Breathing a Sigh of Relief

Sometime today a lever arched file wrapped in brown paper will be delivered to our local Welsh Government Office. It marks the culmination of months of hard work, of arguing, stressing, sleepless nights, emails, phone calls and research trips. Today our grant application for our processing facility will be submitted. It’s taken me from November 2010 to get to this point – full product development, planning permission, environmental permits, equipment research and then the mammoth task of collating quotations for everything down to the last screw. I think it’s fair to say that we’re lucky in Wales to have so many grant streams open to businesses and I can well understand the criticism that we have a grant culture. However, I can honestly say that the 40 page application, 40+ page marketing plan, the 87 quotes and the full lever arch file of appendices, financials and backing documentation is by far the biggest piece of work I’ve ever completed. As I drove away from my last meeting before the documents were sent to quality control I felt pretty emotional. I felt weak, sick even, as a wave of adrenaline and a great sense of relief washed over me.

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This is just the appendices…

At the beginning of my journey a very wise consultant took a tour of our proposed building and said, straight-out “it’s going to cost you £250,000 to set this up as a charcuterie business”. At the time, with eyes full of wonder and naivety I thought to myself, ‘£120,000 maybe, £150,000 tops’, how wrong was I. Our total project cost came in at £238,000 and if I take into consideration the costs already incurred, he’s pretty much on the button. There’s a reason why there aren’t lots of charcuterie businesses about the place, it’s a costly, tough old game and you need a driving passion to get onto your feet. Admittedly I could have started smaller, but my mother always says “prynwch rad, prynwch eilwaith” which roughly translates to “buy cheap, buy twice” and I wanted to take my time, lay the groundwork and future proof the building so that I could grow as a business without having  to waste the little capital that I have on the wrong thing.

I’d like to give thanks to our customers, for supporting us, for signing our petitions at markets, adding their names online to our ipetition, for writing letters of support for the business and generally for providing great honest feedback on products. I’m really lucky to have customers from all walks of life who’ve been able to contribute whether through contacts, suggestions or recommendations that have helped us to grow our networks.

I’m by no means at the end of the journey, I’m £20,000 short of my total, and I’ll be begging for cash via Kickstarter quite soon to bridge that gap. There’s no guarantee that I’ll be successful with my grant application either, but I know I’ve given it a damn good shot.

A French Jaunt

Amidst the intensity of paperwork I managed to escape to France for a few days for yet another meaty jaunt. I always think that if people invite you to something that you can turn them down once, but if you do it twice, you’ve probably lost that opportunity forever. So when Kate Hill invited me on a Charcuterie Road Trip last year (which I couldn’t attend) I was worried that I might not get another chance. When the second invite came, my bags were pretty much packed instantly. I’d met Kate Hill at the School of Artisan Food a while back when she hosted the Charcuter-ish event. She runs a culinary retreat in Gascony called Camont. It’s a stunning traditional limestone towered farmhouse set in a hectare of land along the side of the Garonne canal. Viewers of the Rick Stein ‘French Odyssey’ program will be more than familiar with her as she featured in the series and her kitchen provided a welcome home for Rick to cook in on more than one occasion.

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Kate’s kitchen, and yes, it does look like this.

Kate’s courses are renowned, and many of the people I met on my travels across North America had learnt their craft while passing through her kitchen. I’d heard near legendary stories about the Chapolards, a local farming family who provide whole supplychain pork and pork products – “from seed to sausage”. Although in modern farming terms they’re a relatively small farm the Chapolard brothers manage to support their families by growing their own crops (using co-op owned machinery), rearing their own animals (XL cochon!), slaughtering them at a co-op owned abattoir (which they part own), processing on-farm and then selling all their products directly to the public. Put simply, they’re an inspiration.

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Sadly, I wasn’t visiting to join in with the other charcuterie students at ‘Pig School’. However, we were heading off on a charcuterie road trip of the Basque Country. I joined Kiwi Kirsty Brown (check out her plog = pig-log), Adam Smith (of Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont), rockstar Chef John Blevins (of Lalime’s in Berkeley), his partner; butcher Analiesa Gosnell and London based Chef Ben MacAndrews. Like most trips I take a notepad with me, this time I filled the book and had to move onto the ipad, to save you on tomes of writing I’ll concentrate on a few choice nuggets from the trip…

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My favourite producer of the trip was Eric Ospital, he runs his family business Louis Ospital and in addition to own labelled products produces a speciality ham under the iBaiona label. These hams are sourced from animals from three family farms, fed a specific non-GM diet, reared to 180kg at a minimum of 11months. The hams are salted, equalised and put through a series of drying stages and aged for between 15 and 20 months. The production method differed slightly from the Italian methods that I’d seen. Drying temperatures were different, and the application of panne or pannage (the equivalent of Italian sugna) was very different and resulted in quite a different product. We were very fortunate to get to see Eric’s ‘ham house’ his ‘theatre of hams’ where they mature the last few months. It’s here that he entertains the cream of Michelin starred Chefs, diplomats, celebrities and those looking to invest in ‘ham futures’. Eric was sent by his father at a young age to work in Paris – his contemporaries from that time are now his customers. Eric’s parting words to me were ones of good luck for the 6 Nations decider between Wales and England, I have an inkling that it went some way towards the victory.

Sticking with the ham theme, we visited a stunning co-operative drying house. Similar to ham facilities in Italy that I’d seen they used much the same equipment to massage and salt the hams before leaving them to cure, equalise, ferment and dry. I started my business from a family history of ham production (which are essentially barn hams). The mode of production in Italy and France don’t differ all that much, it’s just that they mimmic what we used to do on a small scale seasonally so that the hams can be produced year-round. However, there is much more science to it than that, and these hams have a refinement that’s lacking in home-produced barn hams. I know of plenty of people who produce an occasional home-prosciutto, it’s a relatively simple process, but there’s no refinement or consistency to that product, it’s wholly down to natural environment – whether it’s the quality of the meat, the animals diet, the kill weight, fat composition or environmental effects such as humidity, temperature and natural moulds. The real skill is to understand how these hams are influenced by those differing elements and to choose a mode of production that produces the type of ham that you want to make.

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The other obvious realisation when you see a facility producing hams is that it’s a big operation. During my Italian trip last year to a machinery supplier I asked for basic costings for a ham system. €1m for an entry level facility, which puts ham production for me in the fairytail/aspiration business category. There are UK companies producing whole air dried hams but these are cottage businesses who often derive the mainstay of their turnover from other products. If you trawl the internet for modes of producing air dried hams it’s easy to find guidance on drying in single temperature and humidity chambers – it’s a mode of production, but to be truthful you’ll get a pretty bland and basic product if you do. You really need these more complicated systems that derive seasonality in the drying conditions both from temperature, humidity and also crucially airflow.

I’m sorry if I’m going ‘off on one’ on the subject of ham, but having travelled extensively now and tasted so many different products, you start to realise the complexity of flavours that can be produced based on regional variation. It’s not just the balance of salt and pork and whether it’s a punchy salty ham, or a meaty taste or something with delicate notes, but there’s subtitles in the inclusion of aromatics in the cure mixture, whether there’s pepper in the lard mixture that’s rubbed on, the nuttiness through the natural occurring moulds and even the effect of temperature on the fats. Creating the perfect ham will be a life long project for me. I’ve set myself a timeline of 10 yrs to get going. But considering it’s taken me two years to get to the point that I’m at now, that may be a foolhardy figure. After all, I don’t even have a decent sized facility yet for the production of all the other bits of lovely charcuterie that I want to produce. A case of cart before the horse? Perhaps, but everyone needs a dream.

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After visiting the ham house we headed to Pierre Orteiza, one of the five producers who owned the drying house. We were met by his extremely welcoming wife and had a stunning lunch in their restaurant/shop/processing space. Pierre was one of the leading producers instrumental in protecting the future of the local Basque pig. It’s an Iberian type pig, very different from the more developed ‘Celtic’ pigs that we have here in the UK and that are used for Italian commercial production. At one time the breed was down to 30 sows and 5 boars, but they’ve managed to turn the tide and have 200 breeding sows now and produce in excess of 2000 meat animals per year. In keeping with other Iberian pigs (such as the famed acorn fed Spanish and Portugese varieties) they’re undeveloped, slow growing animals, they have flatter hams, larger hooves, a slight saddleback and have a higher level of fat covering. Much the same as the Mangalitsa that we’ve reared they have a chemical composition to their fats that lends itself to longer ageing times than ‘Celtic’ breed pigs.

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Rearing systems differ greatly to more commercial production, animals farrow indoors or out, wean at 6-8weeks and are moved into groups of around 30-40 animals in individual ‘parks’ of hillside grass and woodland at 3 months. They’re moved every 3 months to new parks and the previous park is allowed to rest. Animals spend a minimum 12 months outdoors and are slaughtered between 15-18 months at high weights of 160kg. Traditionally pigs would have been finished seasonally in small groups outdoors in woodland feeding largely on chestnuts but the nature of continual modern production doesn’t allow for this.

Looking at modes of rearing abroad has really made me question our methods here in the UK. Whether it be a smallholder producing rare breed pork or an intensively reared producer rearing commodity pork, often composite feeds for both are identical, and animals invariably are reared to pork weight at around 60kg at a maximum age of 6-7 months. The ethos on the continent is much the same as what my grandfather would have done pre-war and pre-intensification (and what we still do) as we rear animals to 100kg for pork and 150kg for charcuterie. Pig breeders in the UK are always shocked when I mention these weights, I’ve yet to come across other producers who still rear to these traditional standards unless their old farming families raising two or three pigs for a seasonal kill. Modern pork weights of 60kg may produce fast pork, but it doesn’t provide flavour, well, not flavour like an 18month old animal where the meat is rich, dark red and developed. There’s a whole blog post to come on this subject I expect as I’ve already drafted a ‘pork credo’ for myself.

So, there’s a taste of my trip to France, and some ranting thrown in for good measure. Our grant application is drawing to a close so I expect I’ll have some more time to contribute to the blog and some other neglected aspects of the business from now on.

Ever closer.

We’re moving ever closer to that dream of producing some of the UK’s best British Charcuterie. I’m biased, so I think our bacon and sausages are pretty damn awesome as they are but I’ve been chomping at the bit to get going on some of the more ‘fancy stuff’. When I started my proper research back in 2010, I thought we’d have an unit set up mid 2011. Well, how thick was I, it’s 2013 and a new unit is still not a certainty, but… we’re getting there. Time hasn’t been wasted, we’ve managed more travel than I’d expected, met more farmers, producers and got a bit more of our own production testing under our belts. If anything, we’re fitter, faster stronger and far better placed to launch on a bigger scale than had we started building a year ago.

This past week I met with the bank manager and between bank loans and money we’ve raised we’re edging towards the £80,000 mark already for secured funds. We’re through the first competitive round of the Welsh Government Processing and Marketing grant scheme, which we’ve very kindly asked for nearly £100,000. That grant is by no way secured, and I’ve been spending every spare minute these past weeks asking for letters of support, scouring trade magazines and catalogues, meeting equipment reps and totting up projected financials and writing marketing plans. As it’s a 50% grant, we’re still short of around £20,000.

We’re aiming big on the new unit. Trying to choose equipment that’ll future proof the business for a good few years to come. We won’t be fully automated, but neither will we do everything by hand – we’re taking a middle road which will mean that everything will remain artisan. We’re also trying to be cost effective, productive and sustainable – solar pv, solar hot water and from a wider whole farm perspective we’re working on a possible hydro project with a neighbouring farm.

Last year we enlisted the help of Dangerous Doug Films and we’ve got a rough cut of a film ready for a Kickstarter bid. Crowd funding doesn’t seem to be as well known as I’d initially thought – my bank manager hadn’t heard of it and quite a few people I’ve spoken to recently haven’t either. So, here’s a basic explanation… I need £20,000, so websites such as Kickstarter allow me to post a little film and some text explaining why I need the cash. Those wishing to support the business financially are called ‘backers’, they can offer as much or as little as they like. They’re not buying a part of the business, but they’re not necessarily just giving money for nothing either. There are different tiers of funding, £5 might get you a thank you card and the satisfaction to know that you’ve really contributed to the growth of a small business, £20 might get you a thank you card and a nice salami from the unit once it’s built. The tiers of funding keep on growing, and the offers get better and better. I’m working on the ‘top offer’ at the moment, I won’t say too much yet, but I’m hoping it’ll be a culinary/charcuterie based foreign trip!

In the meantime, if you’d like to support the grant application, I’d be very grateful if you signed a little petition I’ve got going

New Year… New Womble

That’s right, a late Christmas present arrived yesterday in the shape of Arthur the Boar, and sows Mango and Liza. Looking to start breeding from them in 2013. They’re happily ensconced in their new woodland, and I’m pretty sure their previous owners Martyn and Greta are pretty happy that they’ve got some space to roam in their new home. They are a little on the chubby side (I’m not one to talk) so we’ve already formulated a slimming diet for them ready for breeding. It took us nearly an hour to feed them this morning as a couple of neighbours caught site of us carrying some huge 4ft bolted carrots up to them, and wanted to say hello too.

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We hadn’t really planned on jumping in with some more Mangalitza quite so soon, but thanks to a series of happy events they’ve landed with us. I know it’s a little early to be talking bacon, but the reality is that these are for breeding and the ultimate result will be more piggies for meat. We’ve already had a little interest, so if anyone fancies a meat pig, some stock or some produce please let me know so that I can add you to the list and keep you up to date with what’s happening – we might be jumping the gun, but if all goes well the first male porkers will be ready Autumn/Winter 2013.

One day soon, this will be a butchery.

So, rather than look back, what will 2013 hopefully bring? Well, the main goal is to get our new processing space built – initial plans were for 2011, but they slipped to 2012 and now it’s 2013. This is definitely our year to get going properly. We’re pinning our last hopes on the processing and marketing grant from the Welsh Government at the moment, so that we can build a future-proofed facility that’ll see us through a fair few years. In one year alone we’ve outgrown our tiny processing space in the house, and are producing at capacity so we’re desperate to move on up. If the grant fails, it’ll be a case of rolling up the sleeves and asking as many supporters as possible to lend a hand. It won’t be ideal, and our plans of upscaling will take a lot longer, and everything (as we’ve done so far) will be bought second hand or begged, stolen or borrowed. With the sun shining this morning, the windows and doors are open and a spring breeze is flowing through the house – pretty positive start I’d say.

We’re also looking to change a few things that we already do – we’re not quite looking to emulate the lean methodologies of Toyota but we need to change a few of our systems. Our Christmas profit has already been re-invested into another slicing machine, and hopefully we’ll be able to get a new scale/labeller sometime in the New Year.

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It’s a new start for another business too. My long suffering partner Liesel has made the brave leap and is in the process of establishing her own Letterpress. What’s Letterpress? Well, in its most traditional form it’s the use of moveable type (either lead or wooden block), which are inked and printed onto paper. It’s the traditional way of printing the written word. We’re both printing fiends to be honest. I think it all started for me, when I bought my first Egg Press card from Kate’s Paperie in New York nearly ten years ago now.  We both signed up to a series of summer courses at Swansea Print Workshop and had a taster of copper etching, photo etching, cyanotypes, screen printing and some wood block printing. Bitten by the bug we found a load of bits and bobs on Freecycle including an old Adana letterpress, sadly it had been left in a hedge by its previous owner. This is where I stalled but Liesel carried on her letterpress quest, bought herself two more Adana’s and has regularly headed off to the bright lights of London to attend courses at Central Saint Martins and London Print Workshop. Last year while I was on my meat galavant across the Pacific Northwest, Liesel took her own personal tour of the letterpress studios, stores and workshops of the area including a visit for us both to the Portland based studio of Egg Press.

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Our ‘Christmas break’ (and I use that in its loosest form) has seen us up-end our house once more. Friends, I know you’ve supported me over the past year, but please don’t expect to come and stay the night. We’ve turned the spare room into our own bedroom, and our former bedroom is now a fully functional studio with a nice space for a soon-to-be-purchased much larger press too. 2013 is pretty bloody exciting.

Mangalitza – a breakdown.

Warning – ‘meaty’ post ahead.

I promised another blog post before the New Year, but to be honest this little ramble isn’t what I’d had in mind. I never did write fully about my experiences with our three Mangalitza, so I guess now is as good a time as any. I’ve been spurred by three things: firstly I’ve been offered some in-pig breeding stock, secondly on Christmas Eve I spent a couple of hours reviewing both our farm holding costs for rearing (post feed increases) and our basic cutting/production costs (based on the data I’ve collected from various carcasses over the year) and thirdly I saw some fab pictures of Mangalitza yesterday on the Pitt Cue Co twitter feed.

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I had a happy relationship with our ‘Womble pigs’, they were quite out of the ordinary and all of our neighbouring farmers took a real interest in them. I initially thought that they’d see them as gimmicky but once I explained the reason why I was keeping them and the characteristics of the breed, I was quite surprised to see how interested people were in them. During the past two years I’ve lived a pretty intense Mangalitza existence, scouring the internet for information, reviewing academic papers, pouring through scientific analysis and meeting numerous breeders across more than one continent. I don’t do things by halves – people asked why I didn’t just start breeding, but I wanted to test the animals first before making that leap.

The culinary world in the US has a very strong appreciation for the breed, and prices for the animals (though they sound high) are pretty realistic. The norm that I saw last year was in the region of £12-£17 wholesale and up to £30 retail per kilo.

Few of the breeders that I met in the UK at the beginning of my journey are still breeding. High feed prices coupled by a difficult commercial carcass to sell makes the Mangalitza a very challenging beast. Having blogged and gained a few column inches about rearing Mangalitza myself, I get a call about every two weeks from a prospective breeder, or a fresh faced smallholder asking me for advice. This is my experience, you can make up your own mind…

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I’ll start with the carcass – when you’ve got it on the block, it’ll be unlike any other pig you’ve cut. The muscle structure is far closer to a wild boar – large pronounced shoulders, small loins and leg muscles. Regardless of whether you have fat or lean Mangalitza you’ll probably wonder how they have enough muscle structure to stand up let alone root and run about the place. The tenderloin from a 100kg Mangalitza looks like a tenderloin from a 40kg traditional pig. As for meat quality, age has a definite influence. At 12 months although a deep red, it’s still an undeveloped meat. At 18 months, it’s claret red, rich and developed. I was a little disappointed with the marbling/intra-muscular fat – I’m probably spoilt as I’ve had a couple of Pedigree Welsh recently from older bloodlines that have had fantastic marbling. With any animal, it’s a combination – a balance of the right feed at the right time and the genetic characteristics of a particular bloodline. I really don’t know whether we have the right lines here in the UK to get the type of carcass that I’ve seen abroad and would dearly want to rear myself.

Now comes the challenging part: the fat. I’ve often been told by breeders that it’s not commercially viable as it’s too fatty an animal, so they try and cross-breed the animal or change the diet to reduce the level of fat. If you try and mess with the breed it won’t be a Mangalitza anymore. It’s a lard type animal, so it’s going to be fat. There’s two ways of looking at it – you can treat the animal in the same way as you would a more traditional pig and cost it on the % of usable meat or you find a use for all the fat, and make the animal work for you. This is my problem with the breed, it’s not a straightforward pig, and there needs to be a lot of work to try and get a decent carcass balance from the animal. I hate waste so we’ve had to experiment with a few different things to use up all the spare backfat we had from our three pigs – we still have around 12kg left in the freezer. As for the reality – although I’d seen carcasses, I’d never cut a Mangalitza myself, I was expecting fat but I wasn’t really expecting the levels of backfat that I had on my biggest animal. At 128kg deadweight, the amount of 80VL usable meat was around 30%, the leanest of our animals at 88kg deadweight had around 48%. Since cutting my Mangalitza I’ve seen carcasses from other producers with as little as 20% usable meat.

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The fat is pretty special, it’s definitely not the same as a more traditional breed. You don’t need to get the fat analysed to tell you that, if you’re used to cutting, you’ll see that the fat looks and feels different. It’s pure, stark white fat. The streaky bacon I made from the first animal transported my father back to his childhood – although I get comments all the time about my bacon being ‘proper’, ‘old fashioned’ and ‘like it used to be’, this was definitely different to any modern or traditional breed that I’ve used. The rendered lard was creamy, and again pure white. Although the fat is cleaner in taste I did find myself feeling a little queasy having polished off a plate of fried potatoes – it’s rich, and a real indulgence. However, when it comes to producing something like salami, the meat is incredible but the fat is too soft, it needs to be cured prior to drying or it’ll just ooze soft fats once dried. I have to say the salami I made was quite possible the best that I ever have. So yes, from that perspective I’d like to make more.

Pretty positive so far I guess, now for some comments on rearing… they root, I know pigs root but we’ve never had pigs that root like these. They turned a grassy woodland into a quagmire in a matter of days. Although they were handled regularly they became far more feral than other breeds, reverting to nest building (cauldrons, but I prefer to think of them as dens) and were quite aggressive later in life (I have a mark on my upper thigh to attest to this). They’re highly intelligent, and they tested both our fences and my patience to an extreme degree, breaking out regularly even though they had nearly seven acres of woodland to roam and trash. The plus point, as a slow growing animal they really don’t eat in such a voracious manner as modern pigs. At a quarter ration they were very healthy, and to be honest they would have put on fat just on fresh air.

If I were a hobbyist, and I know (by their own admission) that some of the breeders in the UK are, or a smallholder rearing animals for a steady stock of freezer meat I’d be happy with them as a breed. However, as I’m a farmer and a processor I do have to think of them realistically from a business perspective. There is a profit to be made as a farmer or smallholder rearing these animals as long as they’re sold as stock or as whole carcass; at 18 months I think a fair price would be in the region of £2.50-£3.50/kg for a carcass deadweight (in the region of 100kg). Many traditional breeders won’t have an interest as they’d much prefer to rear a 60kg pig in 26 weeks at £2+/kg, so in effect you’d make more money rearing more animals in a shorter time.

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Where the Mangalitza becomes a tricky animal is processing. I’m back to that question of fat. If we were a nation of fat lovers, and we are not, there wouldn’t be any problem. If I were a butcher, in theory I could break the animal into cuts and sell it with a deep covering of back-fat passing that cost directly onto the customer. When processing you’re using different balances of meat to fat i.e. 80/20, so it’s far more precise. Whole carcass utilisation is quite rare in processing, the modern tradition is to buy in boxed cuts ready prepared or to buy in trim to a specific visual lean. With the Mangalitza we don’t have that luxury – no commercial processor would be interested in dealing with such a costly animal.

Rather than complicate the matter with all the variables, I’m treating the Mangalitza as I would a more traditional pig and costing it on its percentage of usable meat. The cost of production ranges between £8.32/kg and £14.33/kg depending on age/weight and % usable meat. That’s the price for de-rinded, trimmed, de-boned cuts, ready to be processed as sausages, bacon or charcuterie and includes the cost of rearing, transport, slaughter, delivery and cutting. If I compare that to a high welfare reared traditional rare breed and Pedigree animal (say a Welsh, Tamworth or Saddleback) I’d be looking at an equivalent price of between £3.04/kg and £3.93/kg. Now some will argue that those figures are cheap, and I know plenty of smallholders who wouldn’t sell me a whole carcass for less than £3.50/kg (let alone one that includes transport, kill and cut in the price) but if I compare that to commercial intensively reared pork I’d be looking at a shocking sub £2.50/kg price for deboned joints.

With all the will in the world, and with blinded passion, you really do need a customer that’s willing to pay a fair price for the product in order for it to pay its way. During my short journey with the animals I’ve come across breeders that have dedicated years of their lives to rearing these animals who haven’t turned a profit, and are barely breaking even. We have a few packets of bacon and a couple ‘Womble burgers’ left to sell, and we’ll probably have broken even once they’re all sold. Salami tests are done, there are a few tweaks to be done but we’re pretty happy. Two batches of whole muscle cured pieces have been salted, fermented, cased, strung and have been drying happily for a few months – there’s some time yet before they’ll all be ready for taste testing, but we’re very happy with the results to date.

I don’t want to sound as if money is everything, it’s not, but it remains to be seen whether the Mangalitza will be a mainstay of our curing plans for years to come. From a farming perspective and from a business perspective we’re not in a position that we can treat the animals as a hobby. Whether there is a commercial future for the Mangalitza in the UK remains to be seen but for now, we’re going to persevere, and try our best to keep our ‘Womble’ products on the menu.

Nice little write up of the Chapter Festive Fair we were at on the weekend. We get a mentiond, a photo and spot on the video!

Independent Street

From locally sourced food and drink to home-made art and decorations, small retailers often see a welcome boom in their sales in the run up to Christmas as people hit the streets in their thousands to assemble the perfect stock for Christmas Day.

As new markets spring up all over Cardiff to cater for this demand, Chapter Arts Centre did their bit by hosting a fantastic variety of local stalls, where sellers could take advantage of their huge footfall.

Throughout the last weekend before everyone retires for the holidays, they promoted seasonal wares with a craft fair on the Saturday and a festive fair on the Sunday.

Jam-packed full of goods from around the country, it filled with a swarm of eager shoppers all weekend. Including well established names such as The Ethical Chef, Get Ffresh, Siop y Bobl and Bare Naked Beers, they had something for…

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Llyr a Dai Womble

As some of you know, I worked for over eight years in the film and television industry before pursuing a career as a charcutier. Although I’ve been interviewed many times on television for various film projects that I’ve worked on, this will be my debut as ‘the talent’! This Wedneday, 21st of November at 9pm, Llyr a Dai Womble will be on S4C (Sky Ch134, Freesat Ch120 and online), and for those not versed in the language of heaven, there’s always the option of subtitles.

Earlier in the year, a group of film makers from the television production company Boomerang started a documentary about my little company – Charcutier Ltd. They’ve followed my product development at Food Centre Wales, the tribulations of salami production and the growth and production of our ‘womble pigs’. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’m grateful to have been able to participate in this kind of project.

If I ever do a radio or television interview I rarely listen or watch the item, I always have that thought – is that what I actually sound like? It doesn’t sound like that in my head! So, thankfully, this Wednesday I’ll be driving home from the pop-up market at Chapter Arts Centre while the program is being televised. I’m sure it’ll be recorded for me, and at some point I’ll be sat there watching through my fingers like a scared child watching the Daleks from Doctor Who.

Pigs, pigs, glorious pigs.

Two blog posts in three days, I feel as if I’m spamming! However, I thought I better mention that we have some new arrivals. This morning three Pedigree Berkshire gilts came to Felin y Glyn. We’ve never reared Berkshire’s before, so it’s a bit of a new one for us. So, why Berkshire? Well, during our HCC Scholarship tour last year, it seemed that everyone we spoke to in Vancouver swore by them. We found Berkshire meat products everywhere, from high end restaurants to street corner food vendors. In Japan they’re known as Kurobuta and are highly sought after for their marbled meat. So, we thought we’d give them a go – ones destined for our own bellies, the other two for bacon and charcuterie products.

Earlier in the year while scrabbling to find local producers to supply animals I came across the details of Mandy and Derek Colbourne in a BPA magazine. They have a beautiful smallholding on the Carmarthenshire/Pembrokeshire border called Glyn Elwyn where they keep herds of Berkshire, Gloucester Old Spot and Middle White pigs as well as flocks of Ryeland and Greyface Dartmoor Sheep.

Having had lie-ins till 7am for the past few weeks, it was time to relish the very last one today, as it’ll be a case of getting up early from now on to feed the new arrivals. As it’s turned cold this last week and the little ones have only just weaned, they’ll be kept in for the next few months on deep straw beds. I’ll post some decent pictures soon, and we’ll probably have another of our naming competitions (bacon for the winner!).

Ribs? No. Belly pork?

I didn’t start this blog as a ranting platform, it’s just that sometimes I have a need to vent and this is as easy a place as any. I know that I’m old before my time, and that I’m fast becoming a grumpy old man. The reason? Well a visit to a local butchers shop today left me having a mini 10 minute rant (with myself) as I drove off to a meeting. I’d stopped to do some banking, pop to the post office and grab a sandwich for lunch. I’d spotted a new butchers shop a few weeks back and although curiosity had drawn me in previously (ok, I was snooping), I hadn’t actually bought anything. As they had a hot counter I thought to myself; why not, let’s grab a sandwich. As I waited patiently for the luke warm offering I was eavesdropping on the conversation behind me, it went something like this…

Customer: Do you have any ribs?

Butcher (though I use this in its loosest form possible): We have belly pork.

Customer: Are those ribs?

Butcher: Ummm… I could slice them for you to make belly pork slices.

Customer: But are they ribs?

Butcher: [As he picks up a skin-on, unboned belly joint] Ummmm… erh… yeah.

Customer: I’ve got a recipe for ribs. How do I cook it?

Butcher: Roast it, and you’ll have nice crackling.

Customer: Is there usually crackling with ribs?

Butcher: I can cut the skin off for you?

She went on to ask for duck, by that point I was headed out the door, if I’d have stayed any longer I’d have slipped her my card and told her where to go for a selection of properly cut ribs, or worse, I’d have climbed the counter and taught him to sheet bone.

What’s happened to the butchers shops of my youth? We had three in our village (only one remains). They were beautiful white tiled palaces, always a little damp and cold, but clean with sawdust covered floors. They’d have green plastic fake grass (?) filled display cases and the butchers would be jolly, rosy cheeked fellas who called every woman ‘luv’ regardless of their age. On the subject of meat, they’d have encyclopaedic knowledge of every carcass that had passed through their door – they might have tried the odd ‘upselling’ tactic but they knew their clod from their brisket and their ribs from their loins.

Then again, back then, it was just fields around here. Kids played tidy in the street and you could get a good night out, a belly full of beer and a fish supper and still have change from a shilling.

 

On Sausages

There’s a potential rant coming your way. I’ve spent my Sunday morning making about 30kg of sausages, three varieties – a traditional, a Cumberland style and a French(much like a Toulouse). I always find that sausage making reminds me of my younger days as a photographer, in particular working in the darkroom. Some days the prints are fantastic, they’re perfect and everything seems to go your way. Other days feel as if you’ve dedicated your whole day without accomplishing anything. Today was a good day. Throughout the whole morning I can count the number of times I swore at casings splitting on one hand. That’s not always true when it comes to using sheeps casings as they’re a much more delicate beast than the hog casings I was using today.

I find sausage making quite methodical and it gives me time to think (it’s the motorway driving of the meat world) and I’ve been thinking a lot recently about sausages in particular. They’re seen as a cheap staple of British life, the humble banger, but what do we know about what goes into to them? I’ll start with what I use – for the most part it’s trimmed shoulder, and when I say trimmed I mean I remove all the bones, rind, glands, the really soft fats, the sinew and the majority of the intra-muscular soft fats. Only the good bits remain- that leaves a mix of about 80% lean meat and 20% fat. Some like a slightly fattier sausage and add a little belly. I always go by eye, if the mix needs some more fat, then I add a little more, whether it’s some spare back fat or some belly. As always fat = flavour.

Each sausage flavour we produce is from our own recipe. Often they’re based on traditional regional recipes that we’ve honed. We don’t use rusk, we make 100% gluten free sausages. It’s taken us a long time to play with various recipes and techniques to get to the point that we’re at. For the most part, our sausages taste different to what’s generally on the market. We use older pigs, so the meat is more developed, stronger tasting, like what pork should taste like. As we don’t use rusk, which I find has a taste of its very own, the pork flavour comes through stronger. We also don’t use any preservatives, no binders or emulsifiers – we’re not preaching that these are bad things, it’s just that we think we can make a pretty decent sausage without them. We’re not ruling out using some of them in the future either.

I was on a sausage course recently that had been organised by the Wales and Border Counties Pig Breeders Association. Even though I produce sausages commercially, I always feel I can learn from other practitioners and it was good to see that both the tutors had their own idiosyncrasies when it came to their individual products. I also welcome the chance to meet any new breeders, it’s important for producers to get to know the network of people who are out there rearing pigs. Some may only be fattening three or four weaners, but those breeders could be producing the best quality pork available.

Here comes the grumble… predominantly (and I’m not tarring everyone with this brush), the sausages produced by your local butchers, farm shops and small holders come from a packet mix. They either buy in a complete mix or a seasoning mix and then add their own level of rusk and water. What’s wrong with that? Well I’m not having a go at what’s in the sausage, it’s just that it produces a culture of sausage mediocrity. It also makes the practitioner lazy – recipes, and skills that have been retained for generations are lost as soon as someone takes the easy route of opening a packet. I’m not advocating that every small producer gets a degree in meat science, it’d just be nice that they knew the function of the e-numbers on their labelling.

I’m not one for awards, we don’t really enter our products for them, I much prefer to hear good feedback and have returning customers. It does however annoy me when I see a producer gaining an award for a sausage that I well know has come from a standard packet mix. They may have added a handful of their own seasoning to sex-up their sausage, but in the end, the functionality of the product, the binding, the texture, the fat retention comes from the science of the packet mix, and not the maker.

For that very reason I hold an amount of respect for producers such as Walls and Richmond. I don’t try and make a product like theirs, but the science of creating a perfectly emulsified product and at a cost that’s affordable to those on a low income is commendable.

I’d love to hear your take on the banger, so please do leave a comment.