Okay, you know when you watch a film and part of the credits read, "and introducing..."? Well this is the blogger's equivalent. So, without further ado...
And Introducing... Andy Kirby, this week's guest blogger.
Round of applause please.
Give a man some pork.... teach a man to butcher....
I've always had an affinity with food. I like to eat well, I enjoy cooking, I fish and have hunted rabbits and pigeon, I forage wild mushrooms and berries, so it made sense for me to learn how to prepare and process my own raw ingredients.
To this end, over the last couple of years, my wife, Sally, and I have been on a few courses learning how to make cheese with www.reddevoncheesecompany.co.uk, keeping bees with www.rivercottage.net and most importantly in our eyes smallholding and butchery with the revered self-sufficiency guru Simon Dawson at www.hiddenvalleypigs.co.uk. Fuelled by this 'extensive' training we set about creating a sub-urban micro-holding - we've got a corner plot on a Woking residential estate so it would never qualify as a smallholding.
Since we started out 4 or 5 years ago, we have put together a couple of hens, a couple of bantams, 1/2 a dozen quails (added to the kid's 4 rabbits, guinea pig and 5 cats) and most recently 2 Indian runner ducks - not bad for a plot the size of one of those extra large postage stamps (the ones that hide the most important part of the address when you stick them on - and then can't get them off so you have to write a separate address label).
Anyway, we were doing fine on the livestock front and even grew a few veggies etc. - when the chickens allowed - but this still wasn't enough. We wanted to take advantage of the skills we had acquired, so taking a leaf out of Simon's biblical tome The Self Sufficiency Bible (available online and in all major bookstores) we started small.
One Thursday evening, whilst walking around our local Sainsbury's we saw 6 pints of full fat Goat's milk reduced to 20p per pack and I said to Sally "shall we make some cheese this weekend?". She looked at me like a baby hedgehog unable to avoid the onrushing lorry whose handbrake I'd just taken off and simply said "OK". At 60p for 6 pints we figured nothing ventured, nothing gained, and after all we could throw it away if it tasted awful or didn't work - but it did. It was the best. It was like a slightly sour, but extra creamy Philly. Sally added some garlic and herbs and we munched our way through it in pretty short order with some home made bread. Since then, every time we see reduced milk in the supermarket we both get really excited, buy as much as we can carry and make up a batch of cheese.... baby steps.
Next up, I noticed that the chickens had not gorged themselves on our blackcurrants this year and, not wanting to miss a once in a lifetime opportunity - the chickens love to stand under the bush and jump like Masai (straight up and down) pecking off the fruit one piece at a time, endearing and amusing but also really annoying - I picked what amounted to one small Pyrex bowl of currants.
OK, so I have a bowl of currants, now what do I do with them? I tried one straight off the bush but it tasted ropey, sort of floral and slightly bitter but nothing like blackcurrant. Like the reduced Goat's milk though, I thought it would only cost me pennies to try making some jam. So I placed the fruit (stalks and skins intact) with some lemon zest sugar and a splash of water straight in a pan and boiled it away for as long as it looked like it needed (I've never been one for recipe's and precise instruction as you'll find out later). Every 1/2 an hour I would take a teaspoon and put it on a cold plate (I knew that much) and test it's consistency and flavour.... the flavour..... it was like Ribena but better; sweet, sour and sticky, wow it was good! Anyway, getting carried away with myself, I placed an empty jam jar into the oven to sterilise and after 15-20 minutes took it out and poured the hot, sticky, purple compote into the jar (forgetting to strain off all the 'roughage'), replaced the lid and stood it on the side to cool before I placed it in the fridge to test.
This approach didn't work, I'd tasted nectar and wanted more, so I took several slices of bread from the fridge, buttered them and applied a liberal coating of the ambrosia (lumps and all). It was the best jam I had ever tried, but for one thing - the flimsy pieces of green stalk stuck between my teeth and the shaving of lemon zest that I had to chew. I consoled myself with the fact that this was my first attempt and rustic was to be expected, after all I wasn't going to waste this on a WI competition or anything like that. That jar lasted less than a week and has convinced me to grow more soft fruits next year to conserve and preserve for consumption when the lovely summer weather fades away to rain.
So, we'd had two successes and the momentum was behind us. With growing confidence, I suggested that we try to butcher half a pig which would have been sensible if I'd suggested it immediately after the course with Simon, but I'd left it over a year. How much would I remember? Sally gave a resigned look but, being as supportive as ever, agreed to let me give it a go.
Having tried a number of different breeds of pig before I thought it might be nice to try an Oxford Sandy and Black (OSB), a small pig that is good for pork, but like the Berkshire could be used for bacon too, so I looked up a supplier on the internet and booked in my half. The clock ticked round and, before I knew it, it was time to collect. Jim at www.bamptonpigs.co.uk showed me around his pig fields (well paddocks), introduced me to some of his pigs (all very happy and well behaved) and talked me through his set up, before we proceeded to his local pub to collect my 1/2. Money changed hands and I raced home to watch my son represent his school in the district sports.
I parked in the shade with the pig rested on the back seat covered by a couple of black bags while I went in to watch the relays and presentations and, after a while, collected my son to go home and play at butchers. Oliver got into the car, gave the pig a half glance and said nothing, obviously used to Dad's eccentricity.... "yeah... whatever!" his face said.
So, we got home and I carried the pig indoors. Fortunately none of the neighbours noticed as I threw a child sized pig carcase over my shoulder and did battle with the front door. I walked straight in and faced 5 cats looking at me quizzically. I continued past them into the kitchen, placed the pig onto the empty and cleaned work surface and turned to gather up my knives, steel and cutting board. As I turned, I noticed that I had an audience. The cats had followed me out and, intrigued, they were lined up in a row looking on expectantly as if I had brought the pig home just for them. I ignored them and turned back to the job at hand.
I faced up to the pig and.... went blank! I now faced a dilemma. All my books, including the exemplary Self Sufficiency Bible by Simon Dawson (available online and in all major bookstores), were in the living room... the other side of the cats! I called to Oliver, but he had gone out to play with his friends, so I had no choice. I raced through into the living room, whipped up the books and returned to the kitchen in a time that Usain Bolt would be proud of, ready to scream and shout and curse at the ravenous hoards. Fortunately, none of them fancied 1/2 a pig and, having initially scattered, rearranged themselves in a line to watch.
A brisk review of a couple of pages (the pictures and diagrams), it all made sense again and I positioned myself at the head end and confidently cut through the neck leaving me feeling like a proud Viking holding my prize of a severed head aloft. I then proceeded to prepare each of the primary cuts and, handling my knives in a way that would definitely have had Debbie and Simon wincing, separated out sausage meat (more than a professional would have ended up with), chops (of varying size and shape), belly and back bacon, roasts and hams. When I'd finished, I felt a massive sense of self satisfaction. A job well done.
To be honest apart from; my brawn not setting, my first set of sausages disintegrating in the pan, and the looks the local kids gave the skeletal pigs head that I'd placed on the doorstep (only kidding), everything else went really well. The kids, and their friends all lent a hand with the sausage making, the bacon and my prized hams cured beautifully.
In summary, as The Self Sufficiency Bible (available online and in all major bookstores) says, anyone can be more self-sufficient it just takes a few small steps. My next step is to find someone local to where I live who has a corner of a paddock free for a few pigs of my own and some chickens for the table... I'll let you know how I get on.