First you get your pig. No, I'm not trying to win a prize in the "It was a dark and stormy night" poor writing contest. Getting the pig is the most important part of the process for a few reasons. The first is obvious, the second is half the reason I buy these pigs is to support my local farmer. I understand not everyone has this option, but I do. If I had to buy whole pigs from a meat purveyor I don't know if I'd go through the time, effort and gasoline to produce products which can be a challenging sell. It's one thing for a place like Incanto to offer unusual cuts like beef heart on their menu because there are a hell of a lot more people in San Francisco than there are here. More diners equals more potentially adventurous souls equals actually selling beef heart.
That said, I like the guy I get pigs from. He picks up our compost, makes homebrew, built a brick oven for pizzas and breads at his farm, has a small vineyard, grows all sorts of things, gives farm tours, has people stay at the farm doing work exchange, does the farmer's market, presents workshops on sustainable living among other things. He's handsome to boot. When he comes in the female staff all swoon. So, I like buying pigs from him because I want him to make it. I also buy whatever he has left from the farmer's market. It's good and I know I can find something to do with it. Like the case of assorted peppers that are awaiting pickling.
So, when a litter is born he gets me a contract that lays out what we're all agreeing upon. I'm looking for a pig weighing about 225 pounds. Once he gave me one that came in at 350. Waaay too big. 200-225 is about perfect for us. A couple of notes. The photo is actually from a litter of his. The faint of heart, those who don't believe in eating animals and those who eat the animals but can't handle the idea that these were once living, breathing and cuddly creatures should hop over to another blog right about now. No hard feelings, I don't want to upset you and I don't want you upset at me.
We also agree on an approximate delivery date, which I usually try to make on one of my normal days off so I can come in and concentrate solely on the pig. He just asked if I could take one right after our next city trip, which will be in a few days and even though I am just selling the last of the ham from the last one, I of course told him it would be my pleasure.
When the day arrives he takes all the animals to a slaughterhouse about 3 hours north of here. There is another on closer and inland but he didn't like the way they treated and killed the animals so he takes them to the one a bit further away. He also sells to non-restaurant customers and those he butchers himself. However in order to sell to me the animal has to have one of these, which you might recognize as a USDA stamp.
As you can see this one passed inspection. The only thing I don't like about this slaughterhouse is that I only end up with the kidneys. The rest of internal organs never make their way with the rest of the pig. I wouldn't miss the lungs terribly, but I'd like the liver, spleen, brain and blood please. Even if that meant it was me and me alone eating boudin noir with sauteed apples for the rest of the fall.
He drives down to the restaurant with the pig in this, well packed in ice. The first one he didn't have this nifty coffin for and we lugged her one half at a time up the stairs with some black plastic bags draped over the body, hoping we weren't dripping blood on the carpet, and hoping I didn't lose my grip and send the entire carcass tumbling down the stairs.
We now have this down, we get to use the elevator and he's got this Rubbermaid thing so that it looks pretty innocuous, although one we wheeled by an art class of inquisitive children, hoping they wouldn't ask what was in the box.
You can see a little bit peeking out. This is after delivery in the walk-in.
The slaughterhouse splits the pig down the middle, which saves me an immense amount of hassle, since I don't have a band saw. I do have a meat saw but sawing a pig in half would wear me out that I would be hard pressed to anything else with it once that part was done. So I get delivery of two halves that look like this.
Now, on to the cutting. I'm fortunate in that I'm not fabricating retail cuts and that I know what I'm going to do with all the things I cut. The first thing is to remove the head. If your pig is cut in half, you can turn it over and have a pretty clear idea where the skull meets the neck and using a sharp, pointed boning knife separate the head from the spine. Looking at the front of the animal you can see also pretty clearly where the head attaches to the neck and where the cheek ends and the neck begins. I carve around the cheek on that side and if I have done a good job of separating the the head should come away pretty cleanly. I remove the eyeballs and put into the dog's pile. You can then use the head for headcheese or you can remove the jowls for guanciale or for smoked bacon. I usually do the latter, since headcheese is a tough sell for us no matter what we call it, even country style pate. The ears you could remove and cook by themselves, and if I were solely enjoying this by myself that's what I might do, simmered long and low, then plastered with mustard, rolled in bread crumbs and fried crisp. However since there are only two of them I generally leave them attached to the head to become part of the headcheese.
After removing the jowls the rest of the head goes into the brine pot (more on that later).
Moving down to the shoulder I decide whether I'm leaving skin on or removing it. This depends on what I'm going to do with the meat. The last pig we got I didn't do any fermented sausage like salami, since it was still mid-summer and the space/time issue wasn't working out. Instead I cured all four legs for ham so I didn't remove the skin. If I'm going to use the shoulder for sausage meat at this point I'll take off the skin while the leg is still attached to the rest of the body as it slides less and it's generally easier to remove this way. And no, I've not yet made a football from the skin. The skin I save for cotechino, which is a much better use for it in my opinion than chicharones.
So, using my own shoulder as a guide, I carve around the top of the joint, and wiggling the leg see where the joint meets the body. Gravity is your friend here. Lift the pig by the leg, letting the weight of the carcass fall back toward the board. Cut into the joint and the leg will naturally want to separate. At this point I remove the trotter. Find the joint by wiggling and picturing your own wrist. You should be able to locate it. If you are strong muscled and pressed for time, use your meat saw. You now have something which will, after brining and smoking, eventually look like this.
Remove the back leg, what you should recognize as the ham, in a similar fashion. This is slightly trickier since you are dealing with a ball joint, (picture your hip and you've got it) and you're getting close to the tenderloin (you have to gently cut the narrow end from the leg), loin and sirloin. Again, you've got the choice of whether to skin or not. I almost never skin the back leg. The tip of your knife should find the joint pretty easily and again letting gravity do the work lift the leg and carefully cut through the cartilage, letting the body drop to the board. Remove the trotter. You should now have in front of you a brine bucket with the cheekless head, the cheeks, one foreleg, one back leg, two trotters, perhaps some skin, an eyeball and the rest of the carcass.
You now have the bacon, ribs and loin. You can picture the bacon as a square that runs from leg to leg, just under the ribs. How much you choose to remove depends on whether you like bacon or ribs better. Either way at this point I skin the belly and if I am dealing with a sow, cut out the mammary seeds near the bottom of the belly. These I save for the dogs, along with the glands from the neck and legs. I tend to remove more of the meat for bacon, as I get a better return on bacon than I do selling ribs. If I were a retail butcher that might be a different story. So after cutting the bacon away from the ribs you have a nice slab like this.
Now you pretty much have to use a saw to cut through the ribs. I just saw straight across and set them aside.
At this point you have another choice. Bone-in pork chops or boneless loin. I always have pork loin on my menu so I always go for the boneless loin myself. It's also the line of least resistance, by which I mean the least sawing. I really don't like the sawing. Anyway, it's pretty easy to let your knife follow the bone to detach the loin. The only tricky part is near the aitch bone, but as long as the tip of your remains in contact with the bone you can't go too far wrong. As the butchery instructor says, "If you're not following the bone, you're not boning anything.
Remove the backfat and save for sausage. At this point you want to tidy things up and start making piles of meat for sausage, fat of various grades, the leaf lard around the kidneys and backfat together, the meatier and bloodier bits of fat together, skin, the bits for the dogs and the bones for stock.
You should now have half a carcass broken down into the primal cuts. Do the other half now. I'll be back tomorrow with recipes and techniques for the rest.