No idea of the breed but such a lovely, charming tone to this old postcard. HT @val_littlewood
For this post, I’ve moved across the Channel to look at the Noir de Bigorre pig which almost disappeared forever some 30 years ago. Had it not been for the work of one man, then this lovely looking animal may not have existed today. And the reason for my geographical teleport, I hear you ask? Mainly down to the estimable Richard H Turner who pointed me at “A Steak (R)evolution”. More on that elsewhere on this blog. Search out the film.
It’s a breed that has been described since at least Roman times — the geographer Strabo praised the quality of black pigs, claiming “they were the best of the Empire” — as living in the central Pyrenees, in the area around Gers. And, like so many others here and abroad, it was judged to be “incompatible” with the intensive breeding methods that came in after the 50s; this pig, like so many others, (thankfully) never managing to adapt to this new speedier regime and was heading for a rapid decline and ultimate extinction.
[NOTE: as a side-bar here, there’s not a huge extant body of poetry or writing devoted to the beauty of pigs. Not many contemporary accounts or descriptions, so for close to 1,500 years, those words from Strabo are about all you’ll get on the pig. You find lots of words written on lions, horses & elephants. But the wonderful pig? Not so much. And the reason? The pig has always been associated with the poor; and they’re too busy both scratching a living whilst trying not to be put to the sword by the great and the good (who are intent on sweeping across their small allotment of land & pillaging all the resources or taxing them to within an inch of their lives), to waste valuable time writing about something they deal with everyday.]
Anyway, around 1981, the hero of this story, Armand Touzanne (seen in a short video here)…
…started looking at how he could rescue the breed; at that time, only two Gascon boars and around thirty sows remained from the nearly 20,000 animals seen in a census in the 1920s, mirroring the same decline across La Manche in the English rare and pedigree breeds.
Taking full advantage of resources being thrown at a program set up to save some of these rare plant varieties and animal breeds (in a joint French/EU venture to mark Heritage Year), Touzanne, a consultant to the Upper Pyrenees Chamber of Agriculture, identified and catalogued the last few remaining heads of two local breeds, the Basque (Pie Noir du Pays Basque) and the Gascon; the latter later becoming known as the ‘Noir de Bigorre’ with a genetic heritage similar to their cousin, the legendary Iberico hog
But merely identifying the breed as one of those liable to disappear wasn’t enough, there still remained the main problem of how to ensure the ongoing stability of the breed; if this could be done, then the breeders would be paid well & thus encouraged to keep on keeping and breeding and nurturing this pig. Like those other specialist breeds I’ve talked about before, the Gascon really isn’t suitable for conventional fast growing, mass rearing methods. It needs space to roam, it puts on poundage (kiloage?) slowly, thus it’s more expensive to fatten, and its meat has a considerable percentage of fat. The very quality of its meat and fat would be compromised by intensive rearing techniques. But hey, remember, the great God “the market” i.e. the supermarkets demanding lean meat at low prices.
So he decided to home in on the quality of the meat; the breeders would then be able to charge prices high enough to cover the considerable rearing costs; it gives much less meat than that of a standard porker (a 100 kg carcass yields 40 kg of meat, compared to the normal 60 kg) which, alongside their longer life means the farmer has to expend a lot more cash before they can send it to be butchered and finally get paid.
One further big stumbling block was that the French had traditionally regarded ham as an everyday, quite mundane product and one they were not willing to pay a premium for (more fool them of course, unlike those canny Spanish), so the next move was to create a new, ‘gastronomic’ image for ham. In 1995, fourteen years after he set out on his mission, Touzanne, almost by accident, stumbled across the Bonomelli family, owners of the “Salaison Pyrénéennes” company. They had independently decided to to try and market a “Grand Cru” type ham and needed a quality source to work with. A timely synergy developed. They already produced a 12-month matured Bayonne ham called ‘Label Rouge’ so they took their new ham to market as ‘Noir de Bigorre’.
Another big leg-up came when, in 1997, the breed was officially recognised by the French Ministry of Agriculture who went on to mandate that the pigs have to be Gascon thoroughbreds, have to be raised for at least six months of each year in the open air and must not be sent to be butchered earlier than a year old. And in a further nod to good husbandry, breeders are not allowed to keep more than 25 animals per hectare of land and any artificial growth stimulants or hormones are a complete no-no.
Like the pata negra, as part of their totally vegetarian diet (well, the odd insect and gobbled bugs and worms aside) they’ll happily chow down on local acorns, chestnuts as well as barley, rye and wheat. Aged for between 20 and 30 months — against the 48 months the Spanish choose for the Gran Riserva Pata negra — it’s remarkably similar to, visually and taste-wise but slightly less pungent on the nose (although that doesn’t worry me, it can cause others to rear back slightly) than the one that emanates from the southern side of the Pyrenees. And it too also comes with veritable gobbets of that wonderful, “good” fat, that sensible people are now no longer afraid of…
And all the prep work is undertaken on the farm: they use local salt from the Aquitaine basin of the Adour river and the air-dried ageing process benefits both from the “Foehn effect” – named after the dry, hot wind that blows across the region every third or fourth day — and the damper air swept down from the Atlantic.
In 2000 the delightfully (it could only be only in France, well OK, and Spain I guess) named “Confraternity of the Friends of the Noir de Bigorre” came along to further pump up the meat’s visibility, with members including breeders, curers, and chefs and then in the following year a new company was set up to handle the butchering and sale of the fresh pork through local butchers and via high-profile restaurants. The breed is currently awaiting official designation as an A.O.C. (appellation d’origine contrôlée) both for its meat and for their prosciutto-style ham. And they’re not stopping there, with plans for other specialities as well, such as sausage and rolled pancetta to join the line-up. I for one can’t wait to try them all.
Word of mouth fame for the Noir de Bigorre has spread rapidly across the Old World and is now reaching as far afield as the Land of the Chrysanthemum. The latter of course are quick to recognise excellence in their porkers. Their near worship of the black Berkshire is legendary…
The breed looks more secure now; there are nearly 60 registered producers and it’s been trumpeted by some of Frances top chefs. Be aware that I’ve eaten at none of these places (yet) so this is pure name-dropping from my research, but Yves Camdeborde and Claude Colliot (a chef who I find cooked all of the dishes in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) number amongst them, along with Jean-François Piège in Paris, Michel Bras in Laguiole and Anne-Sophie Pic in Valence who also highlight this meat among their specialities.
And it’s apparent that, like the Mangalitza and the other breeds taken up by name chefs, having these big hitters on their side does wonders for the animal; people want to eat at these restaurants, they then, salivating, rush back home to order the meat from their own butchers, so in turn, the breeders see demand rise and get paid more and thus, are encouraged produce more. A virtuous and tasty circle. So, Noir de Bigorre. Add it to your list of “meats to eat and seek out”.
And one last thing?
Nu hit ys on swines dome, cwæð se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge.“It’s up to the pig now, said the man sat on the boar’s back.”
An interesting saying, if more than a little cryptic. But it isn’t really, is it? “Up to the pig” that is.
I give you fair warning that this is another two-parter so please bear with me. It’s on a subject that’s both close to my passions and heart and also one that I believe is vital for us humans to get right. I’ve talked before about the “The Pig Idea”. Take another read now and then come back here?
One of the planks in that campaign encourages the re-starting of the old swill feeding system (banned back in 2002) for pigs and is backed by some of the glitterati of the cooking and food worlds inc. Yotam Ottolenghi and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
It’s a subject that probably quite needs that reflected gloss, as swill isn’t the most attractive of words that could be used in the lexicon of recipes or one to immediately conjure up visions of beautiful and tasty food dishes, bulging with pork goodness and flavours.
But it’s also a serious and increasingly urgent subject as the problems that it throws up are ones that need wider discussion and agreement on a possible solution and then a resolve to fix them — and hell, if it’s important enough for Lord Gnome’s team to write about, then it’s sure as hell good enough for me to write about (again).
Reading this recent piece, it’s even more apparent now that the rushed decision at the time to (a) blame the outbreak of foot & mouth on the use of un-cooked swill at one farm and (b) to then ban any use of this great food source across the entire EU was a typically wrong-headed, poorly researched, knee-jerk reaction and another classic example of the “something must be done; this is something” approach to ‘government’ that has blighted so many industries and areas over the years.
Japan and South Korea — amongst others — both run safe, effective pig swill treatment systems. If the EU were to do the same, it could take around 4.5 million acres of currently strip-cleared rain-forest land out of the hugely damaging “grow soy as pig-food” production business improving and retaining the vital habitat there, reduce by leaps & bounds the amount of land-fill that is needed to, literally, cover-up food waste (or stop it being pollutingly incinerated as the other method) whilst at the same time, saving farmers vast sums on their always increasing feed bills.
Yes, you guessed it: It’s another one of those virtuous circles that worked for hundreds of years, has been broken and now needs urgently mending. But it isn’t just agreeing to start using swill again — that’s a part of it, an important part, but still only part of a much wider whole.
Factory farming, another huge blot on the escutcheon of humanity, is driven by a relentless push by the big supermarkets to reduce prices, day in, day out, in turn driven by their insane belief that “this is what the customer wants“. It may be what their short-termist shareholders and hedge-fund owners want but it’s not what most consumers want.
The majority of farmers are thus forced by these self-same supermarkets into a relentless, dangerous “race to the bottom”; being paid less and less whilst simultaneously being expected to produce more and more, often to quite frankly bizarre specifications that are only actually wanted in the head of the moronic marketeers who think that mis-shapen or irregularly coloured means “danger, danger Will Robinson” and thus make such non-compliant items unsellable to your average shopper. [They may be right that people often choose now not to buy such items, but that’s mainly the result of years of marketing indoctrination, rather than any real deep-seated aversion to knobbly fruit or veg. I’m pretty sure your parents and even more, your grandparents, would have looked askance at such rank stupidity. “It’s the flavour, stupid” they’d shout!]
[Whilst likely still only worrying about their bottom line rather than as a moral — or common-sense — stance, French supermarket chain Intermarché ran a campaign mocking the unwillingness to buy & use “ugly” food — all credit to them]
Farmers are daily being forced out of business, some committing suicide or leaving the industry — and the only apparent winners here are the supermarkets and the huge agri-combines who buy up the land at rock-bottom prices. These latter aren’t farmers in any meaningful sense, they’re just pillagers of resources and land which also happen to churn out food in their onward march to reduce everything to a “product” for their P&L accounts.
And that’s just fucking madness.
Most farmers care deeply for their animals and their produce and this concern would (and did) naturally translate into good quality food produced in humane conditions were it not for their current neu-feudalist style indenturing to the Supermarket Gods. And most shoppers can and do willingly pay more for good food — good in the sense of humanely, ethically produced food, where the cost charged to the shopper (you!) allows for a reasonable, sensible, non-slave labour, return to the farmer or producer.
So, what can I, you and everyone else do to stop this rot spreading?
For one thing, wean yourself off your need to shop at the supermarkets — but more than that, when you change your buying habits, tell them directly why you’re not using them anymore. They’re not part of the community — their profits leave the area faster than a burger slides off my plate, heading to off-shore, tax-havened owners.
Instead of solely using the supermarket, make far greater use of your local shops & suppliers. And yes, I accept that lots of you already do this. But even more of you don’t. This isn’t just some middle-class, liberal fantasy that actually only really works in Shoreditch or Hampstead Garden Suburbs; this is possible pretty much everywhere. And by local, I mean anywhere within a 25-mile radius of your home. Outside that range and it starts becoming a bit of a nightmare, attempting to justify the resultant larger carbon-footprint that everyone then starts stomping into the face of the planet 🙂 [Not surprisingly as they have some of the largest factory farms in the world, the US has a slightly more lenient definition of ‘local”. In their 2008 Farm Act, ‘local’ means anywhere within 400 miles. Riiiiiight America.]
Buying locally means you can ask about provenance — not just some poncey, Radio 4 obsessed foodie idea but actually knowing how the food was grown and the animals looked after — which means that you become part of the food-chain, influence the food-chain rather than being a passive consumer, sold to.
And because this is a local supplier, some one who may even live just down the road it thus helps keep the profits in the community, allowing these small, enthusiastic farmers and growers to get a decent return on their work rather than continually fighting to reduce their costs at the behest of the supermarket behemoths. Behemoths? No, better calling them dinosaurs. Then we can work on our own version of the planet changing K-T extinction event.
But you don’t think this is possible? OK, let’s look at some of the resources out there that’ll help you in this modern-day quest. For indeed, a quest it is [we’ll look at what the Holy Grail that results at the end might be, in a future piece…]
Think about the scary statistic* that approx. 1/3rd of all the food grown — over the entire planet — never gets eaten. That’s 1.3billion tonnes rotting in on the ground, in bins, rubbish tips and landfill, spewing out yet more of the climate altering greenhouse gas, methane.
* FAO (UN Food and Agricultural Organisation 2015)
“The path from farm to fork is broken”
And that’s why you and me — and also some interesting start-ups & more mature organisations — can and should look at starting to reduce this number. Co-incidentally, this month’s edition of Wired magazine is based around food & technology and the future, so I’ve used some of that as part of this piece.
Remember that old phrase “think globally, act locally”? I hadn’t realised quite how long ago this was being used; it was actually coined in 1915 by a Scottish architect, Patrick Geddes, and a hundred years on it’s, if anything, even more applicable.
Also co-incidentally, Olio, launched in London in 2014 and featured in this (UK only version) Wired article, finally expanded their reach outside the confines of The Smoke and have headed out to all points of the compass, including my neck of the woods where I’m one of the local ambassadors. Their mission? “…to unlock the value of food that is wasted in the home and community.” So, download the app, sign up and start sharing and save local food (truly local i.e. to and from your neighbours) from being wasted.
I think that’s enough for this half of the piece don’t you?
The second half will be a resource packed, dense over-view of as many of the excellent extant initiatives to reduce waste, improve the living conditions of both animal and farmer and generally make sure there’s more food that you can feel safe eating as I can find.
Oh. Wait. Just before you go? There’s a non-Jobsian “one last thing” as this site is also about some of what I see and do and think about and plan as part of the Salute The Pig project:
Thanks to Tom Adams, chef extraordinaire, fellow pig-lover and co-founder of the always amazing Pitt Cue (NOTE: due to re-open this month — Feb ’16 — close to The Gherkhin, their new replacement for the old place in Soho), I am now the proud owner of one of the very few, signed, original prints produced by the talented Ian McDonnell (and hand-delivered to our door by the very kind and equally talented, Adam Bridgland of Jealous Print Studio) that formerly adorned the main wall in their Soho operation. I shall have to go along when they re-open to see whether they retained it in the new place. And to see what fresh magic they have on their menu.
There’s a shot of the Pitt Cue one, in-situ, from an earlier post on our visit, available here.
My copy is yet to be unwrapped, let alone framed & hung and currently sits beside my desk in a huge protective tube, so, for the moment, here’s one of Ian’s other, smaller (the one I have is about 5′ wide!) pieces to give you an idea.
And lastly, lastly I’m wondering if there’s room to put up something like this in our (quite small and already quite crammed) kitchen…
OK, that’s it for today. More in Part Two.
And an attempt to introduce pata negra pigs (the raw ‘material’ for the transcendent jamón ibérico de bellota) into the US. Did it succeed?
tl;dr: The answer is “yes”, (of course) albeit with caveats, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this piece, but read on for a really rather fascinating tale, an act of faith, up there with that whole “walking on water” schtick — and one much more reliably documented than that bearded sky pilot shit — one to encourage anyone looking to change how stuff happens.
“This [ham] is raised in Georgia, and we substituted peanuts and pecans for acorns, and we think it’s just as good [as Iberico]. Or better.”
HT to Michael Twitty @koshersoul for this new addition to the kitchen work-top (it replaces boring old, plain, pepper) & to @hels for her great MSG tip, a jar of which also now sits at my left-hand, when cooking.
* [it has pork in it — amongst many other delights — so that absolutely, 100%, makes this totally needing of a Salute The Pig article. You should immediately go out and buy this. It’s by turns, fascinating, informative and disturbing e.g. when you read that American slaves had been roasted alive in an oven for some imagined failing in the kitchen…]