While in no position to know who HRH The Prince of Waless favourite fictional character may be, I would be prepared to have money on his having a soft spot for the Empress of Blandings, Lord Emsworths prize-winning Berkshire sow, whose misadventures at the hands of drunken and treacherous pigman George Cyril Wellbeloved are the theme of several of PG Wodehouses Blandings books.
Alas, the golden age, when Berkshire pigs were so desirable that the infamous Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe was prepared to kidnap one, has vanished. According to Richard Lutwyche of the Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Company (TBMM) in Cirencester, by the Eighties many pedigree British breeds had become so undesirable that it was positively humiliating for producers of small pedigree pigs or coloured pigs to take them to market. That things are beginning to change is partly due to the interest taken by HRH The Prince of Wales, who is patron of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), and keeps a number at the Duchy Home Farm. He is a very important advocate of our native breeds. He often champions the cause of native breeds of livestock, says Richard Clarke, RBST chief executive. HRH The Prince of Wales explains, in a foreword to the TBMMs booklet of recipes, that pigs are far better equipped than any imported animal to make the best use of our glorious countryside. Traditional breeds taste like meat used to do something which had been all but forgotten in the pursuit for the cheap and the lean.
Now, however, more people are beginning to care not just about taste but where their meat comes from and how it is produced. One who went from carefully sourcing her bacon to growing her own is the Duchess of Norfolk, who lives with her husband and five children at Arundel Castle in Sussex. In December 2005 she was given three Gloucestershire Old Spot sows; then she took on two very active young Tamworths. The three sows farrowed at the end of last year, producing 36 piglets. She kept them until they were about 12 weeks and then they went on to be fattened elsewhere. She has organic status so the pigs can be produced as organic, as well as free range (they have 16 acres of pasture and some woodland), but she does not want to be involved with the killing. I am not sentimental my pigs dont have names but I dont enjoy that part of it. Her bacon was excellent though, and she is going to experiment with curing hams.
The Duchess says her children are hunter-gatherers and happily tuck into the sausages but only Philip, 11, has the farming bug and takes a real interest, going with her to see to them. She says she is not trying to be commercial with the pigs and admits keeping them is an expensive hobby. However, she finds them therapeutic. I love watching them doing their own thing. It takes all the stress out of the day when I see them lying in the sun having a good time. A short life but a happy one.
Lord Emsworth, who spent happy hours gazing at his prize pig, would understand the Duchess and would have another soul mate in the Conservative MP Hugo Swire. He has a Large Black sow called Maud, of whom he is inordinately fond. He has shown her at several county shows and his young children have shown their own pigs, which are at livery with pig breeder Bryan Card in Dorset. He managed to sell a Large Black piglet at a charity auction for a record £10,000 and two of his own piglets for £5,000 each for good causes. My aim is to get this sort of price for my pigs in the real world! he says.
Joking apart, in the real world people other than hobby pig keepers struggle to make a go of selling the meat, but Lutwyche says that there is now a premium. Commercial pigs are going for a base price of £1.05/kilo while rare breeds can command £1.85/kilo. However, the pigs do need to be properly finished and produced to achieve premium prices.
More people are trying to do just that. The Marquess of Salisbury, who is president of the British Pig Association (BPA), the official breed society for pedigree pigs, started a small breeding herd made up of equal numbers of Tamworths, Middle Whites and Large Blacks, plus a few Berkshires, on the Cranborne estate in Dorset some years ago. His son Ned is enthusiastically taking things further. For the past couple of years the estate has produced pork for its own shop, to supply restaurants and for sale over the internet.
Lord Salisbury likes traditional breeds because he believes they are the gold standard for keeping up the quality of meat and livestock. He is not anti cross-breeding for hybrid vigour as long as the blood-lines can be kept going. Almost the entire British pig herd had become commercial and intensively reared and was in a downward spiral when it came to quality of meat, he says. Now that people are interested in eating well, encouraging traditional breeds can create a virtuous circle, reviving local shops, providing rural employment and helping small producers. However, he stresses that if it is to be regarded as a genuine part of the rural fabric it must be businesslike. He admits that it can be tough until turnover gets quite high.
At Cranborne, Peter Bawn, the estates farm manager, says: We get weaners from the herd here and take the surplus from people in the area who show rare breeds. We take them 52 weeks a year and seem to be killing a pig every week. They have 400 fattening pigs, which they kill at six months at a weight of 65 kilos, getting through 1,000 to 1,500 a year. The meat is not organic but the pigs live out on the Downs, with access to woodland and straw-bale huts for shelter. They are killed at nearby Sturminster Newton in a small abattoir. Bawn stresses that the whole process from the breeding and rearing to finishing, killing and butchering affects the taste.
Bawn says that in his experience the Tamworths are best for bacon while the Large Black make excellent joints, though some people dont like the black hairs. There is a huge demand for pork bellies, where Middle Whites excel. I find them healthier than commercial breeds, says Bawn, but the battle is to stop them getting too fat.
In fact the easier-to-fatten, fashionably pretty Gloucestershire Old Spots are doing quite well compared to others. The RBST categorises the Berkshire and Tamworth as at risk, the Large Black, Middle White and Welsh as vulnerable and the British Lop as endangered, the most severe category.
There are only about 350 breeding Middle White sows in Britain. This is despite the best efforts of Richard Vaughan, who has 100 of them near Ross-on-Wye. Vaughan started farming at 21 on land that has been in his family since 1650 . He began conventionally enough supplying beef to the supermarkets but gradually began to think that there should be a meat equivalent of château bottled. I was stuck producing Piat dOr and I wanted to make Château Lafite, he says.
In 1996 he moved into pedigree Longhorn cattle and then chose to focus on Middle White pigs as they were specially bred for pork, not bacon. He explains that large commercial hybrid pigs grow quickly, so they can be ready at a younger age, which makes them cheaper to produce. Because a breed such as Middle White grows more slowly it reaches the same size at a later age, which makes the meat taste better but costs more. Middle Whites reigned supreme in the Thirties, he says. The London porker was world renowned. Indeed, there is a monument in Japan to the Middle White as it was the favourite meat of the emperor.
Vaughans meat has certainly found favour with those modern emperors, the celebrity chefs, and a number of top London restaurants. In July 2007 Vaughan headed the Financial Mail on Sunday Business section in the Waitrose Small Producers Awards. Vaughan is an ultra-professional farmer and a tough businessman. There is not an ounce of soppiness in his attitude to his pigs: The bills have to be paid. He is not organic as he thinks it can be restrictive. I believe in the pursuit of excellence, which is not quite the same thing, he says. His pigs are not full of chemicals and he uses no growth promoters but if they get a cough he will vaccinate them. A healthy pig and a healthy bottom line is his motto. As for welfare, the pigs can graze outdoors in nice weather and have wallows but the fattening pigs are under cover in straw yards. He is anti all-outdoor methods and has to balance the commercial and practical with the fashionable natural lifestyle that hobby breeders often adopt. For instance, commercially kept pigs are weaned at three weeks, Vaughans are weaned at six weeks, while the natural weaning age is around 12 weeks.
In Lincolnshire James and Lucy Barclay might admit to being a little less hard-nosed than Vaughan, though they are equally real country folk. Apart from their pedigree herd of 130 Gloucestershire Old Spots they have a sow of unknown origin which was brought to them having been run over as a piglet on the A1, from which they breed.
James has been a Master of several foxhound packs and he feels he learnt a great deal from many different kinds of farmers in years of hunting. Five years ago he and Lucy began to keep traditional breeds at Abbey Farm near Stixwould (he has Shorthorn and Lincoln Red cattle and Lincoln Long Wool and Jacob sheep too). At that time he had 25 acres and began with one Gloucestershire Old Spot sow. He now farms 300 acres and has worked hard at building up the farming side.
The Barclays began by selling at point-to-points and to friends, and now they go to shows all season. They dont have a farm shop but work with two butchers and are building up a mail-order service. I agree with Churchill: dogs look up to you, cats look down but a pig will look you in the eye, James says.
With such supporters things are looking up for traditional pigs, but there is a new threat. Supermarkets are trying to cash in. Much of what they are selling is coming from cross-breeds, which does not help the gene pool. So if you want to try rare breed meat, buy from an accredited butcher. As HRH The Prince of Wales says: Always insist on the genuine article. There is nothing easier than passing off inferior stock as the real thing.
Go the whole hog
Rare Breeds Survival Trust
Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth, Warwickshire CV8 2LG, tel 02476 696551.
For a copy of An abundance of rare ideas, recipes using rare breeds, contact Richard at Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Company, FREEPOST, Cirencester, Glos GL7 5BR or call him on 01285 869666.
Huntsham Farm Pedigree Meats, Goodrich, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR9 6JN, tel 01600 890296, Huntsham Farm.
James and Lucy Barclay
Abbey Farm, Stixwould, Lincolnshire, tel 01526 351739, Abbey Farm.
Wimborne, Dorset BH21 5PS, tel 01752 517289, Cranborne.