The Joy of Grants

I’m onto my third grant application in just over a month. You’d think that they’d be getting easier but that definitely isn’t the case.

Grant number one was 100% funded for an innovation in the food industry, as it was a joint application it took me a couple of meetings and a day shooting and editing a short film to put everything together. Good feedback, but ultimately; I didn’t get it.

Grant number two was an application for part funding for some equipment. It was only a relatively short expression of interest form that I had to complete. However, there was some complicated financial data that I had to put together which took some time to collate. I didn’t even get to the full application stage before there was a very polite letter to say that the pot of money had run dry. Bugger.

Onto grant number three, for those in the food industry in Wales, any form of ‘free money’ has been thin on the ground these past few years. There’s currently an open call for the Processing and Marketing Grant, a pot of £2m, which in the whole scheme of things is miniscule. It’s a competitive bidding round, so I’m sure businesses the breadth of Wales are extolling their many virtues onto the application form as I type. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

I have two further grants that I’m looking at over the next month or so. If they’re dead ends too, I may well turn to the wonder of Kickstarter. For those who read the blog and who are happy to spend a weekend as a brickie or labourer(think Amish barn raising) in exchange for some salami please get in touch!

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Black Pudding and Chicharrones

For most people Saturday is a day of relaxation, perhaps a spot of shopping, a day out, some socialising or even a trip to support a local sports team. My Saturdays usually involve some meat alchemy. For the past few months Saturdays have been my dedicated production development days. As the business is only registered to make ‘raw produce’ such as bacon sausage and gammon, I tend to save a few scraps from my usual production for my weekends. I’m slowly amassing a folder of tried and tested recipes and processes that I can put into production one day. I hope you’re all ready for our salt beef, it’s frickin amazing, even if I say so myself.

Last weekend saw me playing once more with a bag of dried blood to make the perfect black pudding (iteration number 18 I think). We’ve been making black pudding from the blood of our own animals for many years but we tend to make a softer pudding than what is commercially available. The closest on the market that I’ve tasted to what we traditionally make is the pudding made by Trealy Farm. Their pud also reminds me a lot of the recipe that Lindy Wildsmith has in her book Cured, it’s a recipe from the famed Walnut Tree restaurant, near Abergavenny. I can’t say I’m a connoisseur of black pudding, but I have tried pretty much everything I’ve been able to get my hands on over the past two or three years from ox blood puddings from Ireland, to Polish headcheese blood puddings, Yorkshire tray baked puddings and Caribbean spiced variations.

A softer pudding is great for a sweet French boudin noir flavoured with apples and calvados but there’s room in the repertoire for a more British pudding. Last weekend I tried an old Lancashire recipe, rich with cereals, large chunks of fat and a variety of herbs. It was pretty good, excellent consistency, though there’s definitely room to improve on the spicing. One of my absolute favourites is the Irish Clonakilty pudding, it’s heavy on the pearl barley but it gives the pudding a quality of its own. While searching for new recipes I came across a great little video of Ade Edmondson on YouTube at the Real Lancashire Black Pudding Company. If you’re interested in seeing the pudding made, it’s a great little film.

 

So, to this weekend. Well, last night I started on the preparation work to make chicharrones. I first came across them at a beautiful charcuterie store called Fatted Calf in the Napa Valley, California. On their counter was a basket of big bags of what looked to me like a cross between a Quaver and a pork scratching. They turned out to be little intense airy melt on the tongue porky crisps made from deep fried rinds. There are many traditional methods of making them, and a few resemble our own pork scratchings, but for me this variation made by 4505 Meats was an absolute winner. So, with a handful of spare rinds I got to work last night on prepping my very first batch, the rinds are currently drying, and hopefully tonight they’ll be ready for the fryer. You’ll just have to wait and see if they make the cut onto the list of Charcutier Ltd products!

Finding a second perfect pig…

In addition to processing Pedigree Welsh pigs, we’ve been rearing our own Mangalitza. If you look back along the blog you’ll see a variety of posts dedicated to this wooly pig. This Monday saw the culmination of over a years work, when our first animal ‘Princess Bubblegum’ went for slaughter. These are our test pigs, fed very specific diets to maximise the marbling in the meat and to get the purest cleanest fats possible. The breed is a bit of an oddity, both within the rearing world and within the processing world. It’s very much a niche product. Its slow growth rates doesn’t suit commercial pig rearing and its high fat content doesn’t lend itself to commercial processing. So, why did I decide to give them a go? Well, it’s to do with fat – it’s claimed that the quality and composition of the fat is far higher than that of more modern developed breeds. With a higher level of monounsaturated fat it’s ideally suited for cured products (as the fat doesn’t succumb to rancidity quite so quickly). The fat also has a far better balance of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids, making it comparable to seed oils.

I’ve sampled a number of Mangalitza produce prior to the processing our own, and if I’m perfectly honest some have been outstanding, others have been mediocre at best. This was to be a real gamble. So, how did it pan out? It’s early days to be honest, the animal has been butchered, cuts have gone into cure, others have been cooked and a few choice items are in our freezer for the coming year. Results are mixed, and there’s a long while until everything is tested but we’re on the path to seeing what the possibilities are with the breed.

For those with a real interest from a butchery perspective, here’s a breakdown of what I learnt (though this is just one pig though). It’s fat, even on quarter rations of feed these animals seem to lay on fat just by breathing fresh air. I was expecting a fat animal, but this is crazy fat. They’re very agile athletic animals, and my three have been loose in 7 acres of woodland, so they’ve had plenty of running about. I was expecting reasonable sized muscles, but there’s really very little meat. Considering their weight, I was surprised they could stand up. The eye of the loin was the size of a tenderloin, the tenderloin was a thin snake of a thing. Bone structure is pretty compact. The largest of the meat cuts was by far the collar (as delicious as it was for Sunday lunch I wish I’d reserved it to make coppa). The caul was about the biggest I’ve ever seen, the liver was rich, heart was pretty average but the lungs were a little on the tough side.

When I cut the pig, all I could do was shake my head in surprise at the amount of fat. I really wasn’t expecting quite so much. In terms of marbling, there really wasn’t as much as I had hoped for (it was present, just not abundantly). However, when it came to cooking, I found the meat was far more tender and juicy because of that added marbling. From a taste perspective, the meat is darker and more mature (because of its age) but also has a very delicate and clean porky flavour (it’s pretty refined and understated). I’m really looking forward to trying the first of the bacon, as that’ll be one of the main tests for me. Excess backfat has been bagged ready to be used in a range of dishes – black pudding and salami are the two on the list for this coming week.

The real success for me was the lard. I harvested about four times as much flare fat from this animal as I would have from a Pedigree Welsh of the same weight. It took a fair while longer to render than usual but it produced the whitest creamiest lard that I’ve ever made. When I was a child one of my favourite meals would be bacon, eggs and fried potatoes – my grandmother had a heavy cast iron frying pan which was filled with white animal fat which would be used time and time again. Bacon, eggs and potatoes were all cooked in this pan – I always opted for the smaller and sweeter Bantam eggs, a thick salty slice of bacon and beautifully browned crispy potatoes. Fried potatoes were the first test for my newly rendered Manga-Lard – dry, crisp and lightly porky they evoked those intense food memories of my childhood. I can’t emphasise enough how clean tasting the fat was, there’s none of that claggy fatty feel to the top of your mouth, none of the greasiness of oil, it’s really an excellent fat to cook with.

The verdict? I feel quite privileged to have had a chance to process this animal. There’s always a sense of majesty when you deal with larger animals. The meat is definitely tasty, rich and moist – the problem is there isn’t much of it. The fat is incredible, the problem is there’s lots of it. I’ll wait on the cured produce over the coming weeks and months before making an educated decision. However, the main question is, is there a market for such a fatty animal in the UK? We’re so geared towards super lean meat, and we have this ridiculous aversion to animal fats, can the small band of UK Mangalitza producers really change our attitudes to pork?

Finding the perfect pig…

Aside

I returned home a few days ago with a van full of butchery equipment, another high street butcher has closed and I was there picking the carcass of knives, hooks and trays like a vulture. Although I was pretty chuffed with my haul (and a wooden block and some stainless steel tables were to follow), I drove home in silence, there was no radio blaring, I didn’t hum a happy tune or sing to myself. I felt pretty bad to be honest. I don’t know the full ins and outs of the business in question – whether it was the right site, whether it was staff problems, whether they’d expanded to soon but it’s a horrid thing seeing a business come to an end.

I’ve had some troubles these past few weeks myself – the breeder that I’ve been sourcing my animals from has decided to concentrate solely on breeding, rather than rearing animals to a slaughter weight. I understand perfectly, it’s a question of economics. And to be truthful, it’s probably the very best thing for him to do. He’s an incredible breeder and he knows his animals so well. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can still source some of his pork, though they’ll be ‘finished’ on other farms rather than his. I’m glad it’s happened now, while I’m still a small company, cutting only a few animals per month. When I amended my business plan recently, the one big glaring warning that I’d had from the consultant was the fact that I had one sole pork supplier.

So, the wheels are in motion to look at new ways of sourcing my pork. I spent around six months last year visiting breeders, trying and testing their pork to get the perfect results. I decided in the end to be true to our regional breed of pigs: The Pedigree Welsh. When I’m selling my product, when I tell the customer that it’s from a ‘Welsh Pig’ they often just assume that it’s local, not that it’s a specific breed. Even though the Welsh is extremely well suited to more commercial production, it isn’t a very well known breed. Sow numbers are low, and it’s classed as ‘At Risk’ by the Rare Breed Survival Trust. My biggest problem as a producer is the type of pig that I’m looking for – there are specific weight ranges for pigs for use in different products. Pigs killed for pork in the UK are usually around 50-65kg deadweight, for bacon they’re around 65-100kg mark (though these aren’t by any means definitive weights). On the continent, pigs for charcuterie production are well over 150kg. Finding pigs at higher weights in the UK is very difficult, unless you buy from large scale rearing units producing hybrid pigs for the more commercial markets.

There isn’t really a huge market for these higher weight pigs in the UK. We prefer the younger more tender flavoured pork from smaller animals. Continental pork is older, a little tougher but has darker more flavourful meat. With high feed costs, breeders would also rather have a higher turnover of small animals than to keep animals on their farm for over nine months of age – it’s a case of economics. Having chosen to stick with one breed, and a rare breed at that, I’m limited by the numbers of animals that are available. I intend to persevere with the Pedigree Welsh, I’m hoping to meet with one of the senior members of the Welsh Pig Society this week to see if I can set up a collective of breeders who can finish pigs to the weights that I’d like. When I was in the US last year I was extremely impressed by the number of Community Supported Agriculture schemes that were around. I’m essentially looking to establish a similar scheme for the Welsh Pig.

I do have one other option, if I can’t find the right finisher I’ll have to change my own path slightly and look to rearing all my own animals. It’s a big step to both rear and process. But perhaps, in the end, it might be the only answer.