Free range pigs

A new website allows you to pick your pig, get to know it, learn all about its happy, free-range life - then have it delivered to your door chopped up and ready to eat. Toni Court goes to meet her dinner
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Meet Brad and his brothers and sisters Nelson, Shelly, Harry, Marjorie and little Lola. They're Gloucester old spot pigs. And as a pig's life goes, they're having a pretty good time.

Brad and his siblings spend their days eating grass, foraging around with their snouts for worms, taking mud-baths and engaging in play fights. They dine on the highest quality pig cereals, listen to Radio 4 and even play the occasional game of "snoutball" using a semi-deflated football. Home, a large stable in the middle of the Peak District National Park, is to a pig what Buckingham Palace is to those of us who reside in cramped terraces.

I met Brad when he was a piglet. And yes, I did name him myself, after, you can probably guess, a certain Hollywood film star who in my opinion has been exhibiting porcine behaviour recently.

But back to my Brad. I stroked him, patted him and he gazed into my eyes and made a few snuffling sounds. I think we bonded, although I would describe myself as more a distant aunt figure than proper mother to Brad.

He was raised by someone who knows a lot more than I do about raising pigs, and I was kept in the picture with regular photographs, e-mails and even a few phone calls. In the office, I proudly recounted the stories of my Brad being so eager to eat that he got his head stuck in a bucket, and boasted about his initiative when I heard he'd worked out how to escape from his paddock. What a pig, eh? A real character.

Today, though, Brad is now sitting in numerous different bits inside my deep freeze. As I can't resist a bacon sandwich, a few slices of his belly are sizzling away in my frying pan. I plan on serving one of his legs at a dinner party this weekend, throughout which Brad's photo will remain in pride of place, stuck as it is to my fridge door.

Welcome to the world of getting really, really, seriously close to your food. A weekly box of vegetables delivered covered in mud from the organic farm down the road? So last season. Now, those in the know are meeting and greeting before they even think about eating what's on their plate, thanks to the services provided by the former city boy Neil Camp and his wife, Amanda, the founders of Number One Pig.

"It's a bit like picking your own strawberries, apart from that it's pigs," says Neil. "Few of us have the time or space to keep pigs, but what we do allows you to have your own pig which will then be fed a varied, non-GM, non-medicinal, very healthy diet. You'll also be doing your bit for the continuity of rare pig breeds which play an important part in our farming heritage - pigs such as Berkshires, middle whites, Gloucester old spots, large blacks and British saddlebags. And they're all being reared in a way that is incredibly natural and environmentally friendly."

Neil's pigs are happy pigs. They wag their tails and run to the gate to be petted when they see him coming. They loll in the hay, paying scant attention to Neil's two cats observing the scene, but instead keeping one eye on the bucket that will soon be filled with their afternoon feed. In the afternoons, they are tickled, patted and scratched by Neil's three daughters, Sophie, 15, Amy, eight and Tilly, five, which turns them into the piggy equivalent of a purring cat. In summer, the girls get out the hosepipe and give the pigs mud-baths.

Neil has created a rural idyll, but describes himself as a "foodie" rather than a farmer. Five years ago, after spending more than a decade commuting between his City PR job in London and his young family, who at the time were based near his wife's parents in Yorkshire, Neil had reached a point of near exhaustion.

"I was married to my job," says Neil. "I'd enjoyed the lifestyle, the buzz of jetting off to meetings in America and juggling e-mails from my palm-top. But increasingly, I missed my family and felt as though I was missing the children growing up. Once I phoned Amanda from an LA airport and she was in a state, worried about one of our daughters who had developed asthma, and I thought, 'God, I really am a selfish person - I should be there for her.' I was also becoming disillusioned with always being number two and dreamt of breaking free and starting up my own company."

In 2000, Neil took a job in Yorkshire working for a software firm so he could spend more time at home. It wasn't until 2002, when the family moved to a spot on the edge of the Peak District just outside Chesterfield, that the idea for Number One Pig was born.

"Amanda and I had always watched programmes like Escape to River Cottage and thought we'd love to rear livestock and grow vegetables. When we moved here, we bought a house which has fields and a stable, and we had the space to do that."

Neil started off with two chickens. "I remember thinking, 'Will they survive the night?' and 'What do I have to do to look after them?' I was clueless. But they were a great way to get started as chickens are easy to look after. Soon, I was thinking about what else I could get.

"I chose pigs because Amanda and I both love bacon sandwiches. I knew they wouldn't be as easy as the chickens so I did a lot of research first."

In 2003, Neil bought two piglets from nearby Chatsworth Farm, a part of Chatsworth Manor, and named them Georgina and Pickles. "Giving them names was our first error as our daughters fell in love with them. You should never make an animal you're planning to eat into a pet."

Delivering the pigs to the abattoir was also not as straightforward as Neil had hoped. "It felt like a rite of passage," he says. "I had a nightmare loading them into the trailer and ended up mud wrestling with one of them. Then, when they were led off by the abattoir man, I felt like running after them and saving them, and I felt a bit sad about it."

Neil took one of the resulting pork shoulders to a dinner party, where the reception was more than enough to lift his mood. "Everyone thought it tasted fantastic. Our friends still talk about how delicious the crackling was," he says. "But we told the children the pigs had gone back to the farm. They would have been too upset to discover they were eating pigs they'd considered pets.

"After that, we explained to the children what we were doing and now they know exactly what goes on. We would have been honest with them initially had we not allowed them to grow attached to the animals as we think it's important for them to understand where food comes from. I also want them to understand how much food is modified nowadays and how little control we have over what we buy from shops. I picked up some pork in the supermarket recently and it said on the packet '80 per cent pork'. The rest was salt, flavourings, preservatives and enhancers. But pigs, if they're reared like ours, don't need their flavour enhanced. I hate to sound pompous, but our pigs taste how pigs are supposed to taste."

Over the past two years, Neil's pig-rearing prowess has gone from strength to strength. He has enlisted the services of an organic-standard abattoir and an organic butcher and has won the respect of hardened farmers at the abattoir, who first mocked his lack of overalls and "little trailer full of little pigs".

Although the plan was to rear pigs for his family, friends were soon asking him to rear for them, too. Neil soon found the business he had dreamt of running had landed on his doorstep.

He now has over 30 pigs, each with a designated customer. Pigs are bought at around six to eight weeks old, usually from Chatsworth Farm, although soon he will be bringing in a breeding sow. Given the boom in eating locally produced organic food, it is unlikely Neil will find himself short of customers.

"More and more people want to know all about the food they are putting inside their bodies," he says. "Our daughters have adopted the cause without any pressure from us.

"I'm not saying commercial farmers abuse pigs. But pigs reared commercially do not have the life ours do. They predominately spend their time inside or in a concrete pen, alongside many other pigs. They are brought up in set temperatures, with lights controlled by timers, fed at certain times and given drugs such as antibiotics.

"Our pigs spend weeks in the field just messing around and enjoying life. I always buy pigs in litters, even buying the runt, as they seem to be happier around family members. They all go off to the abattoir together so they never get that stressed. The way I see it, a happy animal makes happy, healthy meat.

"This isn't a business that will make me rich - to do that, I'd have to cram more pigs in, buy them cheap pig food and take on a rigid fattening schedule."

So what is it like to eat a pig that you have met? At first there is a hint of guilt. But what if, alternatively, you buy a bland piece of meat from a supermarket? That leaves concerns about the antibiotics, chemicals and preservatives used in the production. And while I know that sitting in slices on my plate might be Brad's idea of piggy hell, at least while he was here, he lived in a piggy heaven.

For details go to www.numberonepig.co.uk or call 01246 591 946

Get closer to your food

* Buy food direct from source, and you'll know exactly where it has come from and how it was grown or reared. You'll get better quality and taste than you'll find in the supermarket; you can cut down on food miles by using British produce, and you will know that the producers are getting a fair deal.

* Somerset Farm Direct sells traditionally reared lamb and mutton, plus pork, beef, duck and free-range chicken (it supplies Rick Stein's cookery school in Padstow) - all by mail order. It also has a few turkeys and geese left, if you're quick about it - there are only a few and they're getting nice and fat, the farmers tell us. Somerset Farm Direct, Bittescombe Manor, Upton, Wiveliscombe, Taunton, Somerset (01398 371387; www.somersetfarmdirect.co.uk).

* At the Riverford Organic Vegetables "field kitchen" in Devon, you can take a trailer tour of the farm to see exactly how the food is grown. Then, you get to eat some, straight from the earth, as a home-grown lunch, tea or dinner is served. Riverford Organic Vegetables, Wash Barn, Buckfastleigh, Devon (01803 762074; www.riverford.co.uk).

* The multi-award-winning Higher Hacknell farm sells and delivers organic beef, lamb and chicken, reared on home-grown organic feed, and even has an on-farm butchery, for maximum traceability, and which can prepare any cut to your requirements. Higher Hacknell Farm, Burrington, Umberleigh, Devon (01769 560909; www.higherhacknell.co.uk).

* The Soil Association ( www.soilassociation.org) has a list of organic farms up and down the country that can be visited by individuals and groups, to encourage people to get back in touch with the way that their food is actually produced.

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