It's called Mett," one of my new German friends offers up helpfully as I prod tentatively with a fork at a mound of raw, pink pork meat surrounded by chopped onions. "Germans like to eat it for breakfast."
I have encountered many strange foods on my journeys around the globe, but I strongly suspect that, at this point, I am the subject of an elaborate Teutonic joke – that is, until my friend pushes past me and dives in. He helps himself to large spoonfuls of the meat, spreading it thickly on warm crusty rolls and then layering it with the chopped onions. His eyes roll back with pleasure as he takes his first mouthful, and he is soon returning for second helpings.
It may not have been my first choice for a morning meal, but in the spirit of "Go everywhere, eat everything" on which I have based the second half of my life, I think I should give it a go. I begin to fashion my own. My first bite tells me that the Germans are on to something. The crunch of the bread and the sharpness of the crisp onions is a perfect counterpoint to the creaminess the seasoned meat has taken on when minced so finely. It is not long before I am joining my friend to construct another Mettbrötchen.
One thing is for certain, however: if you are going to eat a breakfast made of raw pork, you had better be pretty damn sure where the pig comes from. And that, in fact, is the reason why I find myself sharing an unusual breakfast with total strangers some 100kms outside Berlin.
Porkcamp is the brainchild of Florian Siepert, a computer whizz who creates real-life happenings for internet communities. He has combined his knowledge of the online world with his passion for food to bring "friends" from all over Germany to the small town of Neuruppin-Lichtenberg, to experience at first hand the process of taking a pig to plate. "I want transparency," he tells me as I smear meat on to my second Mettbrötchen. "I want people to connect the fact that for us to eat meat, something has to die – to experience that at first hand and, of course, then to eat some great food."
More than 40 people are now gathered round the breakfast table of the Gut Hesterberg estate, where the inaugural Porkcamp is being held. They come from all walks of life. "Chefs, farmers and writers, most of them sturdy meat-eaters trying to get a bit closer to their schnitzel," as Florian put it when he emailed me my own invitation. We are split into teams: at one table is the "wurst" group; at another those who are going to make roast meats and head cheese (brawn); and at another, a group who have researched the perfect "Britisher Pork Pie". There is, however, only one choice for me, and I take a seat with five people who are already chattering excitedly about what culinary wonders can be created with pig blood.
Breakfast this morning may be unusual but it is very welcome. We start early and at 6am are braving temperatures of -19C as we make our way from our accommodation to the estate. On arrival, we cover our normal wear with plastic protective clothing before being ushered into the slaughter room.
It will take only a matter of minutes, we are told, to turn pig to pork, but the atmosphere is still one of nervous anticipation as we enter the well-scrubbed room. It is one thing to know that animals die to provide meat, quite another to witness it happening. For everyone, however, to be present when the animal is killed is as important as the more enjoyable parts that are to follow. "Otherwise, we might just as well have gone to my local butcher," one of my companions whispers.
The kill itself is clean and efficient. The locally reared pigs were brought to the estate the day before, allowing them to acclimatise to their new surroundings. This not only ensures that they suffer as little stress as possible but prevents the contamination of the meat with adrenalin, which, the staff explain, will make it soft and bitter. The first pig is prodded into a small pen and dispatched immediately with an electric shock of enough strength and length to stun it to unconsciousness. It is then bled by inserting a sharp spike into its throat, with about two litres of blood pouring directly out into a bucket below. The pig begins to snort, which makes many turn their eyes away, although we are reassured that this is no more than a reflex action caused by the still-beating heart.
The animal is by now very definitely an ex-pig, but there is still work to be done before it is fit for consumption. The body is moved to a larger room where its bristles are removed in what appears to be nothing more than an enormous dishwasher. Then it is gutted with expert precision by one of the estate's butchers, who slits the belly from tail to head with a wickedly sharp knife. The steaming intestines are saved for sausage casings, while the heart, lung and livers are cleaned and left to hang before they too will be put to good use in the kitchens.
After the rather visceral experience of observing the slaughter, everyone is a little quiet as we move to the next room. But we also share a bond, now being part of a small percentage of people who can testify that meat does not just appear in styrofoam trays on the supermarket shelf. It is a bond that grows as we let out appreciative noises as another butcher divides meat that had been processed the day before into its component cooking parts, with a skill that can only come with years of practice. The raw meat breakfast has restored our energy levels and good humour; it fortifies us for what will turn out to be a monumental day of cooking and eating.
Each group huddles over their portion of pig as they earnestly discuss what they are going to present to a hungry crowd over the next few meals. "Nose to tail" eating may have recently become a fashionable trend in the UK, but in Germany it has long been a way of life, and in the kitchens of Porkcamp blenders whizz and whirr as every part of the animal is put to good use.
The professional chefs among us begin to trim pork belly to stuff and roast as a porchetta. They simmer the animal's ears in red wine and port to make an unctuous inside for crisp croquettes, and they braise the trotters to make an equally delicious filling for bite-sized empanada (a Spanish-style pastry). At least half a dozen types of sausage are already hanging over wire racks, ready to be boiled or fried, and "Bavarian meatloaf", or Leberkäse, is being spooned into tins ready to be baked in the ovens.
Of the three dishes that my group choose to prepare, Calenberger Pannenslag (Pannenslag means "slam it in the pan") is perhaps the most challenging, as we mince together the heart and brains of the pig with its head meat and plump it out with oatmeal soaked in stock. It sounds distinctly unappetising, even for me. But the end result, when pan-fried and served with sharp pickles, is surprisingly palatable – and reminiscent of haggis.
The cooking goes on all day, and the bond, which had been apparent earlier, begins to create the sort of friendships that can only be formed when food is involved. When suppertime comes, we gather round as plate after plate of food is presented to us, from the elaborate preparations of the pros to the hearty plates created by the amateur enthusiasts. It all tastes delicious, even more so because I know exactly how it has arrived on my plate.
As the waitresses move among us, clinking large steins of dark beer, and as I spear yet one more Bratwurst, I know that my time at Porkcamp is not an experience I will easily forget. It appears that the others agree; they are already making loud plans for other "camp" events in the months to come.
As for me, I am already planning Porkcamp UK for Summer 2010. Anyone want to join me?
Pig appetite: German pork haggis
In the unlikely event you reach a point in your life when only a plate of Calenberger Pannenslag will do, here is the recipe used at Porkcamp, scaled down for home preparation.
1½ litres warm
1½ kg headmeat (at a push, use pork belly)
1 pig heart
2 pig brains
1 large onion (finely chopped)
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
1½ teaspoons paprika
1½ teaspoons dried thyme
Mix the oatmeal with the heated stock and leave to absorb the liquid for at least an hour. Mince the head meat, the heart and the brains (3mm grind), and then mix thoroughly with the oatmeal and chopped onions. Season and then heat through in a saucepan, stirring constantly to stop the mixture sticking. When the mixture thickens to dropping consistency, ladle it in batches into a lightly oiled frying pan and cook while moving it around the pan. It should be cooked through after 5-10 minutes and there should be some really delicious crunchy bits, which are much prized. Serve with gherkins, crusty bread and fried potatoes.