Sunday, December 11, 2011

This little piggy...

Ashley Burke of Alverstoke Farm and her Berkshire pigs.

By Suzanne Taylor, ex-pat Niagaran, Eating Niagara’s northern correspondent and sassy foodie

So, let’s get the awkwardness out of the way up front.

I eat meat. I am a Meat Eater.

I seem to have a lot of vegetarian foodie friends, and it always makes it a bit difficult to talk about, but I love meat. I’m always excited when meat is cooked. I don’t really understand how anyone could give up bacon, and I believe this is why we were given teeth. I think we are carnivores and we need protein, personally.

I realize mine is not a popular or easy-to-defend stance, and so therefore, I’m careful about what meat I eat.

I haven’t purchased meat from a grocery store in years; nothing raised on a feedlot or fed corn, or given hormones or antibiotics has been cooked in my house for nearly a decade.

My meat costs more than the grocery store stuff but also tastes better, is slightly less guilt-inducing and I’m happy and willing to pay the price.

I was worried when we relocated from St. Catharines to Owen Sound about finding quality meat in this fashion but my worry was for naught.

If anything, there is more drug and hormone-free grass fed meat here than there is in Niagara and it can be had for less money, too.

I am quite pleased with what we’ve been able to find up here and we’ve eaten well, courtesy of Forsyth Farms, Twin Creeks Organics Farm and Taylor’s Country Meadow Meats, to name but a few. There is a LOT of agriculture up here.

Recently the Grey-Bruce Food Link, our local food co-op resource, tweeted that there was Berkshire pork available by the freezer order from a farm not too far from my house, just outside of Paisley, and I salivated.

If you are a Niagara meat eater and you haven’t had Berkshire pork yet, well, you should get yourself out to Lake Land Meats or Our Gate to Your Plate and get some, because there is nothing more delicious. Berkshire is often referred to as the Kobe of pork and I can assure you it entirely deserves this title.

The meat is dark and tender and sweet and juicy. There is very little mass lost in cooking and whenever I saw it on a menu in any of my favourite Niagara restaurants, such as Stone Road Grille, I would order it. To have a giant stash of Berkshire pork sounded like a little piece of heaven to me.

I discussed the matter with my husband, cleaned out my freezer and immediately called the farm for an order. I was fortunate to speak to Ashley Burke, the owner and farmer of Alverstoke Farm, and we discussed what a quarter of a pig would get me. We made arrangements for me to visit the farm in early December.

I was a little bit nervous about visiting a pig farm, despite having read Novella Carpenter’s excellent Farm City with her account of raising two pigs in downtown Oakland, California and being familiar with pig farming through that.

Although a carnivore, I had never met my meat, so to speak. Sure, I had driven by plenty of farms that were obviously producing beef or chicken or pork, but I had never gotten up close and personal to something that would later be on my plate and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Berkshire piglets.

Still, I liked the way that Ashley raised her pigs; feeding them top quality grain, vegetables and apples, and refusing to dock tails, cut teeth or ring her boar’s nose, which are all common farming practices on commercial pig farms.

Ashley only has one littler of pigs a year, which makes for slower growth and less production but higher quality meat. And she refuses to sell single piglets, maintaining that pigs are social and need to be in a group.

I made my way out to the farm on a snowy December Friday (incidentally, there is no such thing as Google Map directions to a farm in northwestern Ontario, and I must thank the Grey Bruce Agriculture and Culinary Association for providing me with its excellent map with all the concessions and side roads appropriately detailed) with my cooler and prepared to meet my meat.

Ashley also raises chickens and lambs and she was quite excited to give me a farm tour. It was time to feed the sheep when I arrived and they were bleating loudly. We could hardly hear one another. Sheep are herd animals and were not interested in being petted by me, although I got one to pose for a picture.

Dobby, the most well-endowed boar Suzanne has ever seen.

I was then directed inside a heavily gated area to guard myself against the protective habits of Dobby, Ashley’s massive boar, who weighs in at approximately 750 pounds and is somewhat cranky when it comes to his sows.

Ashley brought the pigs in from the pasture to the hay-strewn barn.

Pigs are extremely playful, I discovered. As they all came in, they began scooping up mouthfuls of hay and throwing it about in the air, rolling and playing and chasing each other and acting like, well, a barnful of extremely large snorting puppies.

Dobby had obviously spent some time rolling in the mud outside and having a wonderful time of it because he was coated in muck. I patted each pig and one of the sows, Sky, spent quite a bit of time investigating my boots. I was thoroughly snorted.

What struck me was how happy the pigs seemed and how pigs that are raised naturally don’t have that whiff of swine I’ve heard about.

They all genuinely seemed to be having a wonderful time. It seemed like an excellent way to raise meat animals, even if it did make me feel slightly guilty watching them play. I admit I had a few qualms about the whole thing while the pigs sniffed my feet.

My guilt dissipated somewhat as I headed into the basement with Ashley to her freezer to pick up my order, which was truly an amazing bundle of pork.

A quarter of a pig is a lot of meat and I was overwhelmed with all the different wrapped packages of sausages, bacon, roasts, chops and ribs that I was going to take home. However, buying naturally raised, hormone and antibiotic-free meat directly from a farm is decidedly less expensive than picking up 55 pounds of meat from, say, Cumbrae Farms, and paying top dollar, yet you’re still getting top quality pork for your money.

If you are interested in ordering the Berkshire pork yourself, there is information at the Grey Bruce Food Link here on how to order. And do be sure to follow Ashley on Twitter to hear about her pig farming adventures. Ashley is new to Twitter and the local food community, and she’d love to hear from you. So please welcome her if you are a literate Twitterite (with a nod to Peggy Atwood, of course).

If you are in need of a recipe for some delicious Berkshire pork, try this wonderful sourgrass soup made with smoked pork chop and sauerkraut, courtesy of my favourite cooking blog, TheKitchn. I made this with the first of my Berkshire stash and it’s beyond delicious.
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