How my prize pigs became sausages
Keen to get closer to his food, Ian Irvine decided to experiment with raising his own pork. The result? A year's supply of nose-to-tail treats – and a whole new set of charcuterie skills.
Thursday 20 December 2012
Sausages weren't the first reason that my brother and I decided to keep pigs, but they pretty soon became the pre-eminent one.
The idea had been at the back of both our minds for some time. Richard and I were very interested in food and cooked and entertained a lot. New techniques, recipes and ingredients were always interesting to us.
The high-minded purpose behind raising our own pork was that of taking the moral responsibility for being meat-eaters – we would ensure these creatures had a happy and comfortable existence while they lived. And the rather lower purpose was that we could acquire at a reasonable price a year's supply of top-quality meat and the opportunity to create our own charcuterie.
My brother had enough land around his house in Midlothian to build a sty and an enclosure. And after not too much bureaucracy last March we took possession of two piglets, both Gloucester Old Spots, a rare breed noted for the quality of its pork and its ability to fatten up well. We called them Trotsky and Streaky, though they were both girls.
They did indeed put on weight at an impressive rate on a diet of pig nuts, kitchen scraps and the day-old loaves from the local baker.
Our research for what we intended to make of them was enormously pleasurable. There is an astonishing amount of useful information on the subject on the web. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's DVD, A Pig in a Day, was extremely helpful and we devoured many books. In the end the most useful of the lot was Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Rolycyn, for its comprehensiveness and practical rigour. Jane Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery was also an inspiration.
I also went to an evening course run by my excellent local butcher in Greenwich, Drings, at which I learnt how to deal with half a pig, sawing and slicing it into its various joints. The evening also included sausage-making, which gave a wealth of practical tips, and I left loaded with carrier bags of rolled joints and five or six kilos of Italian and English sausages.
At the end of September my brother took Trotsky and Streaky to the slaughterhouse and the following day I travelled up to Scotland. We then spent three days turning our beasts, now returned to us as four halves – cleaned, shaved and chilled – and an assortment of organs, into a roll-call of pork products (after a strenuous afternoon of sawing and boning). Two of the hind legs we covered in an apple juice and cider brine for Christmas hams.
The other two we completely covered in salt and packed away until next year in the hope that we could produce a Scottish equivalent of Parma ham. From the bellies we made bacon and pancetta, and from the loins we cut chops and boned and rolled roasting joints. There was a great pile of ribs to freeze for summer barbecues. The heads and trotters we simmered for hours and then picked apart and made into vast quantities of brawn, or fromage de tête, if you're being fancy. With the livers and some belly we made 24 glass jars of paté.
Then it came to the shoulders – which is what you mostly make sausages from. After boning and chopping and mincing, we started with the charcuterie – variously four garlic saucissons, four finocchiona salamis (flavoured with fennel seeds), four chorizos, and two coppas.
Then came the fresh sausages. My brother had invested in a substantial mincer that came with a sausage-stuffing attachment. This made production very easy, given the amount of sausage meat we were dealing with, but I have had successful results previously with a small and inexpensive plastic sausage gun, rather like a giant syringe, which would be fine if you were only making a couple of pounds.
As ever, the internet is your best friend for all your butchering and charcuterie supplies, for boning knives, pickling salt, saltpetre, spices and sausage skins. We used three different types of skins, all natural casings. The thinnest (for chipolatas) were lamb intestines; the medium size (for bangers) from pigs, and the biggest were beef middles for our various dried salamis.
We made two types of French sausage: a herby Italian one and a simple English one. The first was made by mixing the sausage meat with dried thyme, rosemary, minced garlic, salt, black pepper and red wine; the second with just mace, a bit of ginger, salt and white pepper. Once you've made your mix, form a small amount into a little burger and fry it to taste for the seasoning.
Once everything is ready, the actual sausage-making goes pretty quickly. One of you keeps loading the sausage meat into the funnel while the other gently guides it into the skin, ensuring it is never over or under filled. When it's done, you'll have a couple of metres of sausage and you should form them into links. This is the most satisfying new skill I've acquired in decades and I recommend learning it. The butchers at Drings taught me how, but there are videos on YouTube that can show you. With a few deft loops and pinches you can create a string of sausages in threes which you should then hang from a butcher's hook to firm up overnight.
We probably made 15kg of sausage and with a vacuum sealer, another excellent and inexpensive piece of kit, we bagged them into 1kg batches. I had to buy an extra freezer to hold all my pork.
The cost of each pig, its feed and the cost of slaughter came to £286, which eventually worked out at £6 a kilogram for all our various products.
Very reasonable, we felt.
Back in London I picked up a few tips of sausage-making from the Argentine chef, Diego Jacquet, whose new restaurant, Zoilo, in Duke Street, Marylebone, has been acclaimed for char-grilled specials. The Argentines, as one knows, are big meat-eaters and have their own tradition of sausage-making, especially chorizo and salchicha parrillera (recipe left, though you're not obliged to make 10kg at a time – just scale it down).
Texture is one of the most interesting aspects of the sausage and there are a variety of things one can do to alter it. The British tradition adds some rusk to the mix, which bulks out the meat of course, but does give a more solid construction. A pure meat sausage, especially if it is on the lean side, can fall apart when you cut it.
Jacquet showed me a tip he picked up from an Italian butcher: once you've mixed in your salt and spices pick up a handful and throw it on to your working surface. Do it a few times and you will see that your sausagemeat becomes more adhesive and when you cook it, it will have a better texture. Worthwhile trying, though possibly not if you're making 10kg.
As for me, I've certainly got the habit. Next year my brother and I are certainly getting another pair of piglets in the spring. And very possibly some lambs. I'm very fond of merguez, those very hot and spicy lamb sausages from North Africa that you can find all across France in couscous restaurants. I can't wait to have a crack at making them.
Zoilo restaurant zoilo.co.uk
By Diego Jacquet
Sausage skin (we recommend collagen – 21mm diameter – or sheep's skin)
6kg pork shoulder
4kg pork clean back fat
150g "aji molido" (chili flakes)
5 garlic cloves
250ml white wine
Mince the shoulder and the fat, mix very well.
Combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and add to the mix little by little, ensuring that the mix is well combined and the spice is spread throughout. Heat the garlic in the wine, let cool, discard the garlic and add infused wine to the mix.
Allow to rest overnight and mix again, breaking up the meat as much as possible by working it on the bench (hit it as hard as you possibly can). If you are using collage skin, oil it very well as you feed it on to the output of the sausage machine.
If you are using natural skin, rinse with ice-cold water for 30 minutes before use. We do recommend you shape the sausage in spiral form and each one should be around 150g. Grill slowly until you get a nice golden crust and serve with chimichurri sauce.
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