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.

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.

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?

Obsessive Compulsive

I’ve mentioned my Mangalitza pigs a fair few times on the blog and on twitter. There’s only three of them but I’m really quite obsessed. I’m becoming some kind of uber-geek on pig raising. My bedtime reading of late tends to be papers on protein conversion in feed and optimum diets for hard fats.

As a family we’ve raised pigs for generations, we can trace our ancestry on the farm back centuries so I’m guessing I can lay claim to coming from generations of curers, albeit home curers.

This past year has been one of the most incredible ever. I’ve travelled Europe and North America looking at various stock, breeding, diets and methods of production. At times I’ve found it hard getting to sleep at night with all these new bits of knowledge brewing in my head. I’m now at the point where I can disseminate and set a plan of what’s to come.

One thing my forefathers didn’t have was an understanding of meat science, they understood farming but they didn’t always have the benefit of understanding how the methods they used in raising their animals affected the end cured product. However, more often than not they were on the right track, as my current feed regime isn’t hugely different from what my grandfather used in the 1950’s.

I’m already evangelical about the Mangalitza and that’s months before we even tuck into our first test pigs. I’ve taken the slow route to test these, buying them young and keeping them for a minimum of 18 months before slaughter. Plenty of people have suggested that I should just jump in and invest in a herd, but I’ve stuck to the original plan. I could have gone out and bought an 18 month animal to test with, but had I done that I’d have had no guarantee of how the animal had been raised, no understanding of the nature of the breed, their characteristics and the way that they grow and build muscle and fat. However, it’s a pretty cautious route buying just three animals, as it pretty much means that I won’t have my own pigs ready for production for another two years. There’s a great little article by Revival Meats about the importance of diet. I just hope that my ‘old world’ methods will produce pork similar to this.

There will be other pigs, the Mangalitza after all is a lard pig, so I’ll be marrying the product with another breed. I currently use pork from the Burry Herd of pedigree Welsh Pigs, it’s proved to be a consistently good product but ultimately I’d like to have my own stock to produce from. Whether it’ll be a commercial or rare breed I’m not quite sure yet, that’s a decision to be made over Christmas.

However, with regards to the Mangalitza, there is a degree of trepidation – the Mangalitza products that I’ve tasted have been vastly different, some poor, some good and some were just incredible. Similarly, having spoken to charcutiers from across the globe, they’ve all had mixed opinions on the quality of the pork and of the cured product. From personal experiences with the product I do wonder whether these discrepancies are all largely down to the way that the pigs were fed and raised. As a nation of ‘super lean’ pork eaters I  doubt whether there is a market in the UK for fresh Mangalitza pork other than in high end restaurants?

I’m investing my time in Mangalitza to make the best quality charcuterie possible, I just hope that the public will see that same value. At Borough Market recently I heard someone balk at the cost of Iberico Ham, it cost in the region of £175/kg. It’s expensive, yes, but it was a 32 month dried ham – from craddle to plate you’re looking at a minimum of 44 months – how many other food products are there with that level of investment?

I’m heartened to see that the Mangalitza market in the UK is about to get a kick start. Lardo, a new restaurant set to open in the New Year has enlisted the help of Graham Waddington (formerly of Trealy Farm) to produce some of their charcuterie. As far as I’m concerned, the more of us producing quality pork, and quality charcuterie the better. I’ll be keeping an eye on their development, and I can’t wait to try their products!!!