My Hogs

James Buchan

Sometimes, standing in the small wood that shields my house from the north, I whisper the word ‘Pigs!’ Within a second, bursting from the laurels, alert and obedient as no dog could be, comes a pair of Gloucester Old Spot gilts to nuzzle my hand. Or sometimes, if I am late with their afternoon bucket of scraps, they break out of their enclosure and hurtle across to bang their rumps against the kitchen door. As I contemplate these animals, my mind’s eye fills with placid agricultural visions. More and extensive areas of the woods are cleared of brambles and brush. My cow begins to produce milk and the pigs take the surplus, like a Denmark in miniature; or they are turned out when the corn is cut to glean the spilled grain; or when the orchard is up, they manure the trees and eat the insect-tainted fruit. In this beautiful and frictionless economy (in the old Xenophontic or Aristotelian sense of household rather than state management, which is, properly, political economy), the pig is the heart and soul, the wild card, the blockbuster, the Maxim gun. Indeed, to me a wood without pigs is like a ballroom without women.

Then I remember foot and mouth and put out more viricide and straw.

William Youatt, whose The Pig: A Treatise on the Breeds, Management, Feeding and Medical Treatment of Swine of 1847 is still the standard work on the British pig, prints many anecdotes of the docility, gentleness, affection, cleanliness, intelligence, even reasoning power, of the domestic pig. These are of the type ‘Pangbourne-is-some-six-English-miles-from-Reading-yet-these-sagacious-animals’ etc. Julian Wiseman, an expert in animal health and nutrition at Nottingham University, whose fine pig book of 1986 has been reissued,[*] has no time for such sentiments or for any attitude to the pig but the straightforwardly exploitative. ‘When asked how clever is the pig, the only sensible answer is that it is cleverer, far cleverer, than humans at being a pig.’ True, as they say.

British books on animal husbandry fall into two groups. At the heavy end are grim little paperbacks with black and white photographs of severe hernias and charts of diminishing return on capital. At the light end are technicolour albums for the fantasy smallholders of the towns. Wiseman could have written either type of book, but has chosen to bring Youatt up to date, and down to earth, using contemporary sources ranging from illuminated manuscripts to the Pig Breeders’ Annual. It is a learned and demanding little book, well-written and beautifully illustrated. What’s wrong with it is also wrong with this article: in reality, we don’t know a whole lot about pigs.

The pig has a digestive system that is like our own, but better. It can either compete with us for food or, with an absolute minimum of human intervention – viz a stock fence – can make edible, indeed delicious, what we cannot eat. The result has been a relationship of a certain intimacy, which has been taken to a pitch of mutual benefit in China and parts of Christendom, but has also bred a doctrinal reaction in Judaism and Islam.

Over the centuries, man has learned to use the pig to the full. As Youatt wrote: ‘There is perhaps no animal so entirely profitable to the butcher as the pig. Scarcely an atom of it but is useful.’ It was said of the old Chicago stockyards that they rendered every part of the pig but the squeal. Or perhaps it is the pig that uses man to the full. As Wiseman writes: ‘If the success of a species in evolutionary terms is measured in . . . its numbers and distribution, then the pig comes very close to us. Who is exploiting whom?’

In the murk that is the history of the British pig, three main periods can be descried. The glory days of the pig were the centuries from long before the Roman occupation to the Middle Ages, when pork was the capital source of meat for the population. The half-wild, coarse-bristled, dark brown, prick-eared animal of medieval illuminated calendars foraged in the woods that surrounded the outlying pastures of many villages. In autumn and winter, they were driven out by swineherds to fatten on beech mast and acorns: a practice, beset with folklore and feudal regulation, known as pannage. The vestige of this ancient husbandry survived in the vivid Oxfordshire landscape of my childhood, where the skirts of the Chilterns fed large numbers of British Saddlebacks between pockets of antique beechwood and villages with eloquent names such as Swyncombe.

From the time of the Norman Conquest onwards, Wiseman writes, those woods were cut for timber and charcoal, pannage was restricted, sheep came to the fore, and the hardy, semi-wild pig of the open forest seems to have lost ground to an animal fattened on cereals and legumes or housed one per cottage and fed on kitchen scraps, as in some Italian villages today. That animal was to become known as the Old English pig, where ‘Old’ has the 18th-century connotation of ‘unimproved’, as in, say, Edinburgh Old Town. As far as we can tell from the descriptions Wiseman has assembled, the Old English seems to have been a late maturing, long-legged, big-bodied, lop-eared and rather inefficient pig. It is the animal that Cobbett had in mind, when he wrote in Cottage Economy:

If a hog be more than a year old he is the better for it. Make him quite fat by all means. The last bushel, even if he sit as he eat, is the most profitable. If he can walk two hundred yards at a time; he is not well fatted. Lean bacon is the most wasteful thing a family can use. In short, it is uneatable except by drunkards, who want something to stimulate their sickly appetite.

The breeding fashion of the 18th and 19th centuries was to cause the extinction of many of those massive types.

What the 18th-century ‘improvers’ wanted to do with their fancy Chinese or Neapolitan blood was create a smaller pig that would fatten more rapidly and profitably for polite tastes and town markets. A new industry grew up which bought up young ‘store’ (or growing) animals in their thousands and drove them to London to fatten on brewery and dairy wastes in Vauxhall, Wandsworth and Battersea.

One of the best known of the improved breeds was the Berkshire, to which Wiseman dedicates an extraordinarily unprofitable passage, of which I can only give a flavour. ‘Thus Loudon in 1831 describes the Berkshire as tawny, white or reddish spotted with black; Wilson’s Rural Cyclopaedia of 1849 described it as rufous brown, reddish or tawny white, and Low’s illustration indicates a mixture of reddish brown with black spots.’ A little later, he writes: ‘It is obvious that the name Berkshire described a whole host of animals of different shapes, sizes and colours – which were in all likelihood undergoing continual changes.’ As for the so-called ‘improved Berkshire’, Wiseman notes in an aside that ‘all the names here are almost meaningless.’

Wiseman’s story becomes easier to follow from the middle of the 19th century. A large pig, usually predominantly white in colour and bred chiefly in the North, was crossed with varying degrees of Chinese or Berkshire influence to produce the Large, Middle and Small Whites (or Yorkshires). These three distinct categories were advertised at the Royal Show in Birmingham in 1876. Of the three, the Small White is today extinct, the Middle White endangered and the Large White the most important pig in the world. Typically for that era of British commerce, it was foreign producers – pre-eminently in Denmark, which had dairy wastes to spare – that recognised the potential of the Yorkshires to capture much of the British home market.

In the 20th century, the ubiquity of the Large White led to the extinction of several breeds commemorated in this volume, such as the Lincolnshire Curly Coat, the Yorkshire Blue & White and the Dorset Gold Tip. An ally of the Berkshire, possibly arising in Staffordshire and known as the Tamworth, seems to have been obscure enough to escape the improvers. As for the Gloucester Old Spot (presumably Spotted Old Gloucester), it has had an official existence since 1914, when the breed society was founded. Wiseman believes that it was an offshoot of the Northern pigs being bred up into the Large White, ‘which slipped quietly and largely unnoticed into the Vale of Berkeley’. It is a beautiful picture, which you can believe if you like. Nowadays, the British Pig Association recognises 12 breeds: the Large and Middle Whites, the Tamworth, the Berkshire, British Saddlebacks, Chester Whites, Gloucester Old Spots, Hampshires, Durocs, the Landrace, Large Blacks and Welsh.

Though pig-breeding is notoriously prey to fashion, the minority breeds have staged a recovery even as the commercial industry, based on the Large White, the Scandinavian Landrace and various hybrids – and on ever larger units and concentrated feeds – has suffered in profitability. As Wiseman argues, the uncommercial breeds are better suited to a free-ranging or extensive upbringing and a greater variety of foods: mine will reject out of hand only citrus fruits. Late-maturing outdoor breeds have difficulty in laying down fat, but our modern and sedentary population no longer cares much for fat. The minority breeds, though all more or less ‘endangered’, are recovering. ‘At least the figures are going in the right direction,’ Wiseman writes (before foot and mouth).

As to the accounting profit of keeping pigs, he argues that it was never very much. A profit-and-loss account submitted by George Winter to the Transactions of the Bath and West Agricultural Society in 1786 revealed the total cost of fattening 15 hogs to be equal to the income from their sale: Winter’s profit, it seems, was their manure. A century later, in 1878, the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England commented: ‘It is generally agreed that pig feeding does not yield a profit except in the shape of the resulting manure.’ Given these unfavourable conditions, is it a wonder that farmers such as the Waugh brothers of Heddon-on-the-Wall should feed their animals swill?

My own revenue statement would look a little like this. Cost: two gilt weaners @£25 apiece = £50; £2 a week in bought-in organic concentrate and beans for 40 weeks = £80; £200 of arc (for housing), fencing, piping, brine crock, smoker etc. depreciated to nothing over ten years = £20; no rent and no charge for my own labour which will always and only be worthless; £100 of butchery. That gives an all-in cost of approximately £3 a kilogram, or rather less than one would pay at Harrods, though without the imputed rent and overheads of a colossal and world-famous store in central London. Or, in other words, quite expensive, but only in money.

Since the outbreak of the foot and mouth epidemic last February, we in the countryside have been ordered to diversify our agriculture: to shape up, as it were, or ship out. What we should be doing with our fields and woods nobody is quite sure, but whatever we do, we must stop bothering the town with our agricultural pests, product surpluses, bloodthirsty pastimes and incessant demands for subsidy. That all seems fair enough.

For Cobbett, the keeping of pigs by cottagers was a matter of moral and political emancipation: ‘A couple of flitches’ – i.e. sides – ‘of bacon are worth fifty thousand Methodist sermons and religious tracts. The sight of them on the rack tends more to keep a man from poaching and stealing than whole volumes of penal statutes, though assisted by the terrors of the hulks and the gibbet.’ Nearly two hundred years on, pig-keeping helps emancipate us from the supermarket economy, and such of its baleful consequences as low or lowish wages, poor husbandry, poor animal welfare, agricultural subsidies, crap architecture on the bypass, motor traffic and general malbouffe; and forces us to think, than which nothing, by definition, can be more philosophical.

In interposing itself between wish and object, money disguises the consequences of our actions: so that the supermarket shopper does not recognise that he has killed an animal (even though the animal is dead and not by accident). To buy two pigs as weaners, build them up as stores, fatten them as porkers and baconers, put them in a trailer and then drive them to the butcher forces one to witness the consequences of one’s actions. It is extremely Cobbettian.

Years ago, I lived for a while in New York and studied cookery at the famous New School for Social Research. One of my teachers was Jack Ubaldi, then owner of the Florence Prime Meat Market on Jones Street, a trim and elderly Italian gentleman with a beautiful smile and a case of knives so sharp that they cut just to look at them. In Jack Ubaldi’s Meat Book, which he dictated to Elizabeth Crossman and published in 1987, he invoked his childhood in Umbria during the Great War in scenes worthy of Manzoni:

When I was a little boy in Italy, every Fall my father and some of his friends and helpers slaughtered hogs. They processed them into hams, loins, shoulders, bacon and fatback, rendered the lard, and made some of the hams into prosciutti.

I couldn’t believe that so many different sausages, smoked and dried meats, and pickled meats could be made from one pig. The methods we used were primitive, but to me the products seemed fantastic. Our first taste of the pig was the blood sausages. They looked like long bolognas hanging on a pole immersed in a tall pot filled with aromatic boiling water. I don’t know exactly how long they cooked, but I know it wasn’t too long, because we were all waiting to taste them as soon as they cooled.

Then the men cut and trimmed the meat, squared off the bacon, and trimmed the hams and shoulders. All the trimmings were set aside for sausages, including the intestines, which were given to certain women who knew how to clean and scrape them.

Next the women cooked pieces of skin, ears and parts of the head to make head cheese. At the same time the men prepared the meat that was to be cured with salt, sugar and a very small amount of saltpetre, which was sometimes applied dry and sometimes in a pickling brine.

It took a good part of the winter to cure all the meat (two days per pound were needed for shoulders and hams), but we were always finished the day before Lent, Mardi Gras, when we had a feast. My mother made polenta – cooked cornmeal from the year’s new corn – and spread it over a special board that she used for bread and pasta making. She covered the polenta with a rich sauce made with all the pieces of pork, neck bones, spare ribs, and some of the newly made sausages. Then she covered all of that with a lot of fragrant Parmesan cheese. We sat at the table and ate directly from the board, and as we ate, we made designs on what was left on the board. There was a lot of singing, and a lot of wine was drunk.

Alas, we are not so artisanal in Norfolk. None the less, the best butcher in the district converts my animals into four large boxes of fresh and preserved hams, shoulders, loins, cut and whole bacon, and sausages. The best meat, which is called the tenderloin, is used for the Touraine dish noisettes de porc aux pruneaux de Tours, the other ingredients (Agen prunes and Vouvray) requiring a trip to France. The bacon is salted dry, rather than through the Wiltshire Cure pioneered by George Harris of Calne in 1864, on the principle enunciated by Cobbett: ‘Every one knows how different is the taste of fresh dry salt from that of salt in a dissolved state. The one is savoury, the other nauseous.’ The streaky or belly bacon is used to flavour game and poultry, mushroom dishes and spaghetti sauce. The loins are slow-roasted in milk, or with bay leaves and best vinegar. The legs and shoulders are roasted with their crackling in the English style, or cut up and stewed for several hours with posole (hominy), a souvenir of a winter spent in New Mexico. The hams are soaked, boiled and then roasted with an American sweet glaze for weekend company. The spicy sausages go into crude tomato-and-potato stews, while the unspiced ones are fed to the children. Together with a lamb from the pasture, a quarter of beef from a neighbour, and supernumerary cockerels, they feed a family and its visitors from November until the end of May.

Or will do, if permitted. Pigs embody, in particularly vivid fashion, the lost amenities of an unimproved world. If, as we are promised, the foot and mouth epidemic gains in virulence with the cold weather, then the game will be up for the hobby farmer as for the commercial, for the Gloucester Old Spot as for the modern hybrid. So we will start again.

[*] The Pig: A British History by Julian Wiseman (Duckworth, 185 pp., £6.99, 21 June, 0 7156 3092 x.