When every cottage had a pig……

Photograph: Colin Wootton

Donald Taylor has made another journey down memory lane to the time of strict food rationing during and just after World War 2, when most villagers kept at least one pig in a sty in the garden. Donald’s father, George, a trained butcher, was much sought after at that time for the efficient slaughter and jointing of the pig, ensuring that the meat was safely “cured” for long time home storage.

Read Donald’s account of this process on the next page.

 

Donald writes:

After the 1914-18 “war to end all wars”, my father returned to Sulgrave in 1919 to “the land fit for heroes!” What followed was the great depression, exemplified by the 1926 Jarrow March and in 1929 the Wall Street Crash!

The situation meant that for many it was difficult to afford adequate food, so a great many country people kept a few chickens and a pig in the garden, the animals making do with garden and kitchen waste, perhaps with a little cereal when available. When the time came for the pig to be converted into human food, expert help was needed. Having trained as a butcher on leaving school, father was well fitted to despatch the pig and joint the carcase. Pig killing was always a job for the winter, the only way of preserving the meat was by salting, so the lower temperatures helped to keep the meat in good condition until the salt became effective, three weeks for the flitches (sides) of bacon and four weeks for the thicker hams.

Photo: Unknown (Courtesy Donald Taylor)
Elsie and George Taylor at Mill Farm with grandson Paul 1958

It was quite usual for friends and family of the pig’s owner to be present on the day, if they had their own pig, commonly each would depart with a joint of pork, returning the compliment when their own animal’s demise ocurred. A stickler for time, father’s temper, normally equable, would rapidly deteriorate if suitable supplies of clean, dry straw and a copper full of hot water were not ready because at one pig per hour, including travelling to the next, he had no time to waste. At the peak of the cottage pig keeping he would kill and butcher up to 600 pigs during the cold months, so this was a busy time. Each deed required two visits, the second on the day following the slaughter, when the meat had set and could be jointed to the owner’s preferred style.

During World War 2, the government actively encouraged pig keeping and the formation of pig clubs, whose members could give up their bacon of about four rashers per week and in return receive a token permitting the purchase of pig food i.e. cereal meal with added protein. This all helped to reduce the need for meat imports and meant a better diet – good for the war effort.

A bed of straw prepared outside the pigsty, father would enter holding a thin but strong rope formed with a noose at the end. This was offered to the pig, who would sniff and then offer to bite the cord, which was then pulled tight round its nose so that it was led, protesting loudly, to the straw bed. A bang from the humane killer and the pig dropped prone onto the straw where it was rolled onto its side and quickly exsanguinated. Once drained of blood, straw was piled loosely over the body and ignited. With skill the fire was controlled so that all the hair singed away without blistering the skin. Fire out, it was bath time. With buckets of warm water (remember the copper?) and scrubbing brushes, the pig was soon beautifully clean.

Opening up the carcase from throat to tail along the underside of the body, all the organs were removed, entrails into a small bath: thorough cleaning subsequently converted these into chitterlings – very tasty! The “pluck” consisted of tongue, heart and lungs, washed and hung on the garden washing line to drain. Together with offcuts and trotters they would be used to make brawn or put into pies. Liver and kidneys were versatile and the leaf made into superb lard, when rendered down with a sprig of rosemary. It was always understood that the only bit of the pig remaining unused was its squeal and if that could have been caught, no doubt a use would have been found! The leaf, incidentally, is the layer of very white, rich fat lining the chest cavity and surrounding the heart and lungs. A generous layer of this lard on a new bread with a pinch of salt was regarded as a treat. Today’s lard or cooking fat seems to bear little relationship to “proper” home made lard.

All cleaned up, the pig was carried on a handbarrow, a sort of stretcher, to the shed, where it was suspended by the jawbone from a beam and left to cool for 24 hours. At this point came the vital questions “How heavy is it?” Father’s opinion was seldom questioned as it was accepted that he was always within two or three pounds. There was an occasion when his judgement was disputed, so he took his steelyard next day. This is a portable weighing device which indicated the precise weight which, as expected by most, turned out to be within 2 lbs. The owner’s response to this was “It weren’t as heavy as I thought it ‘ud be and I never thought as it ‘ud.”

Most of the carcase was salted down in a salting lead, a shallow wooden trough usually lined with lead so as to be leakproof. A layer of salt in the bottom, then the meat covered with further salt, started the process. Usually, where the bones showed at the surface of the hams a pinch of saltpetre ensured that the cure went well. Daily basting with the liquor that formed gave complete penetration of the salt. To cure the pig a 28lb block of salt was purchased; this then had to be crushed into granular form to be used.

Once cured, the meat would be drained and then hung – probably in the chimney corner – to dry. Looking up at eight hams of varying size hanging from a big beam crossing a a farmhouse kitchen, the owner remarked on my “admiring his pictures”! The hams were from successive years pigs and he would leave them hanging for 4 years before soaking and cooking. I believe that this practice resulted in rather tough and very strong flavoured ham. Most people ate up their pigs more quickly that that but the fact is that today’s bacon and ham cured in brine, under pressure, for a very short time, neither keeps nor tastes anything like the proper home cure.

Donald Taylor

 

Postscript

At the end of the website entry describing the unveiling of the Advent Calendar Window at Westfield in Park Lane, I wrote a little of my boyhood in (half of) that cottage in Park Lane (more traditionally known as “Dark Lane”). As well as the chicken run, the cottage garden contained a pigsty, with a new pig annually. My father was a member of the Village Pig Club, just as described by Donald. However, both my mother and I were far too tender hearted for the realities of village life. We always gave our pigs pet names and became very fond of them. We dreaded my father’s announcement that “George Taylor’s coming tomorrow!” She would take me on a long walk in the countryside, returning long after the deed had been done. It was sheer hypocrisy, of course, because we were both only too willing to to join in the meat eating orgy that followed, she being particularly fond of pig’s trotters!

Just as Donald wrote in his article, the hams were indeed kept in the chimney corner, wrapped in old sewn up pillow cases! I vividly remember one of them being carefully taken down and stowed in the pre-war Austin 10 with lots of eggs, at the start of the only real seaside holiday of my childhood, to Devon and Cornwall in 1949. It was a glorious summer and we camped in my tiny child’s play tent comprising a single layer of cotton, at night simply sleeping on a blanket stretched out over an old army groundsheet with another blanket pulled over us. Dad converted a large biscuit tin to house the primus stove over which rested the frying pan containing the ham and eggs that were our daily (and delicious) dinner. Tea to follow, with fresh milk in a can from whichever farm we were camping at. Simple pleasures.

 

Colin Wootton

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2 Responses to “When every cottage had a pig……”

  1. Lindsay says:

    lovely article by Donald. I remember back in the mid-70s when I was living at Byfield I sometimes used to have a pint in the “top pub” at Upper Boddington (name escapes me for the moment!) the old landlord once took me into his sitting room and showed me “hams” hanging up in the chimney of the inglenook fireplace!

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