Pigs as Rotivators
We decided over the weekend to extend our vegetable patch and annexe more of our lawn (if I keep going like this soon I will have no lawn left - no more grass cutting, hurrah!). Rather than hire a rotivator to get rid of the grass we moved in our two piggies. Talk about a win-win situation. We save money on the rotivator, the pigs are delighted with the fresh ground to root on, and they manure the soil in the process (mechanical rotivators are good but they can’t manage that!). Click read more to watch the videos:
Part 3 (Job Done!):
Diary of a “pig weekend”..
Warts n all account of processing two pigs over a weekend.
There was a point at about 9 o’clock on the Saturday evening when I was up to my neck in sausage meat, my hands were aching and I was tired as a dog, that I wondered: would it just be easier to buy pork, bacon and sausages in the supermarket and be done it? But I think it was just the fatigue and hunger setting in - so we took a break, had an impromptu dinner of pork patties (sausage meat moulded in to burger shapes and then fried on the pan) and opened a bottle of red wine. And it was one of the most sublime meals we ever had. And of course within minutes all seemed right with the world again. Because that’s what the pig weekend is all about. The tastiest, freshest grub imaginable.
But that was Saturday night when most of the work was behind us. Let’s take a step back.
The pig weekend really started back on Wednesday evening when we loaded up the poor old piggies (no, they don’t have names) to get them ready for their trip to the abattoir on Thursday morning. Getting the pigs from their plot down the end of our garden in to the trailor is always fraught with stress and this year it was more stressful than ever (really after three years of this you would think we would be more on top of things!). Jacqui Corcoran was here on the Wednesday afternoon recording my weekly contribution to The Frugal Household on RTE Radio. For our last show, she brought self-confessed shopaholic and city-slicker Justine Dwyer with her to try her hand at digging spuds etc. I was telling Justine that the pigs were entering their last 24 hours on earth and it was far too much for the poor girl - I think she actually shed a tear.
We finished recording and went back up to the house for a cup of coffee. I looked out the window and saw one of the pigs was out on the lawn. Eeek! Battle stations. Bear in mind that they have been here since March and have never once escaped so it was an ominous portend indeed that one had got out on her last day here. Think the electric fence shorted out. I let out a roar and Justine and Jacqui nearly spilled their coffee all over themselves. We all ran out and spent about 20 minutes trying to round up the pig who was enjoying this last dash of freedom. Poor Justine I think was horrified at the whole thing - if she disliked country life before then, she really hates it now.
Anyway, having had one trauma already that day, Mrs K and I decided we may as well move the pigs in to the trailor that evening, so that they would be relaxed the following morning. We moved the trailor manually across the garden and had it as close to their pen as we could, then turned off the electric fence, took down the sheep wire fence in one corner and let them out. We put some feed in to the trailor and after about ten minutes of curious sniffing they both climbed up the ramp and in. We closed up the door quickly and then pulled the trailor back across the garden and hitched up to the car. Job done.
They settled down for the evening, completely oblivious to their fate.
This video which I took the morning of the slaughter is kind of hard to watch - well, it’s poignant at any rate.
Myself and my mate Bryan headed in to Waterford to the abattoir with the pigs in the trailor behind us. For the last few years we have used a small abattoir in north Wexford (who would slaughter and butcher the meat for us) because I had this concern about large, commercial abattoirs. But for the last 12 months I have been a little worried about the bacon that we got from them - not because I don’t trust them but because all commercial butchers use nitrates to cure bacon and I reckoned there was little point in going to all the trouble of rearing pigs and then not knowing what goes in to making the sausages, bacon etc. And besides, I did a course with Philip Denhart from Ballymaloe on butchering a pig and I wanted to put what I learned in to practice.
So this year, because we planned to cut up the meat ourselves, I reckoned it didn’t really matter which abattoir we used and so I opted to use a very large local abattoir in Waterford. I think all in all it was a better option - the pigs only had a 10 mile trip in the trailor rather than a 50 mile one to north Wexford which I think was easier on them. We met up with another friend, Nicky, outside the abattoir. Nicky was going to show us how to use the slapmark which we bought between us this year. A slapmark is a device that you use to imprint your pigs herd number on the skin - that way when you get your carcass back from the abattoir you can see the herd number on the skin and be 100 per cent confident the meat is yours and you haven’t been given back a commercial producer’s pig in error. The slapmark is basically like a tattoo device - there are hundreds of little needles on the end of a little handle which you dunk in ink and you literally slap the pig with it. The poor pig. Nicky climbed in to trailor and slapmarked my two pigs because I had never done in it before. Much indignant squealing (from the pigs, not Nicky).
Then we went in to the abattoir. You literally reverse the trailor up to the door of the abattoir and your pigs wander off in to the bowels of the building. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye, not that I would have anyway… Standing outside we could hear occasional screams from inside which was rather offputting. I think the scream happens the moment the pig is stunned with the electric tongs which renders them unconscious. Then they are hung up by the back legs and stuck in the neck to bleed them out. It is extremely quick, clincial and efficient - over in seconds. Still though - not nice to watch.
While I was standing in the office waiting to sign them in, I had a look at what you might call the kill list, i.e. all the pigs that were being taken in that day. There were literally thousands. Farmer X: 500 pigs. Farmer Y: 600 pigs. Farmer Z: 400 pigs. Michael Kelly: 2 pigs. I had a little chuckle when I saw that. I had a word with the guy on duty in the office to see could I keep the heads of the pigs (to make the brawn, more on that later) and he said that would be ok. The one thing that struck us all was (a) how clinical and clean the whole thing is and (b) what a grim job it must be to work an eight hour shift sticking pigs in the neck, or pulling out their innards. All to satisfy mankind’s insatiable appetite for pork and bacon.
Myself and Bryan headed in to the city after that to get some provisions. It felt good to have moved on from the difficult part of the exercise and to be focussed now on foodie stuff. This was an exhausting trip in itself as we had to go around to about ten different shops to get it all.. Having gone through the weekend and come out the other side, here is a list of things that you will need for a pig weekend:
- sharp knives (have one sharp knife for each person you have involved)
- muslin for hanging and storing hams etc (I had to source in a fabric shop)
- lots of large buckets (with lids) for putting hams, ribs, rashers etc in to brine
- lots of large Tupperware containers for making the sausage meat, storing things etc
- sausage casings (ordered online from Weschenfelder, http://www.weschenfelder.co.uk)
- sausage stuffer (ditto - cost about eu150 when delivered to Ireland, but we shared cost between four people)
- good electric mincer - those hand powered ones are useless, believe me, i tried one and you could spend a month mincing the meat from two pigs
- Sea salt for dry and wet cures - we ordered a 25kg bag from local health store and it cost about eu17. We will have enough for next year’s pig weekend
- Butchers twine - difficult to get - in the end a local butcher came up trumps at the 11th hour and sold me a roll. Maybe try and order online from specialist catering supplier in advance
- Freezer bags- you will be amazed how many you will need. I would say we easily went through 150 of them. We used about 40 for sausages alone as we wanted to freeze them in small quantities. Get big and small. Use small for sausages, rashers etc. You will need very large ones for big cuts of pork etc
- Marker to write on freezer bags. Do not use sticky labels, they fall off in freezer
- Ingredients for brines and brawns - capers, gherkins, lemons, parsley, onions, peppercorns, cloves, garlic, chillis or chilliflakes, juniper berries
- Ingredients for sausages - breadcrumbs or pinhead oats, apples, lots of herbs, white pepper
- Ingredients for chorizo and salami - red wine, parika, fennel seeds, acidophilus (got it in healthfood store in capsules, people take them to restore stomach health when they have been on antibiotics etc. Opened up capsules and took powder out).
- Large stock pot for making brine
- needles for injecting brine in to meat
That’s the crap mincer on the table. Don’t buy one. They are useless.
Mrs Kelly did most of the work on the Friday, collecting the pigs in her car. She had the back of her car (it’s a hatchback so back seats fold down) lined with black sacks though in the end she didn’t really need to because the carcasses were wrapped in plastic anyway. It was like she was involved in disposing a body (which in a way I guess she was). She was able to check the carcasses for the slapmark number (they were incidentally slapped on their hind legs on each side because the carcass is split in half so you want to be able to identify both halves as your own!). The heads were left on as requested. Mrs K was none to happy about the fact that pigs were looking at her the whole way home.
Because we weren’t going to butcher them until the morning we had to store them somewhere cool and because we don’t have a walk in cold room (who does?) we decided to put them in our porch which is part of the old cottage and absolutely freezing! So we put a big beam up across the ceiling and tied the carcasses to that. Pigs weigh a lot - this point was brought home to me twice in the last few days - once on Wednesday when I had the pig cornered when she escaped and she just brushed past me like I was a feather. And then again when we were trying to lift the carcass on to the rope hanging from the beam. Feck me, they are heavy.
Having got the pigs safely back to the house, I got stuck in to making the brine. The brine is the wet cure you use to soak hams and anything else you need to baconise. I was really chancing my arm here to be honest, having no idea how much I needed. I was trying to find recipes - Hugh Fearnley’s basic brine recipe was a bit basic and his other wet cures were abit elaborate (using molasses etc). So I basically did a mixture of a few brine recipes I found on the net and came up with this:
For every 2l water:
600g sea salt
6 juniper berries
2-3 tbsp peppercorns
A few cloves
Half teaspoon chilliflakes
The large stock pot I have takes about 15 litres of water so i multiplied up the ingredients. The idea is that you boil all this up until the salt dissolves and then allow to cool slightly. Transfer in to a plastic bucket or container (don’t leave it in the pot as the salt and metal react against each other). I was getting kind of worried at this stage as I had no clue how much I would need. In the end we had about three large buckets filled with brine and at the end of the day they were all full of different cuts of meat being cured. So we got it about right. To get those three buckets of liquid I had to make up about 3 stockpots full so I reckon we ended up making approximately 40l of brine. It probably took an hour each time to boil up the liquid so in other words this is a job for the day before your pig butchering and not that morning. You won’t have enough time!
I was very lucky that a neighbour of mine has done all this before (he keeps his own pigs and is also a chef) and I could call him for advice. He also came along the morning of the butchering (sat) to help out. Mick is head chef in Waterford Castle and therefore knows all about cooking the meat as well as butchering it. He’s also a top bloke and hugely generous with his time. When I called him to ask about the brine, he told me not too worry too much about the recipe - the NB thing is to get the salt/water proportions right and after that you can add any flavour you want, e.g. white wine, garlic, herbs etc. So I got a little bold on the second and third batches - made up a very herby one with huge handfuls of herbs from the garden and then a garlic one with about five or six cloves and a glass of white wine.
Having made the brines, we went out and got good and drunk. Every intention of just having one or two glasses, but you know yourself. We fell home at about 2am. If I recall correctly, we also persuaded the people who gave us a lift home to have a look in the porch window. They got the fright of their lives. It was like a scene from Reservoir Dogs.
Terrible idea to go out. Alarm went off at 7am. Five hours sleep and bad hangover. Got up and made another batch of brine just to be on safe side. The helpers arrived at 9am and we got stuck in after drinking a pot of coffee. Core team was myself and Mrs K, Bryan, Nicky and Feargal. Mick Quinn and a friend of his came in for the first hour or so. Bryan’s wife Orlagh came along in the afternoon when the going got toughest! You need plenty of bodies because there is so much to do, particularly in the afternoon when you start making sausages etc. We had a core group of five and we needed every single person!
I can’t really go in to the butchering in too much detail - not because I don’t want to but because it is almost impossible to explain in writing. You would really need to be there and have an expert involved to show you the ropes. Or as Nicky does it: buy “Hugh and Ray Pig in a Day” and basically watch it while you are butchering! It works for him.
Watching Mick Quinn at work was watching a craftsman in action. So precise and careful. Brilliant stuff. Here he is explaining stuff to me - “this is fat and this is lean”.
As he cut, he was giving us the low-down on how to cook the different cuts which was invaluable, e.g. cook belly at 120 for four hours etc. Mick did one side of one pig for us and then had to leave to go to work. Nicky (who has done four or five of his own pigs to date) did another one and then Bryan and myself did one side each with Nicky standing over our shoulders. Basically you are doing a mix of cutting with a sharp boning knife and then using a saw to get through the really big bones. Here’s a good pic of Mick sawing through the loin.
Basically this is what we did with each of the bits (bear in mind that we had two buckets on the ground beside us, one for offcuts of meat to go in to sausages and one for bones, skin etc for the dogs):
Heads: the two heads went in to the stock pot to make brawn - will come back to this later. We didn’t get in to eating the ears, brains or any of that ghoulish stuff. Making brawn from the head was ghoulish enough.
Trotters and tail: kept two trotters in freezer where they will no doubt remain indefinitely because I have no interest in eating them! The other six went in brawn pot.
The tails went in to brawn pot. One hilarious moment came as Bryan and myself were cutting up a half of a pig each, him on one side of the counter and me on the other. And I was working on cutting off the tail and I looked across at him and asked in all seriousness - “have you cut your tail off already?” Doh! In my defence, I had a hangover.
Shoulders: we used three of the shoulders for roasting joints (pork) and boned out the other for sausage meat.
Belly: the underside of the pig. We used these for a mixture of bellies of pork (head end) and streaky bacon cuts (thin end). Mick showed us how to prepare the belly for roasting, scoring the back with a Stanley knife to make that fab crackling. Slow cooked for hours it is absolutely delicious. He also showed us how to do the correct butchers knot using the twine when tying up the meat. Very useful to know.
The cuts for streaky rashers were put in to a dry cure:
1kg sea salt
100g soft brown sugar
Tablespoon black pepper
We have two large container drawers at the end of our fridge (where we store lettuce etc) and we used one of these for curing the bellies (we stored them in the fridge while they were curing - about five days). We had four bellies in total. You put one in to the bottom of the drawer and rub loads of the cure mix in to the flesh side, then put another one on top and cover it in the salt and keep going like that. After a day the salt has drawn a load of water from the meat and you drain this off, move the bellies around, ie put the top one to the bottom and so on - and top up with more cure if it needs it (in our case it did for the first three or four days but then didn’t). The amount of liquid leaching off each day decreases until after four days there was almost no liquid left.
We left our bellies in the cure for six or seven days in the end and I think it was too long - five days would prob have been enough. We have left one in the fridge wrapped in muslin and we hack bits off it as we need it (e.g. delicious in quiches, omelettes, tartiflette etc) - it keeps for about 6 weeks like that. With the rest of them we sliced them up using a borrowed bacon slicer in to streaky rashers and froze them in small quantities. They are too salty to eat as streaky breakfast bacon in my opinion (though you could soak them in water before use if you want) but they are wonderful for use in cooking. We didn’t get in to smoking any of our bacon - maybe next year.
Loin: the loin is the back of your pig and from two pigs you basically have four loins (each pig is halved). We used one loin for what Irish people called back rashers. They are the thick meaty rashers (often called back bacon) and went in to the brine for 24 hours before being sliced.
The other three were used for chops. The chops in this pic were cut by Bryan, that’s why they are so insanely neat!
Here’s the man himself in action:
We froze our chops - four chops per bag. We were delighted with the fat content on this years pigs (Saddleback crosses). Last year (when we had Tamworths) there was three inches of back fat which meant rashers and chops were overly fatty. This year it was about an inch of fat - just right. You can leave three or four chops together for a roasting joint but we didn’t bother - chops are the handiest of all cuts as far as we are concerned. We cooked up chops for lunch at about 1pm and served with white bread and some apple sauce. Delicious. We were absolutely ravenous with hunger at that stage.
Hams: the hams are basically the top of the back legs of the pig. So we had four of then. We whimped out of the idea of making a dry/air cured proscuitto ham (ie the ones you see hanging up in delicatessans in Spain or Italy). I thought it would be amazing to have such a thing hanging in the utility room and you could help yourself to a few slices for sandwiches etc as you needed it - would last for months. But basically it has to be hung and air-dried for months and it can all go horribly wrong if you get the salt mix wrong, or if you leave it hang somewhere too warm and the whole thing can rot. So reluctantly we decided it was too risky. In the end we only left one ham whole and it was a whopper - up to 6kg. This went in to the brine and stayed there for three days (the rule of thumb is 24 hours for the first 2kg and 12 hours per kilo after that). This pic is of the ham being ‘injected’ with the brine. Basically you have to get the brine liquid in near the bone of the meat because if you don’t the meat will tend to rot in there. I got the needles from my GP, I kid you not. I don’t think he believed me when i said i needed them for injecting meat - I’d say he thinks I’m a junkie!
Bear in mind the brine needs to be kept cool (4 degrees) so we had to keep the buckets in the porch and put ice packs in to the water twice a day. The other three hams were cut in to more manageable chunks and also put in to the brine (though they wouldn’t need as much time in the brine obviously - most were out after 24 hours and then put in the freezer).
We got finished butchering at about 3pm (we were all absolutely knackered at this stage) and then spent about an hour cleaning up. Weary minds and bodies..
We butchered the pigs on the counter in the kitchen as you can see in the photos. The dogs got a couple of large bones but there was also a large black sack full of off-cuts and bones that had to go out in the brown bin - we could probably have made a stock but I reckoned I would have enough stock from the brawn (which I did in the end).
After that we got stuck in to sausage making. Mick Quinn gave us a big mincer that he uses at work (thank God) and it made light work of the meat. I shudder to think how long it would have taken us to mince the meat using the handheld mincer I bought in Waterford for eu17....! Here’s Fearg at the helm with the mincer.
We basically just minced once (we like a coarse sausage but you can mince twice if you like your sausage meat to be finer in texture) and aimed at a roughly 50/50 mix of fat and lean meat. We had two huge Tupperware containers filled with minced sausage meat from all our off cuts and the shoulders.
Once you have the sausage meat minced you are ready to start making sausage mixture. We made three different types using recipes from HFW and Darina Allen.
For every 450g meat:
About 2 tablespoons of mixed herbs - parsley, thyme, chive, majoram, rosemary - finely chopped
Large garlic clove, crushed
1 egg, whisked
Breadcrumbs (have these made in advance)
Salt (teaspoon) and peppa
Mix all the ingredients well. Fry off a little of the mix to make sure you like the taste before you commit to sausage casings..!
We also made a sausage with apple and sage, and HFW’s white pepper sausage (dessertspoon of white pepper per 1kg of meat). They all taste amazing. You can experiment as you want with these. In fact we can not understand why we waited until we had our own pigs to make our own sausages. It would be well worth while buying the sausage stuffer and casings and getting your hands on some good quality pork mince (again 50/50 lean and fat) and try making a few batches before a pig weekend. That way you won’t be grappling with complete ignorance of the whole process as we were, as well as having to deal with the enormous quantities of meat and the worsening fatigue! Here’s Bryan working on the sausage mixture:
The process of making the sausages is at least a bit of fun. First of all you have to sort out your casings. We bought organic hog casings from Weschenfelder and they come packed in salt - you have to soak the casings for about 20 mins in warm water first and they are all tangled up together like a big ball of Christmas tree lights. So we spent a frustrating half hour trying to unravel them - just what you need at 4pm on the Pig Saturday!
Once you have found the beginning and end of the casings you load up on to the stuffer. Somebody remarked that its rather like putting a condom on. I couldn’t possibly comment on that - suffice to say the humour was rather juvenile at this point in the day.
Then fill the stuffer with sausage meat and start turning the handle. The key is to try and do it smoothly and at a consistent speed so you don’t get air bubbles in your sausages.
We made ours quite thick - more like a dinner sausage than a breakfast sausage, which is no bad thing in my opinion. These saussies are basically 100 per cent pork meat with some herbs etc added. Far too good for breakfast! You basically have a long tube of sausage on the table in front of you then which you have to tie up to turn in to smaller sausages. I left this part to Mrs K. We all felt pretty proud of ourselves at this stage.
While we were at it, we also made chorizo and salami. It is basically the same process but you add lots of red wine and the acidophilus to the mix. Really you should have different casings - extra large ones called ox-runners, but we did not have them so we went ahead and made them in the hog casings. They will probably be pencil thin salamis by the time they have matured (10 weeks) but feck it! Again recipe from HFW:
for every 1kg meat (minced slightly leaner than sausage mix):
200ml red wine (I had taken to drinking the red wine at this stage too)
Garlic clove crushed
half teaspoon acidophilus
For every 1.5 kg meat (regular sausage meat mix):
200 ml red wine
3 garlic cloves
Teaspoon fennel seeds
All the sausages, salamis and chorizo have to be hung for about a day after this. Basically there is loads of water in them at this stage and this needs to drain out a little before you use them. We cooked up two sausages that night and they shrivelled to nothing in the pan as the water evaporated. You can see in this pic the mix of sausages, salami and chorizo hanging on a clothes horse to dry.
We are very pleased with the end result - all the sausages taste great. Very meaty. Very complex flavours. And of course having made them yourself you know exactly what is in them. I always feel guilty when I eat sausages because I always feel I am not 100 per cent sure what is in them and that they are really bad for me. But not with our own. If someone served you up a fillet of pork meat fried in breadcrumbs with herbs you would think that’s a very healthy dinner indeed - and that’s all that these sausages are! Happy days!
The lads departed at about 8pm after a long hard day. We finished the last bit of sausage making ourselves and I suddenly realised - I hadn’t done the brawn. The two heads were waiting in the stock pot and needed about 4 hours of cooking - eek! Now I have to say that cooking brawn was the last thing I needed at that point - boiling pig’s heads produced a smell that you wouldn’t believe and after 14 hours of dirty stinking work I was seriously tempted to lob the heads in the brown bin and forget all about them. But then you know what, I think the only decent thing to do when you kill animals that you have reared yourself, is to do them the justice of using every last morsel. So I persevered and I was glad I did - the brawn was delicious.
Place heads in stock pot (it will need to be a whopper of a pot) and fill with water
Add large bundle of fresh herbs from garden - anything you can find
Put in a muslin bag of spices (2 teaspoons each of cloves, coriander and peppercorns)
Cook for four hours. Cover nose while doing second big clean up of day. Though we were tired as dogs at this point, we knew we wouldn’t want to face in to clean up the next day so though we were fed up we decided to get it done. I switched off the stock pot at midnight and went to bed. I didn’t even sleep well - was having vivid dreams that I was been butchered for meat.
Woke at about 7am and knew that the worst part of making brawn was awaiting me down in the kitchen so decided to get up and get it over with. Thank God we cleaned up kitchen the night before. Took heads out of stock pot and started to strip meat from them. A most unpleasant job - I will never look at my live pigs the same way again having become so intimately familiar with the anatomy of their heads. The meat comes away from bones very easy and you can see that there is lots of really lovely meat there, particularly around the cheek. You’re supposed to add the fat to brawn but I was too grossed out to do this, and so our brawn was meat only. Roughly chop all the meat and put it a bowl. HFW’s recipe is to add chopped parsley and the juice of half a lemon. Mick Quinn advised adding in capers and gherkins which I did and they were sensational! Add a couple of tablespoons of them, roughly chopped. Mix all ingredients well and put in the fridge.
Strain and then boil the stock water until it reduces down by two thirds - this takes a few hours. Savour the lovely smell of boiling pig water in the kitchen. Take bowl of meat mix from fridge and divide in to two loaf tins. Add about four or five tablespoons of the reduced liquid to each tin - this will set over the meat when you put it back in the fridge. Put something heavy on top (like a large weight) and put in fridge for about 24 hours. I promise you won’t want to eat it that night anyway. But seriously it tasted amazing. Cut off slices and serve with glass of chilled white wine and slice of brown bread. Delicious. I was thinking afterwards that you could do the same with the meat you get on the carcass when you make chicken stock. Here’s a pic of the end results. Looks rather promising, all things considered…
That Sunday we also drained off the water and changed the salt on our bellies which were curing in the fridge. Changed ice packs in the brine buckets in the hall. Some of the smaller hams and ribs etc which were in brine were taken out Sunday night and wrapped in muslin to hang for a further 24 hours before freezing.
On Sunday night I took the sausages down and froze them in to bags - 4 in each bag and counted up about 30 bags which means about 120 sausages which is a great return. All bags were labelled, ie. Herb sausages, apple sausage etc.
By Sunday night it felt like it was more or less all over. I went to bed at around 7pm and slept for 14 hours solid.
Later that week the other hams came out of brine and were hung for a day before being frozen. As I write this it is now weeks later and the salami and chorizo are still hanging in the porch and are by now covered in fuzzy mould - a rather horrendous sight to greet visitors to our house. We have about 8 weeks or so before we can eat them.
What we’ve tried so far: sausages, a small roast pork joint (yum, lovely crackling), pork chops (yum yum), rashers (from belly, very salty), back rashers (from loin, quite salty but tasty), ham (boiled, glazed and baked - YUM YUM YUM). One rather strange thing to note - the baconised meat is not pink as you would expect but more browney in colour. This is because it is saltpetre which gives commercial ham its pink colour and we didn’t use that. Not sure how they will take that at Christmas dinner!
So was it worth it? In short yes. But it is a mammoth job of work. When we killed our 20 broilers a few months back they were all done and dusted and in the freezer by noon. It felt like we were at the pigs for a week - and in many ways we were. Could this be the ultimate slow food? But we learned a lot and we have a freezer full of meat which we have absolutely no reservations about which means a lot to us. We also saved ourselves a lot of money by doing the butchering ourselves - last year we paid nearly eu200 to get the pigs killed and butchered - this year it cost eu34 to get them killed. Big difference. And of course most importantly we DID IT OUR WAY!
Huge thanks to Bryan, Nicky (official photographer as well as everything else), Feargal, Orlagh, and Mick Quinn.
Hens are hassle. They pooh everywhere. On the lawn. On the deck. On the driveway. In their house. On their house. You name it, they pooh on it. Can it really be worth the hassle? Absocluckinglutely.
A putrid, gut-wrenching stench assails your nostrils as you clean out the dung-covered sawdust and straw from their house. They peck your hands when you try to feed them. You have to lock them in at night and let them out in the morning. And all you get in return is an egg a day. It is often said that a hen will always die in debt (i.e. you will spend more on food then you will get back in eggs). So why bother?
A battery reared hen will typically spend most of its life sharing a twenty-inch square wire cage with four other birds. The cages are stacked in tiers six high in a room with no natural sun light. Their homogenised food is treated with antibiotics, artificial yolk colouring and medication. The hens are understandably frustrated in this environment so they peck at each other, pulling out feathers and causing injuries. Some battery hens end up almost entirely bald, and many die. Eggs from these hens will be labelled “Farm Fresh”, “Country Fresh” or “Naturally Fresh”. If the plight of these hens doesn’t bother you, then the quality of the eggs they produce, should.
If you have an interest in being a small holder or are just in to decent, natural food, getting some hens is a great toe in the water. You don’t have to have a lot of space or be too fancy with their housing. Hens have pretty simple needs. I found a design for a coop on the web and decided I’d try and build it myself. It made me feel all manly but took weeks of hard labour and cost a fortune. I used so much wood in the construction that the owner of my local DIY shop was able to hire some extra staff and pay off his mortgage early.
The house is a triangular shape, about four foot long and three foot tall. One side of it opens out on a hinge to allow you to get at the eggs. Inside, there’s a nesting box (for them to lay their eggs in) and a roost (a small horizontal bar a foot off the ground where they sit at night, discussing how crap the house is). I spent two hours building a little ladder for them to climb up to the roost. My friends laughed a lot at the house. But they reserved special mirth for the ladder.
There is a 10-ft run attached to the house. Usually we leave them roam in the garden but if we are going away for a day, we leave them locked in the run in case a fox gets them. The house is portable enough that it can be moved every few days to fresh grass or you can put bark down to stop them wrecking the lawn.
When we got them first I was surprised at how attractive they looked. I had assumed they’d be kind of scrawny, ugly things but in fact they are quite proud and aristocratic looking. They have a shock of rusty feathers which they keep very clean. Rain doesn’t do them any favours whatsoever. When it rains the feathers stick to them and they look, well, scrawny and ugly.
Initially we kept them in the coop most of the day, letting them out for an hour or two. But now we pretty much leave them out all the time. They do make a bit of a mess in the garden with their incessant scratching. Hens hate the dark and always return to their house when the light fades, so there is no “rounding-up” to do in the evenings.
We feed them organic layer’s pellets. There is no doubt that the eggs taste better when the hens are out scratching in the grass for worms, slugs and spiders. I’ve discovered they absolutely love berries, any rotten fruit from the kitchen (especially Kiwi) and even some mashed potato (especially if warm).
It took about two weeks for them to settle in and start laying. I would practically run out each morning to check on progress and return disappointed. When the first egg finally came, it was indeed a moment to savour. The first three or four were a little small, but after a week or so all four hens were laying one a day and they are as big as you would buy.
We get nearly thirty eggs a week so I expect I will keel over with clogged arteries any day now. We give a lot of them away (I have a good barter arrangement going with a friend who gives me fresh fish and some sweet apples). We eat lots of them of course. Boiled, poached, scrambled. Omelettes. And they do look and taste spectacular. The yolks are a vivid bright yellow colour, so much so that my sister thought the egg was gone off the first time she cooked one. My cholesterol is probably off the charts but I hope the joy I get from keeping hens is enough to offset the damage.
Hens love to get their exercise. The first thing they will do when let out of their coop is run off, flapping their wings furiously. It’s the equivalent of you stretching when you get out of bed in the morning. That still makes me smile. A hen has a wingspan of about thirty-two inches which is a ruler-length longer than the cage in which a battery hen will spend most of her life. Hens look really stupid when they run. It’s as if running draws attention to the fact that they don’t have arms. Try to imagine what you would look like if you ran with your arms by your sides.
In the summer, if they get too hot, they will dig a little hole in a flower bed and give themselves a dust bath. This is a strange thing to behold if you don’t know what they are up to (which I didn’t first time round) but basically it helps them to cool down by dissipating the heat and also helps clean their feathers. When a battery hen gets hot she will often try to emulate this action and will lie down on the cage floor, scratching herself against the wire. You can imagine how that works out.
They also keep our dogs amused. We were a little worried about how they would take to them initially. The first day we got them they were practically wetting himself with delight. I couldn’t decide whether it was delight as in “hey new friends!” or as in “hey! DINNER!” The hens strutted confidently around our springer Ozzie and all was fine until one of them flapped her wings and he grabbed her in his mouth. I thought we had our first casualty but he dropped her again as quick. Since then he’s been fine with them. There was a curious incident one day when I went out to discover all four hens sitting on top of the hen house, a load of feathers on the grass and Ozzie sitting there looking guilty. I will never know what happened but suspect he was somehow involved.
A battery hen doesn’t get any exercise and so suffers from skeletal and muscular weaknesses. By her second year her egg laying capacity will drop to about a quarter of what it was and she will be slaughtered, probably ending up in a stock cube. I haven’t been able to get a definitive on how long our hens will live (depending on who you ask it can be anywhere between four and ten years) but most agree they will keep laying for three or four years.
It’s hard to love hens individually but collectively, they have given us lots of happiness. My niece named one of them but we are not sure which one it is to tell you the truth. They are likeable animals without being really loveable. They run inquisitively after you as you walk around the garden. They follow me around in the summer when I am cutting the grass and make me feel like St Francis. But most of all - they produce those eggs
Keeping Ducks for Eggs
Worries that our two ducks were in fact drakes were unfounded....the first egg has arrived.
We got two khaki campbell ducks at the poultry fair in myshall back in April and very pleased with them we have been. Ducks are wonderful creatures - far more personable then our hens and just an absolute joy to watch. They have blended in well with other animals here on the Home Farm, particularly the hens which was a surprise given how viciously hens usually enforce their pecking order. They basically follow the hens around for most of the day, taking some time out to paddle in an old belfast sink which is filled with fresh water each day and sits in a shady spot under a tree near the veggie patch. They are adorable creatures, particularly since they are so vocal - quacking like mad at anyone and anything that comes near them.
The one blot on the horizon with them was that they didn’t seem to be laying eggs - ducks are highly dependable when it comes to laying (particularly breeds like the campbell). They will lay an egg a day, even in the winter months when your hens might not be. So from that perspective if you have a bit of space, and perhaps a bit of water (they obviously love having some water around the place to paddle in so it would be cruel to keep them if you can’t provide them with at least somewhere to paddle about in), it’s well worth keeping a couple. Duck eggs are larger than hen eggs (and therefore have more protein) and while they are a little stronger then regular eggs they are very good indeed to eat and great for baking.
We were told by the rather shady character that we bought them off, that they were “point of lay” which of course they obviously were not because we’ve had em for well over two months now and they haven’t laid at all. About a month after we got them we started to wonder whether they were in fact not ducks at all, but two drakes. I saw one of them trying to “get up” on a hen one day which I took to be a very bad sign. I read all the literature I could find on the issue of “sexing” ducks on the internet, but could not find anything satisfactory. Some articles I read suggested that male khaki campbells have a different colour head than the females and we thought we could detect a slight change in hue around the neck area in our two - but it was frustratingly subtle and so we weren’t sure. Then someone else told me that male ducks have a more raspy (or wheezy) quack and that it’s simple to tell the difference between the two - so i listened intently to our two but again it was frustratingly hard to tell. I mean it sounded raspy enough but when you have nothing to compare it to, maybe it’s not all that raspy - I don’t know.
Then a few days ago I saw one of the ducks trying to get up on the other one - he was getting on the wrong end and it looked like a bizarre sexual position but nonetheless we took it as a positive sign that perhaps at least one of our ducks was female - either that or we had gay ducks. Then yesterday I saw the same thing happening, but this time he seemed to have worked out the “right end” - again I took this as a good sign - either way we seemed to be arriving at a moment of reckoning. Two drakes would be absolutely no use whatsoever to us apart from as the main ingredient in duck a l’orange (khaki campbells are in fact good “eaters"). One of each wouldn’t be too bad - we could actually try and hatch some ducklings ourselves and maybe sell them on…
And then this morning I went out to let them out of their house and there it was on the bed of straw in their house - a big marbly white egg! I swear to God I was so delighted with myself you would swear I laid it myself! Duck egg heaven!
Polytunnels - Why and How?
Butt ugly but incredibly useful - a polytunnel is an essential investment for the Home Farmer.
In some ways our polytunnel is very very ugly, sitting down the end of the garden like a stranded spaceship. And yet given the amount of produce that comes out of it, it's also an object of great beauty. Polytunnels are often called poor men's greenhouses, but I like to think of them as good value rather than cheap. Ours is five metres (15ft) wide and 10 metres (30ft) long and cost about €600. A greenhouse of those dimensions could cost ten times that. Because it extends the season at both ends our polytunnel is the most productive part of the Home Farm. It’s like a workhorse, whereas a greenhouse is more like a show pony. If you want an abundance of vegetables and fruit for the table in difficult Irish weather, get a polytunnel. If you want your garden to be considered for a gong at Chelsea Flower Show . . . don't.
We bought our tunnel from Simon Cummins in Wexford about five years ago. He delivered it himself, and although he chatted amiably about tunnels in general he didn't seem to be making any moves to erect ours. I eventually discovered, with some concern, that putting it up wasn't part of the deal. It basically comes in a kit that includes the frames and plastic. The day it was delivered I laid the aluminium frames out on the ground, about where they were going to go, and, satisfied, headed back inside for dinner. They lay there patiently for a week or two before I got around to doing anything with them. I would see them when I opened the curtains in the bedroom each morning, and sometimes I would just close the curtains again, so I wouldn't have to look at them.
The tunnel guy had given me a kind word or two of advice and left a suspiciously short page of instructions, but I was confident I could erect the thing. Mrs Kelly knows me well, however - and her mother, who has a polytunnel already, knows life's realities - so on the QT she organised for some reinforcements to be sent down to help. Her sister, her brother and his wife duly arrived, and we got started. Her brother in particular seemed to know what he was doing. He got stuck into a complicated-looking procedure that involved running builder's line around four pegs that marked out the corners. He and Mrs Kelly discussed at length the application of Pythagoras' theorem to the problem of ensuring the frames were square. I tried to nod in all the right places and look interested. (I didn't believe my maths teacher when he tried to convince us that theorems would come in useful in later life.) I kept to myself the fact that my plan, had I been left to my own devices, mainly involved ''digging''.
Put some thought in to the decision on where to put your tunnel. Try and ensure it goes somewhere where the drainage is good. You also want your tunnel to get as much sunlight as possible along it’s lenght (i.e. not from the side). Try and make sure the doors will be out of the prevailing wind. Once you have that decision made, start putting it up - it’s very much like putting up an enormous tent. You drive aluminium tubes into the ground along the boundary (five on each side). The U-shaped frames around which the plastic is going to be stretched are fitted into the tubes (that sentence is easy to write but took a bit of huffing and puffing in reality). We then dug a trench around the perimeter of the tunnel (about 2f deep) - essentially, you stretch the plastic over the frames and then bury it in the trench. When you put the soil back in on top of the plastic in the trench, it weighs it down, thereby keeping the whole thing secure and stretched. We probably should have waited for a warmer, less windy day to do the work with the plastic - the colder it is, the less pliable the plastic is. It comes in one huge sheet, and it took a lot of effort to position it over the frames and bury it in the trenches on each side. At one stage a gust of wind nearly took the whole sheet into a neighbouring field. It was like struggling with an enormous errant kite. The key with the plastic is to pull it rigidly tight over the frames. Otherwise the wind will catch it which would be very, very noisy and water will collect on it. It’s a good idea to get the job done and then revisit it on a really warm sunny day - the plastic will be really pliable and you can then raise the frames up a notch or two from the inside which will stretch the plastic further. The tighter you can get it the better.
After we finished, we leaned on our shovels, admiring our handiwork. It was like Amish getting together to build a house in a day. I felt the warm glow of community, of shared effort. Or that might have been the Deep Heat I put on my back to ease the pain from digging. It really does pay to have lots of people around the day you are putting it up - you will need at least three or four people to hold the plastic on each side and of course the digging is a lot easier when there are loads of you. It’s classic meitheal work…
The next day I dug out a path down the centre of the tunnel, about half a metre deep - the soil which I dug out for the path was piled up in to the beds at each side. Initially you couldn't stand up straight in the tunnel, but with the path, you can, which makes life more comfortable. It wasn't comfortable digging, though, because the sun was shining and it's like a sauna in there when the sun shines. It's a tropical kind of humidity that warms the bones the moment you enter. Someone once told me that they hung a clothes line in the tunnel in the winter, to dry their washing. Now that's resourceful. The lowered path leaves you, in effect, with a raised bed on each side. The path took me most of a day to dig: 10 metres long by half a metre deep is 60 cubic tonnes of soil (or something like that) to remove by wheelbarrow.
Design flaw number one: I actually dug out too much soil, and the path was below the water table. So when the first really wet day came the path looked like a narrow swimming pool. I got in 40 lengths while I was thinking about how to remedy it (i had to lay some of that plastic drainage piping in the path to prevent water building up). Next up were the doors. Tunnel guy doesn't supply doors or door frames; he assumes that as you're up for erecting the tunnel you won't mind knocking together a few. The last time I went to the local DIY store for wood it was for my much-maligned hen house. When the owner saw me coming this time he praised Allah and shouted something to his wife in the back about how they would ''eat well tonight''. I bought lengths of two-by-four for the door frames, waterproof plywood for the half-doors, and hinges and bolts. I bought more lengths of two-by-four to lay along each side of the path, to keep the soil in the beds from falling out. Mostly I'm just telling you that so I could write two-by-four again. Once I had the frames in place I got the door up in no time with my favourite tool: the electric screwdriver. It's the only tool on God's earth that can make a DIY novice like me feel like Handy Andy. It’s a good idea from a ventilation and access perspective to have entrances at each end. You can leave them open but we have lots of critters in our garden that would like nothing better than to get in to our tunnel - dogs, rabbits, hens, ducks - so we put in waist-high doors. On the top half we have a green mesh ‘curtain’ which acts as a windbreak and keeps birds out etc. This can be opened up in summer months to improve ventilation. The tunnel is intensely hot in the summer, so having good ventilation is important.
You can grow stuff in your tunnel all year around which is what makes it particularly useful. There are guides out there that show you how to divide up your tunnel in four and basically have things growing in all four quadrants, all year round. This takes meticulous planning, which is why we have never bothered with it. In the summer months we grow all the great salad crops in there - e.g. tomatoes, radish, lettuce, cucumbers, rocket, basil and the like as well peppers, chili-peppers, aubergines and so on. We also grow most of our perennial herbs in the tunnel - thyme, mint, parsley etc. But it is perhaps even more useful in the winter because you can grow things like winter salads, carrots, parsnips, spinach and so on to keep your family in grub through the winter months when the veg patch is more or less idle. We do a sowing of early potatoes in the tunnel in Feb and we are usually eating new potatoes long before anyone else - they normally start cropping in the tunnel in early May. Because of the heat in the tunnel, it needs daily watering - particularly in summer - so make sure you put it near an outdoor tap. You don’t want to be ferrying up and down with the watering can.
The plastic on your tunnel will degrade over time and will probably need to be replaced after 5-10 years - whether it’s five or ten years depends largely on how you treat it. It’s really important to make sure you don’t get holes in the plastic - for example be careful when your digging near the sides, if you put a spade through it, you will have to tape it up which never really works properly. It’s also worth giving the plastic a wash down on the outside over the winter - use warm water and some suds. You usually get a build up of green mould on the outside of the tunnel which will cause the plastic to deteriorate - it also prevents the sunlight from getting in if its bad enough!
You will love your tunnel in no time - a particularly special moment I think is when you work in the tunnel when it’s raining. The rain pounds on the plastic ominously while you work away inside, dry as a bone and toasty warm. Brilliant!
Watering your tomato plants
Here’s a great tip about watering tomato plants…
If you stand there with your hose spraying your tomato plants like a madman, the likelihood is that you will get water pretty much everywhere except where the plant needs it - i.e at the roots. And if you spray the foliage of your plants with water, they will scorch in the hot afternoon sun (same goes for potato plants incidentally). Superficial watering of the surface of the soil is about as much use to a tomato plant as a bucket full of hair - it is a deep rooting plant and therefore needs moisture deep in the soil. Far better to give the soil a good drenching every few days rather than a light dusting every day. At the height of summer, tomato plants needs lots of moisture and it needs to be consistent too - if the soil goes from dry to wet and back to dry again it results in the skin of your tomatoes cracking from the stress which is really annoying and causes them to rot quicker. Another problem is that when your tomato plants are at their peak in July and August, they are literally massive plants and it can be hard to get to the base of them to water them properly, particularly if you have them planted two deep in your greenhouse or tunnel as we do.
So here’s a really good tip which delivers water directly to the roots deep in the soil, and makes the watering process itself easier too. When you are finished drinking the milk from one of those big 2l plastic cartons, wash it out - then cut the base off it (this can be used as a slug trap - fill it with beer and place it in the soil). Carefully dig a deep hole in the soil right beside the tomato plant and put the milk carton in to it, upside down and slanted towards the roots. It should be deep enough that the top of the container (well the bottom, upside down, oh you know what i mean!) is just above the level of the soil. Pack soil back in around the outside of the container so that it stays put. Then when you are watering, just fill up the container with water and move on to the next one - you are guaranteed that you have got 2l of water to the roots of your tomato plants! Brilliant.
If you grow comfrey in your garden, you can also put a handful of leaves in to the milk carton - that way every time you water your plants they get a feed too.
Nettle and Comfrey Tea Recipes
Making organic liquid manures to feed your veggies is an incredibly thrifty alternative to buying nasty chemical feeds. Here are recipes for two brews which you can make yourself that will give a great boost to your vegetable patch.
As we know, it’s vitally important to continually nourish, condition and improve your garden’s soil. Scientists believe that modern commercial vegetables are up to 40 per cent less nutritious then they were 50 years ago. The reason? Because of the impact of modern agriculture, the soil is less fertile than it used to be.
No such problems exist for the Home Farmer so long as you adopt a regime of returning nutrients (in the form of compost and/or farmyard manure) to the soil each winter in preparation for the growing year ahead and providing regular ‘top ups’ with organic fertilisers during the growing season.
Here are the recipes for two great liquid fertilisers that you can make yourself using plant material that you will probably have lying around your garden. The first, nettle tea, will be appreciated by plants that need a nitrogen boost (particularly leafy veg). The second, comfrey tea, is rich in potash and therefore much loved by fruiting plants.
Something to mull over while your tea is brewing: tests have shown that a comfrey tea mix has higher percentages of nitrogen and potash than leading commerical tomato feeds! Talk about a ‘no-brainer’!
Nettle Tea Recipe:
Step 1: Collect 1kg of nettle leaves (use gloves when picking them!)
Step 2: Put the nettle leaves in a hessian sack (or a bag made from any porous material - we use the sacks that our barley and other feeds come in, but an old potato sack will work too). The reason for putting the leaves in to a bag rather than just putting them straight in to the water is that it keeps the water cleaner - i’ve tried it the other way and it just turns in to a highly unpleasant slime!!
Step 3: Put the sack in a bin or bucket and add 20 litres of water. It will be absolutely stinking after a few weeks so it's vital that you have a tight fitting lid otherwise the neighbours will be talking.
Step 4: Wait about a month (or more if you can). The tea is so strong that it goes along way and you therefore need to dilute it before using. The rule of thumb is to use 10 parts water to 1 part tea. I usually draw off small amounts in to the watering can and then fill it up with water. Any plants that are in need of a boost will appreciate a sup, but it's particularly effective on plants that need leafy growth such as lettuces, cabbage, kale etc.
Comfrey Tea Recipe:
It's sounds like something you would drink yourself when you are in need of comforting but in fact it’s a cold, putrid smelly liquid that stinks to high heaven - BUT your veggie plants will absolutely love it. Comfrey is a hardy little wonder herb that was traditionally grown for its virtue in wound healing. In latter times it is used as a green manure plant that is grown specifically so that you can harvest it's leaves to use as a fertiliser.
It’s a sinch to grow (ask friends for a cutting and it will take off in no time) - so much so that you probably shouldn’t plant it in a vegetable bed. Put it in a pot or somewhere where you don’t mind it taking over. It will do well in most soils and even under trees.
You can harvest leaves from the comfrey plant three or four times a year and use them to make dynamite liquid fertiliser which is rich in potash and therefore excellent for fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, squashes etc. The first cutting of comfrey in the spring can be applied to your spuds to give them a boost. The exact same process applies as with nettle tea but quantities are slightly different - 500g of leaves to which you add three gallons of water.