Bringing Home The Bacon
I’ve always had a real love of food that has been instilled from a young age. Standing on a chair at the kitchen table, enthusiastically bashing basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt together in a pestle and mortar to make a pesto is one of my earliest food memories. Soon after university I moved to London and was suddenly surrounded by one of the most exciting food scenes in the world…but the Welsh countryside quickly drew me back in. After six years working in the city, I longed for green open spaces, and an escape back to the beautiful scenery of North Wales where I had grown up. I also longed to work on something that felt, to me, more meaningful.
We have a small orchard at the beyond the garden, which is dotted with gnarled little fruit trees, all producing an abundant haul year after year. I often wonder who they may have fed before, since our house dates back to 1570. Who else has walked across this little stretch of land and reached up to pluck a sweet juicy pear from the branches of these trees. Perhaps there were other pigs before ours who gorged on these sumptuous spoils.
Although we try hard every year to make the most of all the apples and pears, preserving and pickling, baking and pureeing, we’ve often ended up with a large amount of rotten, spoiled fruit that goes to waste. What better use of this little space than to get some pigs and let them feast like kings…or in our case queens! We are lucky to be surrounded by oak trees here too, and pigs are particularly fond of acorns. Many an hour was spent scooting down the lanes with a wheelbarrow and raking up acorns from ditches and fields. A free source of food for our animals, that would soon be providing nourishment to us.
As a family we’ve always eaten meat and pork is certainly a favourite. Bacon sandwiches, sausage and mash with unctuous gravy, even on Christmas Day we eschew turkey and opt for porchetta - traditionally an Italian dish of deboned pork (often a whole small pig in Italy) smothered in a fennel, lemon, chilli and garlic rub. In London particularly, it amazed me how many meat-centric restaurants seemed to be popping up, offering huge platters of meat, burgers and chicken presented in every conceivable form.
Eating all this food in the centre of a bustling city it’s easy to feel disconnected and removed from food production and nature, but with every food choice we make, regardless of where or how we live we are having a direct impact and influence on the countryside. How often do we consider where our food has been produced? How many of us stop to think about the animal we are consuming, or the life it has lived. When we tuck into our delicious bacon sandwich, dripping with fat and dunked in ketchup, do we really associate it with that friendly little piggy? Do we even want to?
It's this disconnect that I wanted to address. Having never farmed, I wanted to experience the full process. So we set out on our big piggy journey and found ourselves with three delightful little piglets scooting around the orchard.
I was determined that our pigs would be as happy as possible – living outdoors with bountiful fresh food. We contacted a local veg box supplier who, week after week, happily gave us all their ‘waste’ veggies that they were unable to sell. In the orchard they were able to roam around outside with plenty of room for rooting, and we gave them as much social interaction as we could provide. I wanted to document this journey whilst showing what high animal welfare could really look like. For me, using positive imagery and showing the learning curve and emotional rollercoaster of a journey has been a powerful tool in changing attitudes, habits and behaviours when it comes to food consumption.
For me one of the biggest factors was ensuring that our pigs had not just a happy life, but also a stress-free death. After asking around for recommendations there was one place that was recommended by everyone. I was amazed to discover that there are only 21 abattoirs in Wales and was so pleased to discover a family-run, small-scale operation just down the road. D & J Thomas & Sons in Rhosllanerchrugog have been a traditional butchers in the village for over three generations and an important factor for them in maintaining an extremely high standard of meat quality was acquiring an abattoir in 1953. Due to the costs involved in keeping up with regulation changes many smaller places have been forced out of business over the years. Now David Thomas has farmers coming from further and further afield because places like theirs are few and far between. Without this intimate, respectful and personal approach that David Thomas' abattoir has, the same high quality of our meat would never have been possible. The killing of the animal is possibly one of the most important factors; a stressed pig can often result in substandard meat.
When the day came, we fed them in the trailer just as we had been doing every day in the week leading up to this point. We wanted them to be acclimatised to the space and familiar enough with trotting up the ramp that it would be a relaxed affair. I also gave them a good few litres of organic cider – a firm favourite – and we set off on our route, which we had also practiced a couple of times to ensure we were comfortable with the journey. Our arrival at the abattoir was calm and the pigs were so happy and relaxed in the trailer that it took slightly longer to get them out again.
Without the support of many of the local farmers living around us, we would have been somewhat lost. They provided us with a great deal of know-how to steer us in the right direction as first timers. Farming culture and farmers have taken a real knock in recent years, particularly dairy but here in North Wales the sense of farming community here is still incredibly strong.
Our nearest neighbour and farmer was instrumental in providing knowledge of the land enabling us to provide our pigs with adequate fencing. He also came to the rescue with an old tractor battery to hook up to the electric fence when their original pen became too muddy and we wanted to give them a little more room for rooting around. On top of that we were able to help ourselves to his hay and straw, and borrow his trailer when the time came to take them to slaughter. The combination of these seemingly small favours amounted to a huge reduction in costs and stress and a much smoother journey into the world of farming for us.
A little further down the road we were lucky enough to discover Home Farm – producers of rare breed free range meat, who produce their own award winning pork products. Dave became an unrivalled source of knowledge for us, whilst also providing us with supplementary pig food.
It wasn’t only the farmers who helped us out, many of the neighbours contributed, and there was rarely a morning we didn’t find a little package sitting at the end of the drive containing windfall fruit, or an array of veggies from their kitchen gardens.
As much as the help was forthcoming and we received genuine support, our local farmers had quite a titter at our expense when we first embarked on our piggy journey - possibly wondering whether we would really have the guts to go through with it, or if we had any idea of what we had let ourselves in for. They were desperate to see us tearing across one of the fields in hot pursuit of an escapee pig - they even admitted to all being primed to get photographic evidence if it did happen. Thankfully, aside from a minor break-in of the chicken enclosure we had no other fencing traumas.
We are now reaping the rewards of this process and enjoying some of the most wonderful pork products I have ever eaten. Heartbreaking as it was to get to know these wonderful animals and then take them to their end, if I’m going to eat meat then this is how I would choose to do it every single time. Eating meat is deeply embedded in our culture, so much so that often we don’t stop to think how it has ended up on our plate. I set out on this journey to educate myself and gain a deeper understanding of these processes, in the hope that just maybe, I might help others to stop and think once in a while. It’s certainly been a life-changing experience for me and I will be forever grateful to the three little pigs who made it all possible.