Lard

 A lot goes on between meeting the curious pig in its paddock and stacking the snugly vacuum-packed pork sausages into freezer drawers two days later. Less so for the pig than for the people. The pig has a small but momentous role. A quiet, hungry night in a straw-filled trailer, a welcome bucket of food in the morning, then bang – it is all over, for the pig that is. For the perpetrators of the pig’s demise it is just starting. I am one of the perpetrators, like my husband Jon, an eager student of the ancient art of butchering. We are led by our partners in pork, raisers of the pigs and hosts of the events, Joyce and Mike at Allsun Farm. Our teachers are master slaughterman Don, who makes a living from this sort of thing down on the coast, and the redoubtable Olivier, Australian born, but more regionally Italian than an Italian. Olivier does not recognise the existence of bacon, only pancetta. He also has extremely sharp knives (being a professional chef) and knows his way around a carcass. The seventh member of the team is Ross, who is Olivier’s friend and Don’s son. Ross (according to his father at least) is a lousy butcher, but he does create bread and baked treats which are so popular, that the customers queue in the street to buy them. So Ross’s fumbling to grab the leg of the kicking pig is of far less consequence than the delicious tarts he provides for morning tea. And he does know more about butchering than he likes to let on.

There is no really horrible bit when a pig is slaughtered. It is all rather awesome, the bullet (instantaneous), the bleeding out (brief), the hot water bath to loosen the hair (messy), the gorgeous glistening innards tumbling out of the abdomen (magisterial). The really irksome work is scraping the hair off – never quite perfectly achieved, and as Don jokes “who eats the most pork, eats the most hair”. With the calm, supremely confident Don at the helm, the pig transforms from animal to carcass in twenty minutes. He is a true master, and happy to teach the enthusiastic team. For the second pig, we were without Don, and the process took longer, but it was still respectable dispatch. Once hung, scraped and eviscerated, we leave the carcass overnight for the meat to set. If you do not have a cold room, you have to slaughter in winter, and the colder the night, the firmer the meat for butchering.

The next morning we re-assemble at Joyce and Mike’s, clean benches are arranged, knives are sharpened and never enough large stainless steel bowls are collected to sort the different products. Olivier leads the butchering. The carcass is split laterally down the spine and the two halves laid out in parallel. Jon is Olivier’s apprentice for the day. Jon has worked hard at, and succeeded in, getting a professional edge on our knives. Jon, with his strong and steady hand and methodical approach to the task has the best chance of passing on the skills to us next time, in Olivier’s absence.

The cuts are pre-planned around the kitchen table. Joyce has photocopied a gothic version of a ‘cuts’ diagram such as you would find on the wall of a butcher’s shop. We joke about laminating the pictures to make table placemats. The proceedings have taken on a slightly surreal and hilarious tone, as can happen in confronting situations. We good-naturedly debate the options for using the different cuts.

Joyce and Olivier are churning with excitement over all the amazing edibles that can be obtained and created from a carcass. Things that you might have heard about, but certainly did not eat in the last week. Joyce particularly craves blood sausage and head cheese, which represent two of the more alarming delicacies and there is no competition for these bits. Joyce is Scottish-born where she presumably got a taste these sorts of things. She also wants the belly for bacon, and no one disagrees. Olivier is keen on the collar butt for roasting, and plans to make a rich creamy terrine, studded with pistachios, created from flesh and offal, and cooked gently in a water bath for hours. Joyce and Olivier’s enthusiasm stirs up my own culinary fantasies – sheftalia, a delicate Cypriot sausage we used to buy in a West End delicatessen in Brisbane. The handfuls of minced pork and lamb, combined with parsley and onion seem ordinary enough, but they are transformed when wrapped in caul fat and grilled with lemon squeezed over them. Caul fat is not often come by, so to reach into a mess of innards and gently pull out a transparent veil of membrane delicately laced with fat was a memorable experience. One piece of caul membrane can be cut up to wrap 24 sausages, exactly the amount of mixture that the recipe calls for. Someone has done this before.

I start dreaming about rillettes, seasoned fatty pork preserved under its own lard . One cold night in the winter of 1989, Jon and I dined with two friends at our chateau accommodation in the Loire Valley. We sat in a splendid dining hall decorated with mounted deer trophies and were served, on only a couple of hours notice, a legendary five course meal. The first course was a rillette tart which tasted so exquisite that it is seared into the memory of all four of us. We did a very un-French thing and ate multiple slices, unaware of the other four courses that were to follow. That was the weekend we learned of France’s favourite liver-tonic – Oxyboldine.

Rillettes are of less interest to the rest of the team than to me, but here is unanimity over sausages – we want lots more from the second pig. This is all very well, but a sausage is quite a bit of work. In the tradition of using all the parts, we make our own sausage skins from the small intestine. This is definitely a rite of passage that creates a unique appreciation of the humble sausage. There are metres of small intestine. First you detach it from the mesentery membrane and remove the membrane and fat, trying not to get it too tangled. Then you squeeze out the contents, which quite frankly, is poo extruded to reveal a fascinating gradient of development. Then you turn the whole tube inside out with the help of water and gravity. Being so slippery, they are marvellously co-operative in this regard. That’s where the fun stops. After thorough washing, the inside of the intestine needs to be scraped on both sides with the blunt side of a knife, to remove the inner membrane. This takes ages and produces copious amounts of slime which must be regularly rinsed away so you can see where the mucus still adheres. As this point, you realize that subsistence cultures must have valued sausages very highly indeed – to be that devoted to spend hours in the preparation of skins, when hamburgers are so much simpler. I suppose it is the need for preserving that drives this as well, the skins are a convenient container in which to hang, dry and store sausages and salamis. It seems the modern synthetic sausage skin may have contributed to the cheapening of the sausage to now be considered by many as a rubbish food.

Team members vary in our devotion to the creation of sausage skins – Joyce is totally committed and has a capacity for work that outstrips my own. I do dutifully process a few metres, but no one else will have a bar of it. This is a tempting attitude to adopt given that natural skins processed in Vietnam can be purchased cheaply from some butcher shops. I hope the Vietnamese have some automated techniques to produce these, for the sake of the populace. Perhaps we should only eat as many sausages as we are prepared to scrape the intestines of.

We set to work on the carcass. Jon mirrors Olivier’s skilled knifework on the second piece. Olivier is impressive. Even I, all thumbs, learn the utility of the long, smooth sustained cut. No hacking necessary with a sharp knife. I sort the pieces: the roasts, steak and chops, the bones for stock, meat for sausages, hard back fat for sausages and the soft fat for rendering. We bone out the shoulders and poorer cuts and heap up the fatty meat for mincing. The back fat needs to be diced for sausages. The work is hard – repetitive, requiring concentration in the use of such alarmingly sharp knives. Snicker-snick go the blades as they are refreshed on the steel. Joyce busies herself with the head – again, no one offers to help her, although Olivier shows us how to remove the cheeks to cure as guanciale. I find the head too confronting. Even in death with closed eyes, the pig’s entire face is smiling. The day ends with mincing meat, weighing out seasonings and stuffing sausages. Joyce fulfils a childhood desire to links sausages in threes and does it with aplomb. We share her joy rather than think, like you may, that she is mad. Not mad, just enthusiastic. We are all physically and emotionally exhausted.

Day three involves the rendering of the fat for lard and the simmering of the meat in stock for the rillettes. It takes all day, and for the first time the overwhelming lardiness feels just too much. The exhaust fan comes to the rescue, and the rendered fat – the lard – comes up snowy white as it should. There is always the risk of overcooking and browning the meat from which the fat is being extracted, a tasty result, but less useful for things such as pastry and cakes. There is enough lard for chips, but not right now. I recover in time for dinner, when we meet at our house to vacuum pack the sausages and freeze them, oh and of course to eat pork.

We revel in the creation and consumption of all that lard over these days. We roast ribs, spread rillettes and dripping on hot toast and cut generous slices of terrine, we taste test the sausages. We have used virtually all the carcass, and the worms, chooks and dogs get the remainder, so nothing is wasted. I am smug in the knowledge that our unbridled lard consumption would be reviled by 95% of the Western world, but confident that we are doing the right thing nutritionally. As for the pigs, we witnessed their contented, greedy, guzzling free-range existence. Pigs don’t grunt or oink, it is a much more likable noise, a resonant combination of gurking and snorking. On the farm they were valued as organic cultivators of the vegetable beds, and seemed calm right up to the end. I hope they would have appreciated our joyous transgressions into gluttony. Probably not, but we are grateful to them in any case.

Sue McIntyre,  June 2011.

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