This past Saturday (14 May) I had the great pleasure of joining a food-rabid group of about 20, to trek out to Suffolk's Deben Valley to be a part of Pig Day at Dingley Dell Farm, run by brothers Mark and Paul Hayward.
The original idea was get a guided tour of a pig farm, watch / participate in the slaughter of a pig, spend the afternoon using it nose to tail to make various pork delicacies, and then sit down together to partake of said pig. No doubt influenced by Pork Camp held outside of Berlin, as documented by Simon Majumdar in The Independent and his blog Dos Hermanos. This time however, the event organisers were Catalan cuisine doyen Rachel McCormack and wine merchant Donald Edwards and of course the Hayward brothers. We paid a relatively small sum of £50 for the full day of festivities, because the Hayward brothers -- more used to conducting farm tours for restaurant chefs and corporate buyers -- were using the day and us as guinea pigs to get feedback on how such a day might work if they started organising full-day experiences for the retail public.
After having documented Babs taking apart a goat in Kenya and a chicken in Birmingham (yes I still need to write that post) It was one of those invitations I couldn't possibly decline. With so many farms and meat processing facilities absolutely adamant about being hidden from the public eye nowadays, I was glad to come across a business this willing to be transparent, and looked forward to meeting its owners and learning more about what goes into and around the pigs that make their way to some very swish restaurants around London.
So on this crisp and sunny morning, after a 1 1/2 hour drive (thanks for driving Dom!) from London we found our merry crew of 4 to be first at the farm. We were fortified with tea, coffee and delectable hog roast sandwiches while the others trickled in. Win! Then we all piled into the piggy wagon to be hauled around the farm by tractor. The pigs get transported the same way apparently, but it didn't smell like it!
We managed to get up close and personal with the piggies at various life stages, from newborn piglets, to pregnant sows, as well as pigs being held in pre-sendoff-to-the-slaughterhouse pens.
Warning: A few horrendously cute photos of piglets to follow. If you love pork, but are one of those silly people who think eating cute animals is wrong, something might just have to give. And while you're at it, perhaps you could tell me what animals are deemed ugly enough by your animal-beauty-pageant judgy self to eat?!
This litter was born sometime in the last 24 hours before we showed up. A sow can give birth to anything from 2 to 20 piglets at a go. I'm told the ideal number is 11 because that's how many teats she has.
This one looks like it's having a nice dream, no?
Here are the piglets at about 5 weeks, I think. Still nursing, but very active. At this point they start to get very social, mobbing up with their mates across litters to hang out.
They're much rompy and gallopy than I thought they would be, chasing each other around, playing hide and seek in a nearby hedge. This level of activity is in fact a big dilemma that ethical farmers face. Free-range pork or organic pork sounds great, but both of those labels mean much higher land and food costs (especially if the pigs are running around endlessly burning off the food they eat). Are we consumers willing to pay a 30-50% premium on the pork we buy? Even with a visible amount of space and the pigs looking fairly relaxed -- I've read that in industrial farms pigs get so squished and stressed out their teeth get sawed off so they don't chew each other's tails off -- Dingley Dell is not technically a free range or organic farm. As prices stand, the big supermarket chains have already been known to sell fresh meat at a loss, just to lure in customers to buy their higher-margin items (read: processed food and non edibles). Mark Hayward reckons that he would lose his restaurant customers if he upgraded his farm to free-range status.
What do you reckon? How would your wallet vote?
Next we're shown the partially covered tents where the newly weaned pigs live. They're as curious about us as we are about them, but very skittish. They inch forward ever so slowly, but one sudden move by anyone in the group sends them pelting off as a swarm, like a panicky school of fish when you go scubadiving.
Here's Mark with one of the pregnant sows, to give you a perspective of how big they get. Mark is knowledgeable, pragmatic, and clearly loves his animals. And ever so good natured and patient with us piggy paparazzi!
Time to let the ladies get on with their naps, and move on to the butchery and cookery part of the day. Watch this space.