Some Little Piggies Stay Home – Sally Gudgeon

9 September 2013

The pig, if I am not mistaken,
Supplies us sausage, ham and bacon,
Let others say his heart is big–

I call it stupid of the pig.

Ogden Nash

By Sally Gudgeon

Killing pigs and turning them into bacon, salami, prosciutto, blood sausage is an ancient tradition in Europe, depicted in medieval illuminated manuscripts, in paintings and carvings.

As the days became shorter and colder, it was a time to preserve the precious meat for the long winter months ahead, and a time for feasting. Each European culture has a name for it, such as maialata in Italy and Greece,matanza in Spain and świniobicie in Poland. It was a seasonal ritual, which brought the village together, and united friend with foe. Everyone had their tasks, the men did the slaughtering and the butchering, the woman and children cooked and cleaned. Nothing was wasted, every intestine washed and turned into a sausage skin, every piece of offal minced or cooked. Then when the work was done, the eating began, and even the dogs would have full bellies for a few days.

Now we have refrigeration, we no longer need to salt and cure meat, or prepare for the long months when food will be scarce. In the consumer society in which we live, we can eat what we want when we want. Food is divorced from its animal source. It’s processed, coloured, sliced, packaged and labeled. Most consumers don’t want to know that the prosciutto on their pizza was once part of a pig’s butt.

But for those who do care, it good to know that the tradition of killing the pig and turning it into small goods for the family has not totally died out. Not only does the ritual take place in the remote landscapes of Europe, but also here in Australia, amongst many European communities such as the Italians, Greeks and Croatians, to name but a few.

Then for those without ethnic connections, or an invitation to a pig slaughtering, there are the various commercial courses around the country. One of the most educational and informative is at Woolumbi farm on the Mornington Peninsula, run by Kenneth Neff.

I met Neff some months ago, whilst researching rare breeds for an article. He once had the largest herd of Wessex Saddleback pigs in Australia (in fact probably the world), but that’s another story. Over morning tea, which became morning cider, I tasted the best prosciuttos and salamis I have ever had outside Europe, at Woolumbi, on the Mornington Peninsula, where he lives.

Neff is a renaissance man, with a touch of Crocodile Dundee, (see his business card). He’s not a man to die wondering (also see business card)! He’s an artisan; a saddler who can craft exquisite western saddles, a skilled carpenter, and an ‘international pig man’. It has taken him many years to develop the charcuterie recipes and techniques he shares with his pupils, and he even impressed the Italians with his goods on one of his trips there.

But back to the pigs, who were rooting in the paddocks, as he sliced the coppas and prosciuttos into almost translucent wafers, and we talked of how fat is important to the taste of meat. The Wessex Saddleback is now extinct in their English homeland, since they were amalgamated with another breed in 1967 to become the British Saddleback. They became rare after the Second World War, when the trend was towards lean, white pigs. These guys are black (with a white stripe) and very fat. As pigs go they’re pretty laid back. Karl, the big boar, is used to little kids clambering all over him, tweaking his bristles, with ne’er a discontented grunt.

Like most grunters they love eating, but very unlike most commercial pigs, these guys have a gourmet diet. Ken and his entourage boil up potatoes for them every day, and this is supplemented with milk protein, and nosing around the field for goodies. The spuds have to be cooked because if fed raw they would give them osteoporosis. And the potatoes make their meat and fat taste delicious, a bit like the taste of jamón ibérico de bellota . This dry cured ham, not dissimilar to prosciutto, has a nutty flavour derived from the Spanish black pigs’ free-range diet of acorns.

The best thing however, is to experience these delights for yourself. The Woolumbi charcuterie course runs over a weekend. The pig is killed, gutted and scalded beforehand, so that participants start with a carcass. Neff is generous with his knowledge and recipes, and during the weekend you will learn how to make the prosciutto, coppa, lardo and different types of salami. He has a large range of equipment, from small to large scale, so it’s quite possible to set up the basics at home without spending a fortune.

During the course, there’s lots of feasting too…charcuterie lunches, roast pork, cheeses, pâté, all accompanied by the very gluggable “Long Legs” cider, also made on the property. And even the motley pack of dogs get a good feed on the leftover bones.

© Sally Gudgeon September 2013