.7 million tons of pig swill is going into land-fill.
When I see rushed legislation like this I begin to wonder. How many of the people connected with it have ever had anything to do with swill-feeding? I admit that there will always have been cases where untreated swill was fed to pigs but almost all of it was adequately boiled, and thus sterilised, before feeding. None of the waste going into land-fill will be treated. How do we stop crows and seagulls picking bits of waste out and taking them into surrounding fields to eat them? Could they leave any mess? Have we unwittingly ensured that any microbes in the swill will be widely distributed? I don’t know the answers but common sense seems to indicate that there is more risk now than there was before. If the practice was so dangerous, how come we had no Foot and Mouth for almost 35 years whilst it was going on?
There were far more dangerous practices in times gone by. I used to deliver thousands of gallons of skim milk to farms where it was piped direct to drinking bowls, not mixed with the meal and boiled like Marshall’s did. On these farms, in order to stop the milk curdling as it soured, formaldehyde was mixed in with the skim. We know now that this chemical can cause cancer. The feeding units I hated most were the ‘sweat boxes’ where animals were fed skim through the drinking bowls and waste from food manufacturing factories like broken biscuits, misshapen chocolates and even liquorice allsorts! The sight of overcrowded pigs covered in muck and chocolate isn’t a pretty one!
What is certain is that the day of the family pig is over. We shall never see it again. We have lost good meat, an efficient and economical waste disposal process and at the same time increased pollution in land-fill sites. I suppose they call it progress.
SCG/31 May 2002