My Nephew, Austin Schneller raised 4 hogs for this year. They were born in spring and reached a little over 6 months. He fed them a combination of oats, alfalfa hay, corn, table scraps, garden scraps, pumpkins, apples, lots of acorns and a few Dunkin Munchkin treats. They lived in a nice large pen about twenty by forty feet on a rocky ledge with plenty of muddy places to wallow and a nice hay strewn shed to hang out in when it was hot or rainy. Oak and hickory trees cover the plot and drop their nuts right over the hogs. This year there was a phenomenal acorn crop. I have a few large oaks in my own yard and raked up a few 5 gallon buckets for them. Pigs love acorns, especially those from white oaks. They also like hickory nuts and can crunch them up without trouble. They escaped their pen a couple times and foraged the local woods for a few days ( hence the Munchkins to lure them back.)
All in all it cost Austin just over $2,000 to raise them. Each hog ended weighing about 300 lbs dressed carcass, with two slightly smaller, so they ended up costing a fair amount. But cost was only part of it, Austin was going for ultimate quality. Austin contracted with a few people who bought them for a price they all previously agreed upon.
These pigs didn't need an antibiotic or any other pharmaceuticals other than worming, because they started out healthy and lived an active robust life. All foraging pigs need to wormed a couple times because they can pick up parasites from the ground they root in. These were last wormed back in August.
The hogs were Hampshire Landrace crossbreeds from a quality herd. They were mostly black with a large white stripe around their middles. They were extremely marbled and had a cover fat of well over an inch on the loin. The bellies were large and almost two inches thick. The meat color was a deeper red than most pork. The fat melted in my hands and was creamy smooth. The flavor was rich and full...porky!
Last Saturday, Nov 20th, we did the slaughter. My father Robert, my brother Rick, nephews Quinn and Dean along with a few other strong armed friends were up to the task. We had a core group that knew the process. Harvesting hogs is a fair amount of work with each part of the process as important as the next. First they are stunned with a 22 caliber rifle; then bled. My nephew Dean was the "sticker", hitting the main blood vessel in the neck. I did the first one and he did the rest. Hogs need to be bled out correctly and soon after stunning to ensure there is no blood "splash" or broken capillaries in the lean muscle. Then we scalded the hogs, dipping in 150F water for a few minutes to loosen off all their hair. This requires some heavy lifting and shackling to be sure the hair is loosened. Then the scraping, which is done by all, at once, using bell shaped scrapers and knives. The hair was becoming thick due to the cold fall weather making this process difficult.
Once cleaned on the outside it was time for the evisceration. Removing the entrails of a pig is careful work. First the gambrels are opened along each foot and the heavy rope is hooked to the "spreader". Each foot is hooked up and then the hog is lifted using a pulley to a height where its nose is just about 3 inches from the ground. A sharp knife is required to cut the skin carefully but not pierce the intestines or other vitals. This work is a little rough for those who have never been around it. For me, I sort of set myself outside of the situation and just do it, similar to a surgeon. Just apply the skills learned and don't think about the gore etc. I had the opportunity to teach Austin's friend Jesse how it was done. Jesse had worked as a cook in the famous Fore Street Cafe in Portland Maine where whole hogs, already cleaned and eviscerated, were brought in from local farms from time to time to be cut and used. He had worked with cutting the meat etc but had never done the whole thing from live to finished carcass. We salvaged the liver, kidneys, heart and caul fat but we didn't feel like cleaning out the intestines. Then we loosened off the leaf lard so it would be easy to use when it hardened.
The next step was to split the carcass which requires a cut directly down the spine and no more than a 1/4 inch wide. A couple years ago we came across a new method of splitting, we used a thin long handled Japanese pull saw which slowly but very accurately cuts through the back bones.
Finally the two sides are lifted off the spreader and rope simultaneously, requiring teamwork and strength. We hung the sides in the barn and hoped for cold weather. Sunday it was cold, high around forty and low of twenty seven. Monday reached a high of over fifty but never over forty five in the barn. Austin set up fans to keep the air moving. We hung them until the Friday after Thanksgiving and by that time the fat had set up beautifully. This process of allowing the meat to hang is crucial. The carcass must stretch out and set up before it should be cut. This is one of the key lessons to Austin's quality pork. Let them chill and set up for a few days and the meat develops a very nice flavor. If the weather is right, I would hang the loin with the skin on for about three weeks for a very deep concentrated pork taste.
We cut the hogs a little out of the ordinary. Two of the hams were made into large steamships for Christmas dinners. The other hams were seamed and turned into roasts, with the top round well trimmed for cutlets. We cut the foreshanks into osso buco. The shoulders were boned out using seam butchery rather than the straight through the muscle techniques used by large commercial processors. We cut off the chine bones of the loin and then hand cut the pork chops; no band saw work here! The huge bellies and jowls were rubbed with the salt recipe for bacon and then were pressed together for later smoking. Some of the fatback was saved for cured lardon and most was cut and rendered to lard for frying. Some of the bones were roasted for a stock and later reduced to a sort of pork glace. Some of the fatty pieces were saved for making, fresh breakfast sausage, smoked liverwurst and country pates. My dad took the heads and will make homemade headcheese and scrapple. He also took the hearts, sliced them into thin strips and made a Hungarian soup with lots of paprika and sourcream.
While cutting the pigs we threw a few slices into the pan, CIA meat class style, just salt and pepper and a hot skillet. The taste was so satisfying!
The idea of raising a pig and then harvesting it is not all that fascinating. Its a lot of work and requires a fair amount of equipment and some valuable knowledge for it to go well. Many parts of the process could go wrong and ruin the whole plan. Austin is getting to the point where he is now growing a true artisan pork. A flavor so deep and rich accomplished partly by the breed but mostly by the feed style and the space allowed. The taste of place or terrior if I must use that word. His pigs taste of the place they were grown. All of the feeds came from farms nearby ( except the rare Dunkin Munchkin). They also taste so good because of the techniques used during the harvest and the aging after, and then the curing and spices used on the food itself. The garden fresh sage, the local hardwoods used for smoking, all playing a part in the taste. But there is something else about the pork we were tasting. It was about the age old traditions of families getting together during harvest times to put up food for the coming year. It was about the culmination of all that hard work finally paying off. Its about looking at what we eat and saying well there you go, I made that! Not just bought the ingredients and cooked it, but really made it from start to finish. Its about developing a product that not everyone is going to taste. I felt honored to have helped in this process and to taste such a treat. Congrats to Austin on a very successful hog harvest!