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The pig is carefully chosen and dispatched in its pen in the woods. The process is remarkably quick and strangely peaceful. We join in hefting the carcass into the bucket of a tractor and then follow it quietly back to the central clearing of the encampment. The big Austrian hangs it, head down, from the digger bucket and calmly talks us through the evisceration. The cooks carry the choicest offal to their fires, while a woman takes the spleen from which she scrapes the pulpy meat to be cooked and smeared on toast. This is carried back to the watching circle along with the brain, scrambled with eggs.
Pigstock is most emphatically not like Woodstock. It’s an annual private event run by Tom Adams, one of the founders of the successful Pitt Cue restaurant in London. It’s a little bigger than a party and a little smaller than a local festival and held on the farm of a family friend in Cornwall. The vibe is relaxed, welcoming and gently lubricated with alcohol but it has nothing to do with music. Each year, the participants get together to celebrate cooking and eating pork.
On the exclusive list of invitees at this Pigstock are a stellar huddle of chefs including Nathan Outlaw from nearby Padstow and April Bloomfield, who has flown in from Manhattan for the occasion, along with a couple of butchers, a veg expert, a knife maker and a man who specialises in building cooking appliances and supplying exotic woods. Some are sleeping in vans, some have brought kids, all have an unquenchable enthusiasm for good food.
What has drawn them, though, apart from Adams’ messianic charm, are the visitors he’s arranged: Christoph and Isabell Wiesner, breeders of Mangalitza pigs, a hairy variety native to Austria and Hungary and much favoured by charcutiers for its delicious fat and sweet-tasting meat. They are also acknowledged experts in the art of “seam butchery” — a growing cult among chefs and one that had attracted them as surely as a shaman at Glastonbury.
Techniques of butchery don’t just vary internationally. Even across the UK, different cutting plans developed in different regional meat markets. The arcane vocabulary of chumps, chucks, feather blades and fillets had subtly different meanings. What has unified British butchery, though, is the joint and the bandsaw. As a nation we favour roasting as the best way of cooking meat and joints. Large, almost ceremonial chunks of meat on the bone have always been the most popular choice over the counter.
The butcher’s bandsaw looks and operates just like the woodworker’s, enabling the butcher to treat a carcass much as a carpenter treats a log. The exterior of the meat is neatly dressed and then sawn into chunks. A classic shoulder of lamb, a fixture of the Sunday dining table, is a neat square package that looks good on the plate but contains at least a dozen muscles, all of different textures, bone, plus gristle and connective tissue, simply chopped into shape.
But in other parts of Europe, seam butchery has evolved as a process more sympathetic to the physiology of the animal. It involves separating the carcass, where possible, into individual muscles or muscle groups by following the “seams” of where they join. The technique requires a different set of skills — often involving retraining for a traditional British butcher — but it can be extremely lucrative. The fore end of a lamb that might previously have yielded a couple of shoulders, a neck and some mince can be carefully teased out into a dozen or more cuts of varying sizes and textures: simple to cook, economical to buy and delicious to eat.
Evening meals at Pigstock take place in a marquee at a single long table. The first night is a low-key, get-to-know-each-other session. The knife maker produces a roll of handmade blades and we examine them, hefting them in our hands, catching their gorgeous lustre in the light of the fire. Already there’s a buzz of anticipation about tomorrow. Some are excited, some nervous. In the morning Christoph will dispatch and prepare the pig and in the evening we’ll feast. On the last day he’ll demonstrate the butchery.
The morning sees us in full Glasto mode, slightly hungover and standing in a field. In a ring around us, different work areas have sprung up, like some odd nomad encampment. Beside the main marquee, two drum barbecues are tended by two chefs stupendously overqualified to wield tongs. Opposite, a handsome, tattooed young Turk with Michelin potential sets up a small grill pit. The fire guy has been up all night welding together a strange frame. It’s about the height and shape of two old phoneboxes shoved together with space for a fire in the bottom, corrugated iron sheets to hang and enclose the sides and enough space and rigging inside to take a whole pig.
This pig will need to hang for a few days before it is ready to cook so another, killed a few days before, is brought in for tonight’s dinner. We lay the carcass on a sheet of heavy-duty steel mesh, lay another over the top and bolt them together around the edges, then raise it to shoulder height and carry it in procession to the pig oven.
The next few hours are oddly intense. It takes a long time to cook a pig through and we sit in little huddles, waiting and talking. The atmosphere is quiet, respectful, but the conversation is obsessive. Everyone is talking about food. “Did you see the fat layer around the neck?” “The Argentines season the meat by splashing it with salt water.” And there is a debate about smoking celeriac that wouldn’t have been out of place in a muddy yurt. Cooks pass each other beers, and then Fernet-Branca appears. It’s a lethally strong bitter aperitif that’s a favourite of Fergus Henderson, founding father of the nose-to-tail movement. Among this crowd, it’s communion wine.
Without anyone really noticing, reality begins to shift. Different cooks are experimenting with odder combinations of food and drink. The veg guy is smoking cabbage leaves where they’ll catch the pig drippings. He sits in the smoke, diligently flicking them with brine like a priest with an aspergillum. Later, we carry the pig to the table and willing hands tear it apart. More Fernet flows.
In the morning, we assemble outside Philip Warren, a small commercial butchers in Launceston that’s managed to dominate the London restaurant scene through word of mouth and superb products. We walk through the ageing and hanging rooms, chefs and butchers sniffing, squeezing, discussing mould blooms and lactic acid. In the centre of the room, on a pallet, are stacked pink bricks of Himalayan rock salt. It’s said by the butchers to impart a particular flavour to the meat. It’s not a theory that stands up to too much scientific analysis but it’s interesting that something believed by big city chefs is willingly indulged by the experts. It’s a very different commercial dynamic to the usual relationship between butcher and customer.
In a side room, we split into teams and each takes a half a pig to a block where, following Christoph’s lead, we are to butcher it along its seams.
Remarkably little kit is required. A short, curved butcher’s knife does the initial cutting but Christoph uses the back of it as much as the front, using the blunt edge to scrape where meat adheres to the bones. More unusual is the chainmail glove, not so much, as I’d always imagined, to protect the opposite hand from the blade but more to provide sure grip of the meat. It’s important. Christoph uses the back of the blade to lift a tip of the fillet, grasps it with his mailed hand and rips the whole muscle clear in a single brutal movement. The noise is unnerving but it highlights the physicality of the process. Fingers probe between muscles, hooking at tendons, sometimes ripping, sometimes teasing apart and, as Christoph dismantles the complex shoulder, the experienced chefs and butchers stand open-mouthed. His understanding of the physiology of the animal is total and as he lifts away each prime piece of meat he talks about textures and suitable cooking methods.
As interesting small cuts are revealed, Christoph passes them to Isabell who is cooking throughout, an uninterrupted stream of small dishes accompanied by Christoph’s commentary, his dry wit unimpeded by his idiosyncratic use of English: “Now Isabell makes the blood puddings. She is pouring the blood on to the head meats.”
As the day progresses, she builds a mighty Klachelsuppe — a soupy stew of knuckles and tail, and Beuschel, a spiced sauté of heart and lung meat seasoned with mustard.
I suppose people go to festivals to be surrounded by like-minded people and to indulge in a grand shared experience. At Pigstock I spent time with individuals from different countries, united by a love of cooking and eating. We had come together in a field, we’d experienced new and exciting things, all fuelled by nothing more mind-altering than pork fat and Fernet-Branca.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer
Slideshow photographs: Nicholas White