When you’re smearing the salt over your Sunday roast crackling, do you ever think about the pig that your pork came from? LAURA ROWE learns the language of hog butchery at Vale House Kitchen
Unless you shop regularly at a real butcher’s shop (don’t worry, you’re amongst friends here), it’s unlikely you’ll have often seen your meat in its proper context. You know: as an entire dead animal carcase, with a head on it and everything. After all, chops come in plastic wrap, right?
But, of course, meat comes from animals – and, as responsible eaters, we should at the very least acknowledge how the food we stuff in our gobs gets there. It was with this in mind – plus a unashamed love of all things porky – that I booked onto a course at the new Vale House Kitchen, in Timsbury near Bath.
The school opened last September, with the aim of providing more than the typical recipe demonstrations you’ll find at traditional cookery schools. Here you can learn to find, catch, shoot, prepare, cook and present foods, with the help of some of the West Country’s top local experts, from Tim Maddams of River Cottage fame to foraging queen Chris Westgate of Heavenly Hedgerows and Vivien Lloyd, who has to be the UK’s leading expert on preserving. I’d found myself on a pig butchery course with Robin Rea, who worked with the likes of Michael Caines and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall before setting up his own artisan charcuterie store and supper club, Rusty Pig, in Devon. This is field-to-fork, and then some.
As you walk up the crunchy gravel drive to the school it feels as if you are approaching someone’s home. And that’s because you are. Vale House itself belongs to Bod and Annie Griffiths – plus baby Michael and Bonnie the Labrador, of course – who moved here from London three years ago. The family live in the main building, a Grade-II listed, 19th-century manor, while the old pool house round the back has been converted into the school. It’s small, but that’s no bad thing in my book. It means that class numbers are limited to around eight max, and all workshops are hands on. There are also on-site beehives, chickens and a corner for pigs, although none were here today.
You see, Sausage and Bacon, the two on-site Plum Pudding pigs, had gone to the local abattoir (only a few miles away) just a couple of days before the course. Oxford Sandy and Blacks, as the breed is also known, is one of the oldest pig types native to Britain, and – according to Robin – are some of the tastiest swines around. And so the education began.
As we headed upstairs, we were met by Bacon laid out on the butcher’s block, two halves of the pig side by side. For the squeamish, it’s not exactly a pretty sight – but for anyone that cares about the food they eat, it’s something you should see. Robin and Bod talked us through the whole stage of the beast’s life, advising us on husbandry (Bod sourced these two from a farmer near Ston Easton) and the slaughter process, before handing us a saw.
Robin showed us the traditional English butcher cuts – straight and simple(ish), rather than the French-style complicated seam butchery, isolating individual muscles – and then let us each have a go. The trick is to saw down through the bone and then use sweeping motions with a sharp butcher’s knife for the flesh. Soon Bacon becomes recognizable as the cuts of meat we’re used to buying in the shops – there’s the shoulder, leg, and we also string up a porchetta. Robin shows us how to string the cuts up with proper knots – “over the tree, round the fence, through the hole…” You remember, right? (Oh, just Google it.)
Then we took a look at the pluck (that’s the nice name for the offal, the lungs, heart and liver) and the brain (surprisingly small). The boys back out of tasting the brain, but we soon tuck into a bit of devilled kidney (with a smidge of Bod’s raspberry jam – inspired), pan-fried liver and lung. Each is so incredibly tender, and packed with real pork flavour.
No part of Bacon is wasted – well, except for the glands (inedible) and the oink. Robin tells us that you can harvest roughly 1 litre of usable blood per pig, and so we set to work making black pudding (or blood cake, as it is also known). The colour is incredible, the taste even better: Robin makes his with a smidge of mace, cayenne pepper, cream, cider brandy and smoked paprika.
We also learnt about dry and wet curing (use fine-grade vacuum salt from builder’s yards, rather than coarse sea salt), making our own bacon, and hot and cold smoking, plus we made a pork pie, complete with hot crust pastry. There was surprisingly still time for homemade beef bourguignon (courtesy of Annie) and apple crumble (courtesy of Bod) in their dining room, before we head back upstairs to make sausages, and a salami, which we were given to take home (mine is currently hanging above the bath).
I go on a lot of cookery courses, but I’ve never had as much fun – or learnt as much – as I did here. Pig butchery might not sound glam, but for anyone with a genuine interest in food it’s an essential thing to try. You might not love the idea of it – I get that –but afterwards you’ll understand where every cut comes from, why different cuts need different cooking times, and will be reminded of the infinite recipe possibilities from a single animal. It’s about R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Pig Butchery at Vale House Kitchen costs £180 and is taught by Robin Rea. The next course takes places on 31 May. For details of this and other courses, visit valehousekitchen.co.uk. For more info on Robin’s charcuterie store, visit www.rustypig.co.uk