Since I got the two little bacon seeds back in early May, having a couple of other animals in our little menagerie has been a fun part of the daily routine around our house.
Mostly, it was just a part of my morning ritual to walk out, feed the pigs and check their water. Maybe give them a good morning scratch on the head, and that'd be about it. But they'd squeal and snort anytime we walked towards the barn to say hello, and we all got used to the antics of Chorizo & Honeydew.
As they got bigger, I expanded their range a couple of times. A good quarter acre or more of our property is wooded fringe behind our barn, and it was perfect for the two Gloucester Old Spot pigs to range and root and explore. They were so well trained to the electric fence that I'd have to entice them over where the line used to be each time I expanded the area. A bag or two of peanuts in the shell or a few apples usually did the trick. They did a great job of clearing out a lot of the scrubby undergrowth I'd been meaning to get to.
Mostly, they ate pig feed. It's pressed grain, and they liked it. I was surprised at how picky they were - they wouldn't eat just any scraps. They loved any fruit. And I was lucky enough to score whey from a cheesemaking friend-of-a-friend, which they really dug into.
But vegetable scraps from the garden were a hit or miss. When some of my radish crop got too big and woody, I tossed in a bucket full, with the greens. They turned their nose up. Potatoes were kind of blah for them. But when I brought out wheelbarrows full of apple pumice leftovers from this year's cider pressing party, they loved it.
To balance everything out, I mixed in peanuts with their feed. About 15% or so of what they ate were either raw or roasted in-the-shell peanuts. They didn't eat the shells. They'd crack them, eat the nuts, and spit the shells back out.
I had read Pig Perfect last winter in preparation for our pig-rearing adventure. The author had chased down the best hams in the world, and then traced back to the pigs they came from. They all start with the black pigs raised on the oak scrub pastures of northern Spain, eating acorns and other findings. I don't have enough acorns to make that workable. But peanuts, that I can do.
For a while, I was buying big fifty pound bags of peanuts in the shell at the feed store. They were about $2/lb, and I figured I may have to sacrifice a bit of the children's college tuition savings to keep the pigs in feed over the course of the summer, but at least we'd have some good tasting bacon.
Then one day I spotted 5 lb bags of roasted, in the shell peanuts at our local grocery store for less than $6/lb. I did the math in my head. That was way cheaper. And I didn't figure the pigs would mind if the peanuts had been roasted.
I went and grabbed another cart and filled it completely with every bag the store had. And a diet coke. When I got up to the cash register, I got a couple of strange looks. I just said "Pigs" and left it at that. They hurried me out.
Our friends kept saying to us, "Oh, you're going to have such a hard time when it comes time to... slaughter... them."
The word slaughter was always said in a bit of a whisper.
I'd just shake my head. "No. The pigs are livestock. Not pets. There's never been any doubt as to what their destiny was."
I like the pigs. We made sure they had a good, low-stress life wand were healthy and well taken care of. But let's remember: we're only a generation or two from a time when nearly everybody had some meat in their backyard. Pigs are easy going and personable. They'd sprawl out at my feet and let me scratch their belly ('Who's got the good little bacon? You've got the good little bacon!') But that didn't change what they were there for. We just enjoyed them while they were around.
I asked a buddy in town with a trailer if he'd help me taxi them up to the slaughterhouse. I sweetened the deal with a promise of some prosciutto in trade for his time and service.
He brought his trailer over the day before we were transporting the pigs. I cut an area out of the fence, and put up a temporary chute onto the trailer. I moved their food up into the back of the trailer, and left them to it.
Since the pigs are so well trained to the fence, I wasn't worried about shutting off the electricity. They only ever got out of their area one time when they were very young (and small enough to slip under the bottom line of the fence). And I think they were more surprised than anyone to be on the wrong side of the line.
But since they are so well trained to where the line is, I had to drop a line of tempting peanuts and apple bits up into the trailer so they'd know where things were. They were a little nervous of the big metal & wood box. But when I walked out a couple of hours later, they had clearly been in and eaten. Each of them followed me up into it individually, but they weren't in it together, so I let them have one more night in their pen.
In the morning, we all got up to see the pigs off. I walked into the trailer and poured a last bag of peanuts into a bucket for them, and they followed me right in. When I shut the gate, they munched happily, and we all got a last scratch and a 'thanks for being good pigs'.
The Boy definitely had a little bit more mixed feelings about things, and we had a good conversation about happy livestock and how we treat our animals. And how much we appreciate what they do for us. He still was a bit wistful, but he said he was happy to know where his food came from. And I promised we'd throw a mini party when we made our first bacon sandwich, in honor of the pigs.
This year, I was trying a new slaughterhouse. The small one a few towns west of us in Massachusetts was always super busy this time of year, and I just hadn't felt as good about the interaction last year as I might have. Especially not when I had put all the care into raising pigs of my own this year.
The process at LeMays up in Goffstown, NH was good - each pig was ear tagged as they came in. This ensured that the pigs didn't get mixed up (which was good - there was a trailer behind us with two pigs of the exact same breed. But they were a good 20% smaller than mine. I wouldn't want them to get confused!)
I always go in for kill-only, as I was planning on picking the carcasses up and taking them to the butcher I've been working with for years.
I helped unload the pigs, gave them a final pat and headed out, already looking forward to seeing them split a couple of days later.
I wasn't disappointed.
Chorizo's hanging weight surprised me. He was 265 lbs. Which meant that on the hoof, he was almost 300 lbs (they lose 30 lbs or more of blood and offal in the cleaning process.)
Honeydew was about 25 lbs smaller. But both exceeded my expectations. I'd have been happy with anything approaching 250.
I took the Critter with me again - we loaded the pigs up in the back of my truck and headed down to a guy I think is probably the best butcher in the Boston area. He and I have been dealing in whole animals since we moved to the area, more or less. He knows how I want them cut, and always helps me come up with new ideas to try.
This tradition of father-daughter slaughterhouse day may have to change a little next year, as I've promised the Boy he can come along.
I have to make sure he has his share of good stories to tell his therapist later in life as well, after all.
Driving down the highway with a bunch of pink, meaty carcasses wrapped in plastic in the bed of my truck is always a bit of a treat. I always worry a little about what passing motorists might thing. On the other hand, they tend not to cut me off. So there's that.
It was a beautiful day - we're wrapping up a perfect autumn here in New England. And taking the animals to the butcher is as much a part of that for us as watching the leaves change.
It's a part of the rhythm of things in our house. The freezers are mostly empty, and the prosciutto boxes are waiting to be filled. And knowing this year we have pigs of our own makes it even more enjoyable to know we'll soon be filling them up with meat for the coming year.
I didn't snap the best pictures when I dropped them off in the shop. But you can see the carcasses here, split and ready.
(What did you expect to see when you read this far? Pictures of puppy dogs and rainbows?)
They looked good - I walked through the cuts that were most important to me. 3 prosciuttos, and one dress ham. 3 bellies without skin for pancetta. One with skin for other dishes. One dressed crown roast for Christmas. I like English-style back bacon, so I sacrifice pork chops for more loin & ready-to-cure cuts.
After that, I get less choosy. However, you can see that huge strip of fat across the back of the pig - I did ask to keep as much of that intact as I can. I'll be making lardo again with that - I've never had a pig with such a good layer of fat, and I can't let it go to waste!
The rest of the meat will come more or less as it speaks to Mike & Maureen (the butchers). Plenty of meat to make sausage, guanciale, or whatever else strikes my fancy. Ribs of various cuts to cook or give away. I've no doubt we'll be enjoying our two piggy friends for many months to come.
They've got this picture below on the wall above the counter.
I trust them.
Would I do it again next year? I don't know. I'm still thinking about it.
I enjoyed the routine and the care for the animals. And I can't say it's a lot of work, really. Especially now that I know what I'd be getting into. But it's a commitment, and I have other projects I want to try my hand at.
For now, I'll enjoy my Christmas ham and plan out what kinds of sausage we're going to try, and we will celebrate our friends, Chorizo and Honeydew each time we sit down together to a good, home-raised meal.