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Food And Drink: This little piggy ...

In these joyless days of low-fat breakfasts, a heartwarming tale of good husbandry and a free-range British porker. Illustration by Stephen Fowler
Of late, it seems that there have been a few problems surrounding the proud British pig. It seems that one of our most happy and gently bred animals (have you ever seen the mucky big fields in which they saunter around as you motor alongside their low fences in Suffolk and Norfolk?) is being nudged aside by unscrupulous people who choose to import parts of a cheaper, unknown, overseas pig?

Of course, it's all down to the bacon in the end. And the most ridiculous thing of all is that we are constantly being warned off eating one of the most endearingly British meals of all: "The Cooked Breakfast" (even Simpson's-in-the-Strand now offers a healthier alternative to pig's nose). And if most of our working population is now supposed to be spooning a live-lo-fat-slimline-lemongrass-yoghurt over their muesil why is there any need for more bacon in the first place?

I am moved to be so pro-pig by recent events, which, I am thrilled to announce, came about simply by a happy correspondence with a pernickety reader. Michael Birkett's first letter to me, gracefully scripted with interesting serifs and curlicues (I have always been a sucker for elegant handwriting: to date, three chefs have been employed at Bibendum simply due to their calligraphic ease) had moaned over the cost of dried morel mushrooms. I had suggested using four ounces of said desiccated fungus in a sumptuous recipe on these pages. But this constituted an outlay of around about 40 quid - which is, I suppose, rather a lot for creamed mushrooms on toast. My shoddy mistake with the kitchen scales moved me to dispatch (by registered mail and with additional insurance and strong gum) compensatory back-up of a further handful for use on another day. For the record, I think the correct measurement should have been around about an ounce. A charming but thoroughly deserved slap on the wrist.

A more recent Birkett epistle, which included a mild tut-tut over the intricacies (his versus mine) of the dry Martini, caused me to call round and deliver a copy of my latest book, Gammon and Spinach (a collection of these articles from The Independent). His wife, you see, was refusing to buy it for him for Christmas and, as I happened to be in his vicinity at the time, it seemed a good opportunity to partake of one of his Martinis.

"You have all Simon's cuttings anyway squashed into that scrapbook, and it's time you stuck them in!" scolded Gloria Birkett "But never mind about that. Come and do the pig with us in January." Do the pig? "Oh yes! Come and see her. She is referred to as 'the weaner'. We could never give a name to a pig we knew we were going to eat. Heavens no. She came to us from Arthur, has lived with Poppy for nearly one year and we shall dispatch her in January. Poppy is a five-year-old Gloucester Old Spot and quite adorable. You will come, won't you? Come and help us do the weaner proud? I want to make bacon. I already make a very good brawn. Do you like making rillettes? Are your knives sharp?"

So we did pig. I don't think I have ever had as rewarding a butchery experience since I was a young lad in my first French kitchen. All those early moments of discovery and tuition came flooding back to me over that carnal weekend.

With the help of the remarkable Arthur (a friend to the Birketts and a smallholder of local repute - his eggs are gorgeous), who hefted the larger parts of the weaner and also trimmed mean morsels for young Tom Birkett's (16) stir-fries, the pig eventually took shape into joints, extremities, enormous chunks of magnificent fat and stock-pot bones.

I know that this is simply a story of country folk and their pig, but it is one of enthusiasm, pride and good husbandry. And it is essentially these points that should be recognised in the British pig farmer. When we were sitting down to eat the delicious rillettes, the conversation turned towards those funny little jars of Shippham's pastes (we were not thinking in comparative terms here), which prompted Michael Birkett to recall the instruction that used to be on each and every lid: "Prick with a pin - and push off." My sentiments exactly, towards those who ruinously shop elsewhere for our morning bacon