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Makin’ bacon

In the quest for making your own food, surely the pinnacle of that would have to be raising your own pigs and making bacon. In June this year, our pig syndicate cashed in their investment and turned our pigs into food. I could go on and on about the slaughter and butchery, which was utterly fascinating, but what I really want to talk about is how much food comes out of half a pig.

There were eight people in the syndicate, sharing four pigs. The pigs were housed on a mate’s farm in the mountains above Queanbeyan, in about a 1 hectare paddock (100m x 100m). While there was a bit of forage there for the pigs, it’s pretty rough country (classic dry sclerophyll) and the soil is good for rangy eucalypts and little else. We ended up with Landrace piglets, mostly because there was little else available at the time. Landrace pigs are leaner than black pigs, with much of the delicious fat in around the muscles bred out. It was the arrival of this breed in Australia that kicked off the “Get Some Pork on Your Fork” campaign, aimed at overturning the idea that pork was too fatty for good health. Yes, but delicious fat!

The black pigs are the normal choice for free-ranging; English breeds like the Gloucester Old-Spot and Wessex Saddleback dominate the Australian market. The black skin makes them less susceptible to sunburn and they often have a bit more hair, making them a little more tolerant of cold. It was hard to tell when butchering if it made any difference, whether the fat content was different or location, but the pigs we used wouldn’t have been my first choice.

The piglets we bought were $80 each, plus about another $80 per pig worth of fencing and housing. We bought them at 2 months old, when they were less than 20kg in weight, and raised them until they were about 9 months old. During those 7 months each pig ate roughly $160 worth of food in addition to forage, consisting mostly of cracked grains and soybean meal, plus as many acorns as we could find. There are plenty of acorns around Canberra, and it was a pretty simple task to collect them from the side of the road. The pigs ate most of the 1000kg we had managed to collect. Then, on the June long-weekend, weighing in at approximately 120kg, they got the bullet. Add all this up and half a pig, at least 40kg worth, was about $180. That’s free-range, organic pig for $4.50 per kg, plus two days of labour. After two days solid of butchery, I had our half a pig in pieces and in plastic containers around the house. It was a little bit overwhelming and a little bit exciting too. It looked a bit like this, but with rougher ends and more hair.

The belly, about 3.5kg, was divided in half for pancetta and bacon. The pancetta just gets salt, followed by air drying, while the bacon got a complicated cure with salt, herbs and brown sugar, then smoked with eucalyptus chips. The pancetta is still going, but we ate the bacon in just over a week. Everything had bacon in it. Everything. There is a hock in the fridge that got the same treatment as the bacon and this will become delicious baked beans in the future.

After spending a month packed in salt, the leg is still hanging. It went into salt at about 14kg, and will probably finish up somewhere around 10kg. I will then hang it up in the kitchen, buy one of those amazing Spanish prosciutto knife-swords and have tapas parties every week. Traditionally the forequarter is used for sausages, but I was a bit disorganised and decided to divide this gigantic amount of meat into a couple of roasts and to mince the remainder. Now my wife and I have about 15 one-meal sized sandwich bags full of the best pork mince in the universe in our freezer.

I made the roasts far too big, leading to my first (and certainly not last) bout of “pork sweats”. The first roast we had was for four people and must have been nearly 3kg, with about a third of a square metre in crackling. We sat at the table for almost an hour, slowly cutting bits off and working our way through it, giggling at the deliciousness. I woke half a dozen times that night in a panic, sweaty and disoriented, still dreaming of crackle and with the smell of pork coming from my skin.

We did a few funny things with the rib section (loin). I boned out a long section of the eye-fillet and did some Chinese-inspired stuff with it, sort of stir-fried with noodles and hoi-sin sauce. I cured the bones in salt to make quite meaty bacon bones, and cured the outer fat and muscle into a sort of Chinese bacon, which involved curing in salt, Chinese cooking wine and five-spice, then smoked with five-spice and hickory. Delicious! That’s still going in the fridge, but has enhanced fried-rice and Chinese cabbage dishes for a month or so now.

But the best part of the whole process was sitting down to our first chops. We were both knackered after a long weekend of hauling and cleaning piggy bits, and would have had a sandwich for dinner pretty happily. But because it was “the right thing to do”, we cooked a chop each and ate it with some simple greens. Just salt and white pepper on the chop, cooked fast then rested. For a good 15 minutes, we sat in total silence, savouring every last scrap of meat, jealously guarding the bones. It was astonishing. Neither of us were big chop eaters, yet I felt like I was being admitted into a special society. The flavour was sweet at first and then finished long, clean and almost grassy, like a really good piece of beef. This is why we eat meat. We decided at the end of that meal we would raise pigs again this year.

Image by MrWalker via Creative Commons Licence

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