And this little piggy is ferocious

COUNTRY MATTERS
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The Independent Online
A middle-aged man with a pigtail sits in the wreck of an armchair amid the litter on the floor of a barn. Round him, skipping and cavorting, gambols a young wild boar called Charlemagne. Every now and then the hirsute teenager presses his flank against the man's knees and grunts with pleasure as his back is scratched, while his diminutive companion Boudicca tittups in the background.

You think I am hallucinating? Not at all. This is Sam Olive, producer of pork extraordinary, getting to know his latest recruit at Upper Eldon farm in Hampshire.

Sam's father, John, began rearing outdoor pigs here in the Fifties, and for nearly 40 years the family struggled to make a living from commercial breeds. Only in the late Eighties did Sam launch out in a new direction, crossing wild boar with domestic sows in an attempt to recreate the celebrated Hampshire Hog, whose meat was keenly sought after in the Middle Ages.

The Hampshire Hog was a cross between the domesticated sows of the day and the wild boar which still roamed the New Forest; and in breeding a replica, which he calls the Wild Blue, Mr Olive has not only delighted latterday trenchermen, but also put to practical use his own enthusiasm for wild creatures.

As a young man he became fascinated by Spanish boars and enlisted as a trainee matador in order to gain access to the farms on which the animals were reared. Several times in tientas (practice sessions) his jeans were ripped to shreds but, being tall and thin, he managed to escape being gored.

Later he put in spells with racehorses on stud farms at Newmarket and the Curragh - and now it is wild boar that have taken his fancy.

"What we've done with the domestic pig," he says, "is to breed out as much of its intelligence and ferocity as we can, so that we are left with nothing but a meat machine."

Wild boar, in contrast, are intelligent and well-armed with feral instincts (anyone who keeps them is required to hold a Dangerous Wild Animals licence). Hence Mr Olive's habit of taking long coffee- breaks in the barn, chatting up all the new arrivals and taking time to get to know each one individually.

Without this personal contact his charges would be far more difficult to handle. As it is, he can safely go into the paddocks where each mature boar is quartered with two or three wives.

"Hello, old rascal," he calls, advancing through ankle-deep mud on Batory, a four-year-old Polish monster. "Oh, you're a bad devil."

The 500lb pig snuffles genially and waggles his black ears. I swear he nods in appreciation as his owner describes how wild boar fight, always seeking to disembowel an opponent with an upward sweep of their razor- edged tusks.

"With a domestic boar, you get warning before an attack," says Mr Olive. "He'll froth at the mouth and come at you sideways - and you have got to be half-asleep to be hit by him. These chaps don't do any of that. If something worries them they charge straight at you. So it's just as well they know me."

Each paddock is bounded by two fences, one electrified, one of wire mesh; but the boar apparently have no desire to escape, regarding their patches of territory as fortresses rather than as prisons.

One curious habit, in which they indulge persistently, is that of carrying mouthfuls of straw into their muddy ponds. Whether they mean to soften the straw by soaking it, or to conserve water by lining the ponds with a form of thatch, no one can make out.

The young Wild Blues, which go off to market at just over a year old, look more like their fathers than their mothers - long-haired and bristly. Not the least of their advantages is that they enjoy the rude health of hybrids, need no antibiotics and do not suffer from stress caused by overcrowding. Also, they are able to digest grass - an ability bred out of their domestic cousins.

In summer they graze extensively and the grass, together with a few earthworms, imparts a rich flavour to their meat, which is denser and more finely grained than normal pork.

As to its quality - experts fall over each other in praising it. Albert Roux has described Eldon Wild Blue crackling as the best he has ever eaten, and Mauro Bregoli, who owns the Old Manor House restaurant in Romsey, buys a whole pig for himself every year so he can make the best possible use of every ounce of it.

With his partner, Helen Sutherland, in charge of marketing, and his father seeing to accounts and transport, Sam Olive can devote himself to what he calls "the easy bit" - looking after the animals. So if you happen to be near King's Somborne and see a man with a pigtail deep in conversation with a wild boar, you will know from the seraphic expressions on their faces that both parties are at ease with the world.

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