just headed back up to madison to see my good chef friends dan and jason and to gather at the farm to break down a whole pig. i headed up there about a year ago to participate in my first pig kill, which we documented for a ‘tasty life’ episode. granted that video was pretty G rated compared to all that i witnessed that day, but the whole process is not for everyone. i find it to be very educational while really making all those who are there appreciate even more where that tasty pork belly or those succulent pork chops come from. granted all of the pork we at home purchase is broken down in meat fabrication plants, a much faster process i am sure. but back in the day it was all done one pig at a time. and it takes precision and time.
dan and jason have done this quite a few times. especially jason who actually grew up on a farm, so he took charge as myself, my good friend lee anne wong, and a number of young cooks from chicago and madison gathered around to learn and join in when we could. i decided to be the one to stir around the pig’s blood as it was drained from the body. this is necessary to get out all of the natural coagulants that cause the blood to clot together. as the warm blood is rapidly stirred and agitated, it clumps together into what feels like small organs which are then removed. is it a little strange feeling to stir blood with your bare hand while it is still over 90 degrees? yes. a bit. but necessary if you want to use the blood for sausage or some other use.
after that, the pig is lifted with a small tractor and dunked into near boiling water. this loosens the skin and hair follicles a bit so they are easier to scrape off. pretty sure i used to think pigs were naturally a pale skin tone and were not fuzzy at all, but that is not how they start off. charlotte’s web anyone? thing is, the skin is so delicious that you want to make sure and clean it thoroughly so when it is roasted or fried there are not little bits of hair caught in your teeth. that would be unpleasant. obviously.
the morning continued on and jason gave us all a lesson in carefully removing all of the interior organs, being mindful not to let anything pop and release juices that would contaminate the meat. most everything is put into a pile to use later, aside from the intestines that are not the best eating. we even decided to take the lungs along with us, though after putting them in milk and watching them float and really thinking about the filtration they are in the body for, we decided not to try eating them.
back to the kitchen we went and we continued for a couple more hours, breaking the pig down into primal cuts for curing and cooking. i was taking the front and back legs to cure for prosciutto and speck, along with the belly for pancetta and the loin for tasty snacks. really every part of the pig is delicious. the head can be boiled and the meat turned into head cheese, the feet can be braised and pickled for a gelatinous pork snack, the belly of course has endless possibilities… it all just makes the hard work of breaking it down worth while.
after a day of playing with pig, lee anne and i headed back to jason and dan’s house for a night of way too much beer, food and whatever else we could think of. pretty much how chefs unwind after a long day. but even after a night of overindulgence we were up bright and early to check out dan and jason’s new project.
the boys have started working their way into the farm business. fountain prarie farm, where we did last year’s pig kill, is home to some beautiful cows that produce amazing meat. but jason and dan are now working with jonathan to grow the farm to encompass all sorts of things. they have a hoophouse to start veggies in while it is still a bit chilly in the midwest, they have planted almost an acre of produce for the restaurant, they are raising magalitsa pigs (one of which dan and i will be cooking at my restaurant in the fall), they have a chicken coop, a duck coop…. the list goes on and will continue to grow.
am i a bit jealous? heck yes. i would love to jump on board with them and work on the project and learn, but it is just a bit too far from chicago for visits a couple days a week. who knows, one of these days perhaps i will find the right fit closer to the city and some great partners to start a little farm with. until then, i will head up there to see my friends and help out on the farm whenever i can. i have never had much of a green thumb, but hard work has never scared me away.
you can keep up on an and jason’s farm at fox and veal!