I have been raising pigs for a long time. I have raised many breed, on many feeds, in several different ways. When I started with pigs it was the typical backyard raise two, sell one to pay for the one you keep. We did it in a movable pen, which was shifted around a few times to keep from having to work too hard at cleaning up and to make sure the pigs had a good chance of keeping clean and disease free. We fed these pigs conventional feed, table scraps and garden gleanings. It was not idea, but it worked and at the time we thought the pork was wonderful. At very least it was better than anything that could be bought in a supermarket.
Gradually, over time, I shifted the way I raised my pigs. I began pasturing them, largely to take advantage of wasted space on the farm, but also to develop a better flavor in the meat. At first I kept the pigs on conventional feeds, but also added stale bread—available free for the taking—and cull potatoes from a potato farm nearby. The pigs were cheap to raise, and easy to care for, but I learned my lesson on the meat. Not only was the flesh soft and water-logged, but it also lacked the character and depth of flavor I was hoping for. Additionally, I was still raising the pigs to the standard, conventional 6-8 months old. I continued to adjust my program.
Finally, a few years back, I switched to feeding whole grains. I cut out the potatoes and bread, added milk to the pig’s diet and upped the amount of apples, garden scraps and other natural foods they ate. I also rotated them more often to keep them working over waste land on the farm. One year, due to an odd season, the recession, and difficulty finding customers I had to delay the processing of these pigs. Most were 10 months old, and some almost a year before we processed them. The resulting pork was fabulous. My customers mentioned it, and I could see and taste the quality in the pork I kept for myself. I had clearly stumble onto something.
I haven’t looked back since. I now raise my pigs to a standard which provides my customers an amazing quality pork at a reasonable price. Some fail to see the value, others get it and come back for more. One thing all of this has taught me is, that while different breeds of pig have different temperaments and varying levels of success outdoors, it is the feed, not the breed which makes great pork. Sure, some will argue that different breeds have certain characteristics, flavor profiles and properties. But by, and large, it is the feed, the way it is fed and the length of feeding that determines the quality and flavor of the pork. I hadn’t quite realized the truth about the age of the pig at slaughter until my recent trip to France to work with the Chapolards. Seeing another farms’ pork, from a breed cross I had not seen before, confirmed my belief that the ideal pork comes from a 1 year old pig, fed on a balanced diet of natural whole grains, grasses and hay. This level of maturity offers a depth of flavor, a muscle and fat structure which is ideal for aging, processing and curing and has an unmistakeable sweetness about it. Younger pork is the veal of the pork world, lacking texture, fat development, marbling and depth of flavor. Even in a well raised pig, this younger meat lacks what it takes for further processing and curing because of its lack of structure and cell development. Seeing and working with this quality of pork first hand, at the Chapolard’s farm, has convinced me of it. Don’t believe me? Come to my farm March 18th and see for yourself. Ask Dominique Chapolard any questions you may have, and taste first hand what I am on about.