Smell is reputedly one of the strongest and most evocative of the senses available to us humans — this note about the smell from a piece of mortadella reminding the writer of the same food his mother gave him as a child living in Italy, strongly supports that idea.
In my case, this memory road jaunt is set a-rolling by the smell of pork bacon cooking in the frying pan, reminding me of family breakfasts cooked by my Mother (it was always Bar — I remember Bernie was up and out & about very, very early for the farm work) every day, over the old Rayburn range, for the five children before we (often) walked to school.
This picture reminds me a lot of of those days.
The old Rayburn
For years we lived on pig farms, so access to fresh, locally sourced, locally slaughtered pork and other pig goodness wasn’t ever a problem. I recall helping my Dad kill the annual Christmas pig he was given each year (as a “bonus” on top of the pretty poor wages he and others involved in farming received) using a bolt gun, grunting & heaving as we lifted it up, tied its legs together hanging the carcase and slicing the carotid & jugular veins to drain the blood — used later in black puddings — finally watching as the local butcher went on to dissect, rend, chop and slice the pig into every one of its constituent parts (some of which you can see here in an old French “map”). I’m not sure it was strictly according the more relaxed food hygiene regs in place then but no one was going to refuse it…
Slaughtering the pig in the Middle Ages
It’s a messy, sometimes very noisy process as pigs are bright, smart, clever animals and often knowing what’s ahead of them, divine what’s about to be done to them and their companions. I love them alive and I love them when dead. Dad always said “you can eat everything on a pig, apart from the squeak”. And of course, he’s right, well mostly right — people will discard the gall bladder, the eyes and the rectum [see the fuller descriptions in this section on butchery].
Not us either… Illustration of medieval pig stunning, from The Medieval Cookbook
The smell of the lard — in those days the option available to most, long before olive oil or vegetable fats became generally available — the brightly yellow-yoked, warm eggs, again fresh from hens wandering around the farm or in the garden and toast, dripping with butter & chunky cut marmalade, completes the olfactory picture that I sketch in full colour in my head, every time I catch these aromas.
This week has been a little frenetic with new clients work but I’ve now had a chance to write-up some words on the British Lop pig on its own history page.
Over the hills and far away: An old, old breed, it was one of the two main types seen in England — at least until the mid-18th Century — the small, dark, prick-eared pig, found mainly in Scotland and a larger, lop-eared, white or bi-coloured one located in England & Wales. Both had slowly evolved from the native wild boars (Sus scrofa) of Europe and Asia that were to be found in broad-leaf woodlands & forests where they easily thrived, in both disparate climates.
The boars heavy-shouldered body, with an erect tail, was covered in stiff, brownish-grey bristles which stood up along their neck and shoulders. Hunted by man, their piglets were often caught during the long chase and brought home, later to be tamed, bred & traded.
Pigs aren’t really of much use in a nomadic existence as man soon found out, as they’re difficult to herd over longer distances, so instead, they became the staple of the rapidly settling farmers who, giving up nomadic travels, domesticated the wild breeds, finding that pigs thrived when confined at night and then released and herded by day, leaving them to forage on acorns and beechmast.
Gradually also the morphology of the wild pig changed; its head became smaller, noses and legs became shorter and the entire body lengthened & broadened. In most examples, the bristly hair became finer and smoother and the tails started curling. Romans, as well as building great roads and saunas, had managed to get pig breeding down to a fine art although their knowledge of such fine uses for pork as cured and sausage making, became lost after the fall of the empire, only being re-discovered in the Middle Ages.
As an aside: there’s a great usage of the word “pannage“ that I only recently came across, and that I’m going to (mis-)appropriate as a description of how I eat, namely, grazing and rooting around in likely looking (often dark & dank) locations for sustenance or when dipping into the unknown delights of various identical street food containers.
It also (and more accurately!) refers tothe practice of leaving the pigs rooting around in the forest and woodland for acorns, chestnuts etc. Often this was a right or privilege granted to local people on the common land or within royal forests. Occasionally, their owners would even, er, “encourage” the nuts to fall for their animals
Men knocking down acorns to feed swine, from the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter, MS. Royal 2 B VII f.81v
Especially in the eastern shires of England, pannage was so prominent a value in the economic importance of local woodland that it was often employed, as in the Domesday Book (1086), as a unit of measurement. Customarily, a pig was given to the lord of the manor for every certain number of pigs loosed de herbagio (as the right of pannage was described).
Pannage is no longer carried out in most areas, but is still observed in the New Forest, where it is also known as “common of mast”. It is still an important part of the forest ecology and helps the husbandry of the other New Forest livestock – pigs can safely eat acorns as a large part of their diet, whereas excessive amounts may be poisonous to ponies and cattle.
The minimum duration of the New Forest pannage season is 60 days, but the start date varies according to the weather – and as to when the acorns fall. The Court of Verderers decides when pannage will start each year.
At other times pigs are not allowed to roam in and on the forest, with the exception that breeding sows (known as “privileged sows”) are by custom allowed out, providing that they return to the owner’s holding at night and are not a nuisance. The pigs each have several nose rings clipped into their noses to prevent them rooting too much and causing damage to grassland. (Wikipedia)
It’s important to remember that the pig has always been hugely important for the poor, the peasants, the rural inhabitants. Pork was often the only meat easily — and more importantly legally (deer & swan being off-limits unless you wanted to risk being hung or have limbs removed) — available to them and even as recently as between the two World Wars, it was commonplace for people to keep a pig at the bottom of their gardens for their own consumption.
I guess that the current posh rich boys in the government will make following this fine example of self-sufficiency and as a hedge against starvation, into a serious and prison-time earning terrorist offence pretty soon…
And also a note that the British Saddleback was crossbred from the Essex and Wessex varieties and has popped up in the depths of Cambridgeshire, that’s all.
So, today: located in the quiet, rolling countryside, barely four, sign-posted, miles outside the ‘city of perspiring dreams’, is Burwash Manor Farm, a fascinating and popular organic farm run by the 4th (“assisted by the 5th”) generation of the Radford family.
We arrived to find some of the family & crew wiping their brows and congratulating each other on having finally and successfully re-captured one of their Duroc boars, one who seems to make a regular habit of breaking free from anywhere he’s confined. If you know anything of boars, you’ll know that they’re smart, energetic, intelligent and persistent — if they can find a hole in a fence or wooden structure, they’ll work their way through, eventually — so his almost uncanny ability to emulate Henri Charrière is hardly surprising.
After a walk around some of the acreage of their fields, we felt virtuous enough to decamp to The Larder, a beautiful, beamed, high-ceilinged barn looking as though it’s recently had more than a few pounds spent on a re-furbishment and now working as a great delicatessen. I could have spent hours there and made myself penniless. Instead, we managed to escape with a couple of pounds of their British Saddleback bacon, some farm-made Scotch eggs and a few other items that fitted neatly into the bags (and yes, we forgot the box of fresh farm eggs that we’d paid for!).
It’s a great place. We’re going back. Oh, by the way, there are a LOT of other shops there, not “just” the deli and there’s a working blacksmith on site as well.