ham and piccalilli

I seem to have gone ham and pickle mad. A glut of apples coinciding with the last few runner beans, squash and edible hedgerow berries always has me reaching for the kilner jars at this time of year. Sometimes it feels like a preserving panic, at others an evening chopping fruit and vegetables at the kitchen table feels really quite calming, And the thought of pantry shelves filled with chutney,jam and jellies is very reassuring.

Runner beans have been used in a mildly spiced runner bean chutney and, trying to wean myself off my usual ‘glutney’ that makes use of any leftovers from the garden, I’ve made the Apple, Fig & Pear Chutney with cardamon from Karen at Lavender and Lovage. Some of my chutneys are quite randomly labelled, you may notice the squiggles on the ‘glutney’ jar at the fromt of my shelf. Ruby is quite keen on labelling.

Something about the Autumnal weather and changing appetites is also making the cooking and curing of ham very popular in this house. Or maybe it’s something to do with the large amount of Berkshire pork in our freezer.

I cured a ham last week in a cider brine and since cooking it, we’ve enjoyed the following:

Slices of ham with scrambled eggs for brunch

Ham and cheddar toasties for Ruby after school

Ham, parsley sauce and some of the last pink fir apple potatoes

Puy lentils simmered in the ham cooking liquor (some frozen too, imagine it will make great pea/broad bean and ham risotto at a later date) and eaten with slithers of ham, crusty bread and green salad from garden.

Ham and cheese toasties for Ruby after school (simple but with great ham and cheese, I couldn’t resist either).

We’re having a ham free night tonight, then we’re going to enjoy what I reckon will be a truly tasty ham, egg and chips. The eggs very local and with rich, deep yellow yolks, the ‘chips’ thin strips of the trusty pink fir apple potatoes cooked in olive oil in the oven.

In the spirit of doing justice to our pigs, any scraps of ham will end up contributing wonderful flavour to pasta carbonara, quiche or asian noodles.

I think Ruby’s favourite of the ham meals will unsurprisingly be the ham, egg and chips. It reminds me of my favourite meal at her age – spam and chips. How strange (or maybe not too surprising when you think about it) that I went from loving a processed mass-produced meat product that I imagine tasted mainly of salt, sugar and additives, to being a non-meater for 30 years, before relishing the taste of happily home-reared, well fed, rare breed pigs.

When I cured the first ham from our pigs, I omitted saltpetre from the ingredients, deciding that it was an unnecessary chemical additive. The ham tasted excellent but was obviously a different colour to any we’d been used to, as it’s the saltpetre that keeps the flesh pink.

Ever since, Ruby has asked me for some of “that lovely pink ham”. Remembering my spam weakness at her age and knowing that any ham we buy (even organic) always seems to be pink and so must’ve had saltpetre in the cure, I relented. Searching online for saltpetre, I found that it’s also used in explosives. Having seen saltpetre in most recipes for curing meat, yet reading different opinions as to whether it’s a natural mineral that’s been used in curing for hundreds of years or a heinous chemical that’s bad for us, I’m still undecdided about actually using it. Any other ideas on the subject very much appreciated! But my Amazon recommendations may be decidedly dodgy from now on.

We now have a leg of pig covered in salt, and waiting to be wrapped in muslin and hung outside to air-dry proscuitto style too. Will report in more detail on this soon.

But with lots more ham to be cooked over the next year, I’ve just made the perfect Christmas leftovers accompaniment. My home-made piccalilli feels just retro as Spam – hopefully it’ll be as different in flavour from the shop bought pickle of my childhood as our home-reared ham is from the tinned pink meat that I used to love.

Recipe Piccalilli

1 kg vegetables (I used cauliflower, last of the runner beans & courgettes, onions)

50g sea salt

30g cornflour

20g mustard powder

20g turmeric

pinch of cayenne pepper

200g sugar

600ml cider vinegar

Dice the vegetables, place in a large bowl and mix with the salt. Cover and keep in the fridge overnight. The next day, put the dry ingredients in a saucepan, whisk in the vinegar, then bring to the boil, stirring all the time, until it’s thickened. Rinse vegetables, getting rid of excess salt, add to the spicy paste and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour into sterilised jars (makes 2 large kilner jars) and seal immediately. Use after 4 weeks and it will keep for a year.

Very pleased with how gloriously yellow this pickle is, any excuse for colour on these drab foggy days is good! And think I may need to make a pork pie over Christmas too, now I have home-made piccalilli in the larder.


Last Supper

I have been outside pottering about, seeing what’s growing and pulling up nettles, docks and dandelions that are cheekily pushing their way through between my flowers and veggies. These pesky weeds get tossed across to the three pigs who snort with excitement. Every now and again Tiger or Mog emerge from the Nepeta (catmint) to sit on my newly planted leeks. There’s work to be done and bills to be paid inside but it’s dry and I couldn’t resist staying out longer than intended.  A regular evening for me. Except it doesn’t feel quite right tonight.

Tomorrow evening the pigs are loaded onto the trailer to be fed, have a sleep and be driven to the abattoir (very local) first thing Thursday morning – so they will be first in the queue, no waiting around getting anxious.

Last Supper

This has always been the plan of course and we’ve thought about it logically lots. They’ve been reared slowly, had good food and plenty of space, been well looked after. As far as a pig’s life goes, surely these have been as happy as it gets – trees to rub themselves against, shade when they need it, great wallows which they’ve been enjoying only this morning. Ground that hadn’t been touched for years for plenty of piggy rooting around. If I’m going to buy meat I would rather know that it’s been well looked after and slowly reared both from a health point of view for my family and because I care about the animal welfare side of things. What better way to ensure this than to do it myself?

And although we’ve enjoyed having pigs in the back garden, children have loved seeing them and they’re definitely intelligent beasts, they still feel like beasts. Definitely not pets. You only have to look at the way their jaws work on a huge raw butternut squash and spend some time around them with bare legs on show in between your skirt and willies to have an awareness of this.

Of course I’ve spent many an evening in the garden thinking about how well homemade little chorizo meatballs or slithers of air dried ham will go with my broad beans too. I’m the person who’s already frozen surplus broad beans and has 20 yards of Hog Casing in the fridge in readiness for goodness sake.

But still, I was definitely thinking of giving the piggies their favourite treats tonight. Any slightly slug damaged lettuce and chard was going their way. I actually pulled up and threw over some purple orache that was perfectly healthy, looked splendid against the orange calendula and was doing nobody any harm.

After these evening snacks had been thrown in, the best thing for it this evening seemed to be some severe cutting back with my secateurs. Flowering perennials that should flower again after their harsh treatment. The cuttings were destined for the compost heap, not the piggies. The piggies weren’t even in sight. And for once I was trying not to think about future meals while gardening, a rare occurrence for me.

Accidental Harvest

I love the look of sweet peas and climbing beans growing up natural wigwams of sturdy sticks from the garden. Borlotti and purple tepee beans look great winding their colourful way up smaller ones too, especially if their scarlet and purple pods are surrounded by the very easy to grow calendula and red/purple orach.

Not having hazel in the garden but with a willow tree along the drive that regularly needs coppicing to keep it in check, we decided that willow sticks would work just as well. We turned a blind eye to the fact that they grow so easily themselves, in our eagerness to build our free and beautifully rustic looking plant supports.

accidental harvest

Surely using sticks that we have an abundance of, that bent conveniently and looked great was much better than spending money on imported canes? Enthusiastically we got out the twine and began bending and weaving.

Of course the very dead looking sticks came to life much easier than the beans. As the beans, faced with harsh weather as they emerged from the ground, began to slowly creep up the supports, the willow erupted into fertile life. Shoots burst out everywhere, giving the poor beans some fierce competition.

Feeling quite foolish, but ever optimistic about the efforts of the beans (by now the painted lady runner beans are covered in lovely red and white flowers) I looked with envy at other people’s hazel trees.

But a visit to my wonderful pig guru Carol left me a lot more cheerful about my willow teepees. Carol took Ruby and I through her orchard to see some new Berkshire piglets. Thinking of the sow who was no doubt in need of a treat, let alone extra nutrition, she tossed her some willow, explaining how good it is for pigs.

Ever since, I’ve pulling shoots from my teepees as I potter around the garden, enjoying another free way of adding to the pig’s healthy diet. Stripping the willow has never been so satisfying.

As happy as pigs in…

I am all for cosy rainy afternoons watching films with homemade popcorn or even rainy walks that make you appreciate a hot chocolate in a warm kitchen, but I’m starting to think there’s been quite enough rain for July.

Happy as Pigs 1

The combination of continuous rain and determined rooters has resulted in the muddiest mud I’ve ever seen in the pigs’ area. When I go in to feed them, I’m constantly in danger of landing flat on my back, it’s so slippery! And I’m so used to regularly having a bit of mud on my legs, I’m hardly aware of it these days.

Happy as Pigs 2

Already aware that mud is the word far more likely to be associated with my legs than glamour, I had a firm reminder recently. Taking Ruby to her Friday afternoon gymnastics class, we arrived just slightly late as usual, after feeding the pigs. I soon settled into the lovely late Friday afternoon wind down for the weekend mode. It’s so relaxing sitting on a school hall bench, watching the children for a whole hour and chatting to the other Mums. Impossible to do any work or chores, just look forward to the weekend.

Happy as Pigs 4

Admiring the new haircut and natural looking spray tan that one of my friends had treated herself to ready for her birthday party, I suddenly noticed with horror my own bare limbs. Brown too, but because of the generous amount of pig mud splattered over them of course. A little reminder of our different lifestyles!

Happy as Pigs 3

I’m very comfortable with my muddy lifestyle of course. But not quite as happy with the real squelchy nature of the mud in our garden as the three not-quite-so-little piggies. Given any brief interlude of sun they adore wallowing in the stuff. And the rain’s made the soil so incredibly soft that they can get their snouts down to an incredible depth when they’re rooting. Treating themselves to all sorts of edible goodies. As happy as pigs in…

First week of Pigs

For the first day or so it was so rainy. The pigs explored every bit of the perimeter of their new area on their first morning, before settling for the cosiness of their sty. It didn’t make for a relaxing workday for me. I kept glancing up from the computer, hoping to see them rooting around.  With no sight of the three little pigs, and the memory of all the stories friends had told me about the Houdini capabilities of pigs, I kept having visions of myself racing over the rain-sodden fields with a four year old in tow. Enough to have me leaping to my feet every 15 minutes or so and running out in the rain to look in the sty. Yes, three snouts to reassure me. But it didn’t stop me from panicking again very soon.

First week of pigs

By Wednesday the weather was better and the pigs looked well settled, were doing lots of rooting around and were letting me scratch them when I went in to feed them. I was slightly more settled at my computer. It’s feeling slightly like having a new baby, gradually getting used to them being out of sight for short periods. And everyone ringing up or popping in to see how they’re doing. Wondering how their feeding is going. They’re about 10 weeks old, only just weaned and actually seem to be at a toddler stage with daytime sleeps and a bit of a crazy active time after a snack in the afternoon. They do put themselves to bed though. The baby/toddler comparisons obviously stop when I find myself looking at their legs, comparing them to the hams I remember hanging up in Spanish tapas bars and thinking how much growing they’ve got to do. Continue reading

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