Friends have a couple of pigs. They’ve plunged into life in France head-first; a tumbledown, do-er-up-er farm house in the middle of nowhere; kids, chickens, veg plot, pigs. It’s good to have a challenge...
I’ve volunteered to help them dispose of the bodies – I’ve spent three years as a charcutier after all.
I don’t have a clue what I’m doing...
Tuer le cochon is an old fashioned winter tradition that is still prevalent in this neck of the woods – I dare say all over rural France – though it does appear to be on the wane. I come across plenty of people whose parents do it, or used to, but I’ve never yet found anyone in the position to show me the ropes. Hence my problem – what the fuck am I going to do with two whole dead pigs?!
Mercifully (perhaps not for the animals themselves) they’re not too big. Though not till arrival at the abattoir do I discover quite how youthful they are. There’s a queue of trailers waiting in line for the one day in the week allotted to amateurs like us. I’m shocked at the size of the other piggies. Not little. More like pink cows. The uncomfortable truth about meat eating is fairly unavoidable at a place like this, but I feel bad because our pigs are so small – though not much younger than a butcher’s cochon. It seems a shame to not let them carry on their happy life, scoffing acorns and chestnuts, rolling in mud, steering clear, with luck, of the neighbour’s petunias. Another six or eight months seems wisest...
Reality bites; the decision is made. It’s the end of the winter and this year’s opportunity to butcher hygienically without a walk-in fridge is about to close. This, along with the pigs’ proclivity for escapology, plus the financial pressures of my friends’ growing family, means their time is nigh. They were bought to feed the family. They have to be killed sometime, and that’s dictated by what best suits man – not beast.
I collect them two days later. Here the disparity between my cargo and others is even more glaring. One man covers the entire floor of his van with a single carcass, split in two lengthways. My two piggies fit in the back of our Fiesta... The abattoir has done a sterling job: I take home meat. The uncomfortableness of death fades with the familiar appearance of my load. I’m already looking forward to dinner.
There’s no rain so we work outside. Winter has kept its side of the bargain – though it’s hard to say the weather’s been kind. Working with bare hands at 2 degrees is more than a little nipsville. Healthy, mind. And the beer’s nicely chilled! Without the guiding hand of a butcher or experienced pig weekendeur, we turn to our only reliable alternative: youtube. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, or rather his butcher friend Ray Smith and their Pig in a Day video* do us proud. Not as romantic as a pinard-guzzling, be-bereted campagnard showing us his grandfather’s tricks, but you can’t have it all. Maybe next year...In spite of our lack of heritage, breaking the carcasses down into constituent parts is really quite straightforward. Well done us!*Also available to buy, for those who are sufficiently organised. Well worth the money I’d say.
|It did get a little nippy...|
A lot of the meat is destined for the freezer, to feed my friends’ family for the best part of the year. Some goes into brine to make country-style boiling hams, or a dry cure for bacon. We judge the legs too small and lean to bother air drying. A pity, but also a relief. While undoubtedly spectacular, this is the most precarious means of preserving such a precious home-grown commodity*. The rest goes towards sausages, confit, paté and rather a mean pork pie! Not forgetting black pudding – I am not a completely useless charcutier and, if there is one thing I have learnt to love making above all others, it is this. Frugal, a bit stinky and very messy in the making (combining the head, the heart, the lungs and the blood and guts with some simple veg and spices), the Boudin Noir Béarnais is as glorious a tribute to the noble piggy-wig and his patient keeper as I could choose.
* Here in the South-West, there are systems in place to help out the one-weekend-a-year charcutier: you can pay a Jambon de Bayonne producer to salt and air-dry your own pork leg, and pick it up again, fully matured and guaranteed un-rotten, a year or more later. This strikes me as a nice compromise for those without the magic lieu de séchage on which success or failure seems to depend.