One bleak morning in the dead heart of a winter that was beginning to feel interminable, an invitation intriguingly entitled "Pig Weekend" landed in my inbox. It had been sent from the Auberge de Chassignolles, an eight-room country inn in the Auvergne, and it proposed a three-day workshop: "The weekend will begin with the butchery of a whole pig and conclude with the taking home of a range of charcuterie products that participants have made themselves. Potted meats –brawn, terrine and rillettes – will be jarred and can be taken immediately. Saucissons will be prepared for curing, labelled and hung to dry here in Chassignolles. These will be forwarded by post two to three months later."
I approved of the all-inclusiveness of the set-up. The cost not only included four nights at the Auberge plus all meals and wine, but all materials (ie, not only the pig but also preserving jars and whatever other miscellany the adventure would require), and – this I loved best – postage costs to send the sausages back to the UK. An even bigger draw was the fact that I knew the food would be outstanding – the Auberge de Chassignolles is owned by Ali Johnson and her partner (in life and love) Harry Lester of London's acclaimed Anchor & Hope gastro-pub. From my mid-winter perch, I could think of nothing more interesting and potentially hilarious than the prospect of a bunch of would-be food lovers gathered myopically close to a whole hog over a long weekend. As it turned out, it wasn't one hog. There were two – split down the middle, half a swine each per pair of charcuterial acolytes.
It had been snowing for days and the outdoor temperature was hovering somewhere around -11C when eight eager students arrived at the Auberge for the Pig Weekend. The effect of all that weather was charming – the little hamlet had a Narnia-like dreaminess and appeared frozen in sleep, except for the faded pink Auberge whose lights shone out like an invitation.
Breakfast was served between 8am and 9am – fresh squeezed orange juice, crusty bread, homemade jam, tart yoghurt from the Cantal, and possibly the best café in the whole of France, courtesy of Ali, who impressively combines her work at the Auberge with parenting the couple's four-year-old son, Fred, and a cherubic little baby named Isobel. We were meant to enjoy our petit déjeuner but not to linger. There was work to be done. Harry issued us each a dark-blue apron and with one hand resting proprietorially on a creamy-pink pork shoulder, told us that over the next three days we were going to extract every bit of edible goodness from "our" pigs.
With that we paired off and hauled 40-odd kilos of pork side to work tables set up in the hotel dining room. Harry passed around diagrams illustrating both English and French cuts of pork, which mostly served to remind us that if it is at all possible for the English and the French to do things differently, they will.
Everything we were about to make was born of the age-old necessity to preserve meat without refrigeration (which explains why the dead of winter is traditionally the best time to butcher a pig). In that ancient endeavour, salt – used in both wet and dry curing – is man's best friend. It is not, however, his only friend. Harry presented us with buckets of aromatic brine and a dry mixture of salt seasoned with citrus zest, sugar, herbs, garlic and spices. Curing, he explained, is a subtle matter of giving while taking away, of infusing flavour while neutralising whatever would cause the meat to spoil. Sugar, for example, dissolved into a brine, softens the effects of salt on the meat. Juniper, allspice, star anise and herbs all add flavour.
We set to work reducing the pigs to the sum of their parts: skin, trotters and heads for brining; fat cut into cubes; meat set aside to be chopped, minced or seasoned. Good butchering is all about getting the knife into the right place – skilfully navigating tendons, joints, sinew and bone rather than hacking away with brute force. That, at least, is the theory. In practice, we puzzled over our pigs and craned our necks to see how our neighbours were getting on. Harry mostly left us to our own devices, like a good teacher who has set a project in motion and measures its success by the level of absorbed intentness with which his students are working. A neighbour came by for a glass of wine, watching us with folded arms and an expression of benign bemusement (of the sort reserved for city folk playing at the role of nouveaux paysans). By the end of the morning, our pigs were hardly recognisable – except, of course, for the heads and trotters floating in our brine buckets.
We relished lunch with the enthusiasm of lumberjacks after a long day in the woods. In retrospect, we relished perhaps a bit too much. It was more than a little challenging to consume platters of salty ham, mustard and homemade gherkins, poached sausages with boiled potatoes, more of that delightful bread, all merrily washed down with local biodynamic red wine, and resume our duties with anywhere near the bright perkiness we'd exhibited that morning. Un petit café (rather than a longed-for siesta) to jolt ourselves out of a stupor, and we set to making what is affectionately known in France as the "poor man's paté" – les rillettes..........
Livers, kidneys, spleens and hearts had been set aside for paté de campagne, to be seasoned and combined with minced pork, cognac, and onions simmered in butter and red wine. Our rillettes required nothing more than the fatty end of the pork belly (rindless, cubed and seasoned with salt confit), a generous glass of white wine, a splash of water and several hours over a low flame in a heavy cast-iron pot.
The humble rillettes were a perfect first project to cut our teeth on. By the time we began making brawn – picking apart pig heads, thinly slicing ears and discarding eyes, glands and bones in favour of the tender head meat – we were far too interested in what we were doing to even consider being squeamish. That said, I still prefer the term "brawn" to the French fromage de tête or "head cheese".
For all his 33 years, Harry's love of his work and his willingness to share his knowledge commanded respect, and we took our brief apprenticeships seriously. He let us learn by doing rather than by watching – which, in addition to being infinitely more pleasurable, is surely the only way to get a handle on what is essentially a tactile and sensual enterprise. He also gave us a bit of leeway when it came time to resolving such dilemmas as how we wanted to season our sausages and how finely ground we wanted the mince in our terrines. Among our number were purists who wouldn't contemplate the addition of anything as untraditional as pistachios to their saucissons, and creative types who were less concerned with how things were "always done" than with satisfying their curiosity and answering to their own tastebuds.
Of course, to say that we took our time at Harry's seriously does not mean that we plodded along with grim-faced solemnity. I defy anyone to avoid lavatorial humour while slipping a hog casing over a lubricated sausage-stuffing tube. We rather quickly stopped comparing sausages to body parts when we began to realise that stuffing a sausage casing until it is airless, but not so much that it bursts, not to mention properly tying off the little devils is, in fact, much harder than it looks. All in all, we attempted three types of naturally preserved sausages, free of nitrates and other chemical nasties – one of which we subjected to a homemade smoker; another (the largest) which is traditionally swaddled in muslin like a baby, and goes by the name Jésus.
We labelled our efforts and turned them over to Ali to hang in a cool, dark place to cure. I had a missive from her a few weeks later in which she reported the following: "The sausages are all hanging up now and look AMAZING! I will be sending round pictures soon to keep everyone up-to-date with their progress!"
I can't say with any certainty that I'll be potting my own pork and making my own charcuterie from home in the future – but I don't really think that was the entire point of the Pig Weekend. When friends came around shortly after, it was with the greatest delight that I pried open my little glass jar of rillettes, scraped away the white layer of fat (which acts like sealing wax) and daubed the savoury bronze paste on toast. Those very friends reserved a spot at the table when the sublimely delicious (if I say so myself) sausages arrived a few months later. Next year I suspect mes amis will be at the Auberge de Chassignolles making their own.
The course costs 500 euros per person, including 4 nights full board and all materials used during the weekend. Auberge de Chassignolles, Le Bourg 43440, Chassignolles, Haute Loire, France; (0)4 71 76 32 36 or aubergedechassignolles.com
Variations of a potée can be found all over rural France and northern Europe. This is a simple and frugal farmhouse stew and the ingredients are very flexible; the turnips could be substituted with swede or even parsnip. If you can't find appropriately meaty sausages, then leave them out – though a cotechino, available in all Italian delicatessens, would work perfectly in their place.
Potée à l'auvergnate is made entirely with pork, but one could equally include a chicken or a hunk of silverside. Assuming you haven't butchered a pig recently, the recipe calls for things available at a butcher's but salt ribs, belly, blade and home-made sausages would also be ideal here.
1 unsmoked ham hock
15cm piece of green bacon, unsmoked
1 large boiling sausage or 6 pure meat sausages (see above)
1 large onion, peeled and studded with 5 cloves
6 largish carrots, peeled and cut in half on the diagonal
1 cabbage (Savoy, Hispi or January king), cut into 6 wedges
12 small waxy potatoes
A bouquet garni of celery, bay and thyme, wrapped in sheath of leek
A glass of white wine
Put the bacon and the ham hock in a soup pot, cover with 4 litres of water and bring to a simmer. After about 10 minutes taste the water – if it is very salty, change it and repeat. If you're happy with it (it should be very slightly salty), add the studded onion, the wine, the bouquet garni and the peppercorns. Simmer, periodically skimming the fat and scum off the broth, until the meat is tender (this should take around two hours).
Meanwhile, boil the potatoes, peel them and set to one side. Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil and blanch the cabbage for 3 minutes, drain and set to one side.
Once the meat is cooked, add the carrots and turnips to the pot along with the sausage. After about 15 minutes, add the cabbage. Ten minutes later check all the vegetables are tender and add the potatoes to heat through while you lay the table.
Serve with mustard, gherkins, rye bread and a light, fruity red wine.
You can make this simple and delicious broth with some of the leftover meat and liquid from the potée.
About 500g leftover meat, chopped
2 litres leftover liquid (or top up with water)
500g green or yellow split peas
1 carrot, finely sliced
Mint, for serving
Cover the peas with water and bring to a boil; they will produce a thick white scum. Drain and rinse the peas and return them to the pan. Cover with the leftover liquid (top up with water if you don't have enough). The peas should be completely submerged. Add the sliced vegetables and bay leaf and bring to a slow simmer, adding liquid or water if and when you need it. When the peas are no longer holding their shape and have become one with the broth, add the chopped meat and heat through. Taste for salt and pepper. If you like, stir in some mint before serving.
Serve with crusty bread, butter and a good bottle of ale.