The progeny of our oldest and most glorious pig tucking into some winter clover
This past weekend we had the Red Gum Food Group Workshop Festival. It’s an annual event in it’s second year that the RGFG holds aiming to plant seeds for discussions, open eyes to opportunities and bring people closer to their food through sharing skills that aren’t anymore used in everyday life. I attended the tanning hides workshop with local feller and mate Elliot Fehring. Ell farms free range chooks, milks organic cows and plays around with some ancient forms of craft, including tanning hides and making leather. It was the coldest day we have had this winter, and I rang Ell at about 10am and suggested that maybe we have the workshop in the BBQ shelter in the park instead of out in the open. We got there and the wind was like a knife cutting into our skins and the sleety rain was riding it sideways. Shivering and teeth chattering, Ell shared his tools of trade, books on the craft and examples of almost finished products including some red leather he had made. So much information was given on history, different species, tanning solutions and technique and I found myself captivated about the whole process and forgetting that my legs from the feet up had gone numb in the cold. Fascinating facts I learned included:
- Every animals brain is capable of tanning that animals hide, by crushing and mixing with water as a tanning solution.
- Chewing a leather belt or boiling up your Blundstones isn’t as mad as it sounds, it’s a valuable source of protein if you’re in a bit of a starvation pickle.
- Any plant that contains tannins (and most do) can be used as a tanning solution. E.g notice how black water goes if a few gum leaves fall in after a few days? Tannins=tanning. Never noticed that before.
- Salt (uniodised) is used to cure the hide before it is submerged in the tanning solution to draw out all the natural oils in the skin and hair.
I want to tan a hide, to make a beautiful rug out of a deer we have shot for meat, or buckskin for a chair (thank you Kevin McCloud), mats from pesky rabbits and naughty foxes… and did you also know you can make crazy glue from the rabbit skins??
Elliot removing the flesh of a salted heifer hide with his blade
I think about visiting the abattoirs and how many skins are wasted, or animals that die on farms that are promptly disposed of. The process of making leather is slow, it can’t be rushed. Salting for a week, tanning solution for another, carefully and slowly removing the flesh with the perfectly shaped and sharpened blade as to not tear the fragile skin, stretching the skin until it is soft and pliable. It’s a long process that brings a deeper appreciation to the value of handmade leather.
I love cheese, love it, eat it by the bucket load. I appreciate how good artisan cheese is, but now I really appreciate it’s value and the work that goes into producing good cheese. It’s a process that can’t be hurried, like leather making. I knew it was a process and timely but having the patience to wait for each stage to progress and being precise and careful in every step really is an art. I wonder if people came onto the farm where their food is grown and say for example had to wait for the piglet to be born safely, survive weaning and then sit around waiting for the pig to slowly grow out to porker size for 7 months, I wonder if they would place more value on their nice roasted pork belly or delicious crispy bacon. I see $5/kg bacon all the time in the local supermarkets and wonder what kind of life did that pig have to be valued at such a cheap price?
Last week and very sadly might I add, we led Betty (our biggest and most glorious sow) with a bucket of food from her lush green paddock straight into the back of the trailer. It was an easy and very calm moment. She trusts us and knows that her food is comforting. This was to be her last meal, her last glance across the paddock, her last scratch on the back of the ear and her last moment of expressing her pigness. We said goodbye (and almost opened the trailer gate and let her back out) and thank you for being such a wonderful pig and mother to so many gorgeous piglets. Then she was on her way to the local abattoir for a swift slaughter, just like that. I dreamed of her that night, of her journey on the farm and her brief visit to the abattoir and how she looked hanging at the butchers. On actually visiting her the next day for collection, my emotions immediately overwhelmed me and I was brought to tears. She looked amazing, but here she was all in pieces staring blankly back at me. The people who had ordered a salami pig wanted to know what price she would be per kilo. I didn’t know how to price a companion, what is her value when you consider her heritage, offspring and meat quality? It shouldn’t be about price, it should be about the value. I know though for certain that the value that my customers have for the end product of hand made salami is priceless. A once a year event that encompasses whole families to preserve the pigness of the pig for years of culinary pleasure to come. To know that she was going to good families was a comfort and made me proud to have given them such a gift. They were very grateful and I hope to see them again next year with the end product.
I am surrounded by farmers that hold the same value for their own animals and produce. It is disheartening that the same value isn’t held by the rest of the supply chain, especially what we experienced recently at an abattoir that I won’t name about an hour from our farm. Our pigs were mistreated pre-slaughter which resulted in broken ribs and severe bruising. The only thing that could be done was to be partly reimbursed, the operators couldn’t be overhauled as the problem couldn’t be identified on the inspectors visit. I was told that the workers don’t know what they are looking at and that what happens pre-slaughter is out of their hands. I hate that we live in a world where demand for food far outweighs care for product. The price and supply have taken far superiority over welfare and quality. This experience was the final straw in quality control and led us to pursue what other options are there. It appears not much once we looked away from the small local abattoir that we usually use. Hundreds of other farmers have exactly the same problem, and would rather kill on-farm which is better for the animal and therefore the quality of the meat but legislation doesn’t allow for on-farm killing for commercial use. A mobile system or a cooperatively owned micro-abattoir would be most welcome in my circle of farming friends. Not only would the quality of the meat be guaranteed, but the animals wouldn’t be subjected to confrontation of hundreds of strange animals, noises and smells, prodding, dogs or violence. And you would be sure you were getting your animal back and not Jo Blo’s from down the road. It could even open up a new business opportunity for a complementing composting operation that could sell the compost made from the waste back to the owning cooperative of farmers. How’s that for a closed system? It could support someone to tan the hides, collect the bits and bobs that usually get thrown out and value add, maybe even supply the local supermarkets with locally grown meats. The same principal could be applied to a local flour mill. We already have a grain merchant, but what if they bought all their grain locally and what didn’t go into stockfeed could be milled into flour. Imagine the freight costs that local farmers could save, the fuel costs they would save and the jobs that would create in town. Michael Croft from Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance goes one step further to suggest that partnering with a bakery to make woodfired breads to sell to local businesses and at the farmers market would create even more jobs and contribute to the local food supply. The value behind that food produced is invaluable when you think of the people involved and the families that are supported. But would people at the checkout even care? At Friday nights Q and A Panel Discussion at the Barham Hotel, it seems that our RGFG is on the right track for paving a future for producers where consumers do care. Hopefully in the not too distant future the community will be looking for quality food that holds real nutritional and personal value, not cheap food imported from another country or grown in a chemically laden intensive environment. Everything that we need to eat is right here under our noses, except those yummy bananas and a few other exotic items.
So getting back to Betty… in a month or so we will be retrieving her beautiful enormous head from the freezer and turning it into our very first Charcuterie made on the farm. This will be done in our shed, our lovely shed made from bits and pieces that we have saved, salvaged, borrowed and in a few instances sourced new from the shops. I’m not quite decided what we’ll make from Betty that will rightly do her justice, what will last the longest. Fromage de Tête maybe, or some dry cured jowls. Whatever it will be, it will mark the beginning of us having almost total control of our business and the quality of our product because we value more than anyone what we do. I have lots to learn before we start doing our own butchering (not killing, yet) to make our own Charcuterie on-farm but I can’t wait to be out in the shed, dabbling in a few ideas, learning new skills, sharing those skills with others and watching the kids playing in the back garden.
Our butchering room and cool room, where we’ll be cutting, packing, preserving and value adding our precious piggies on the farm. Our first on-farm workshop is aiming for August and will be on butchering basics including boning and sausage making.