After chicken, pork is the most popular meat consumed in Ireland. We eat it in all shapes and forms: ham, bacon, rashers, sausages, luncheon meat, pork fillet, black pudding and roast dinners. The whole roast pig on a spit has been become very popular at weddings and big social gatherings to feed a crowd. As an ex-vegetarian, I was still a little squeamish about pork, so I set off to find the happiest pigs I could.
This led me to Gold River Farm in Aughrim, Co Wicklow, a certified organic farm producing a variety of fruit, vegetables and, most recently, organic, outdoor-bred pigs. The farm started at seven acres and has grown to 120 acres. Owners Alan Pierce and Mark Winterbotham both were dead against pig farming, having been put off the idea at college after seeing conventional pig farming. But then a local organic restaurateur, Evan Doyle, approached them and guaranteed he would purchase 60 pigs per annum. And so the story begins.
The Life of an Organic Pig
Parent pigs are brought in from Heritage, a company specialising in breeding and husbandry. The breeding pair aren't considered organic but any of their offspring which grow up on the organic farm are. The female gives birth to maybe two sets of piglets a year; this figure is higher in intensive farming. The piglets stay with the mother in a large field with a shed for protection. They are weaned at about six weeks, which is a little longer on an organic farm.
As Gold River is predominantly fruit and vegetable farming, the pigs are integrated into this. Once a crop is harvested, the pigs are then moved into that field. They will gobble up any leftover vegetables but most importantly rotavate the soil which aerates it. The pigs are fed organic feed and organic vegetables. They live this happy life until they are butchered at about seven months, when they have reached the right size. This is about six weeks longer than conventional farming.
The pigs are very familiar with the farmers as they need to be able to handle and touch them and move them from field to field. I can certainly attest to this: I have never met such friendly farm animals. I was wearing sparkly flip flops and I thought the guys were joking when they said they said the pigs like sparkly things and toes. As soon as I climbed over the fence, the whole herd came running to check me out and were licking my toes! So while they are very tame, Mark and Alan agree that you still do need to respect the animal, especially a mother pig or a boar during breeding season.
At seven months, the pigs go to an organic butcher, Ed Hicks, to be butchered and turned into joints, sausages, black and white puddings. Like organic farming, Ed is strictly monitored with all his recipes having to be pre-approved and his premises having regular audits. Organic in Ireland is very well governed and organic does really mean organic.
And finally, the piggy will end up on your plate. I was fortunate enough to taste several delectable dishes made by the Brooklodge & Wells Spa chefs in Co Wicklow using Gold River Pork. To complete the picture, they used salad leaves and vegetables from the farm, too, grown locally and organically.
Economic, Environmental and Health Benefits
The new buzzword in farming is 'sustainable'. In Gold River, the crop or pigs are sold first to the customers, then grown or bred. So demand first then supply. This cancels out waste, as there are many farmers that have had bad experiences and lost whole crops when their market fell through. Taking the sustainable idea further, the whole farm works together in integrated harmony. The pigs eat the vegetables and in turn they rotavate the soil, and their manure will fertilise the soil for further crops. When a field needs to be replenished, clover is sown to put back the nutrients. The next development will be to extend into organic sheep farming and have the lambs graze on the clover.
The farm also sustains two families and six employees. Alan and Mark have taken a scientific approach to organic farming in order to offer a more professional service. They have invested just over €1m in the latest harvesting and irrigation equipment. This is a huge commitment, and not helped when customers don't pay their bills and become bad debts, but fortunately they still have good customers and a growing fanbase.
Nutritionally, organic pork is superior in flavour and health benefits. Most importantly, it is free from the chemicals that are used in non-organic products. We know these are not good for us and contribute to our overall toxic load. Most interestingly, the better the diet of the pigs, the more healthier the fat becomes. It changes from a saturated fat to a more monosaturated profile. This is better for cholesterol levels and heart disease. In South Africa, there is an ad campaign promoting pork as 'the other white meat'. This is to promote lean pork as a good source of protein.
So this summer enjoy some tender pork fillet, juicy pork ribs or the obligatory sausage or rasher on the BBQ!
Top Tips For Pork Fillet
1) Use thin strips in stir fries, especially sweet and sour.
2) Flatten out with a mallet, flour, egg and crumb. Shallow fry in a little oil to make crispy schnitzels. Serve with mustard, mashed potato and cabbage.
3) Skewer on bamboo skewers and add pineapple, peppers and onion. Marinate in sweet chilli sauce, lime and soy sauce. BBQ or cook under the grill.
4) Use in a strognanoff instead of beef.
5) Make a traditional Hungarian goulash.
6) Cut open and flatten out, stuff with apricots, pistachio nuts and coriander. Wrap in Parma ham and roast in the oven.
7) Same method, but stuff with wilted spinach and mushrooms, wrap in Parma ham.
8) Cut the fillet into medallions and pan fry until golden, serve with a creamy mushroom sauce.
9) Same method, but deglaze the pan with brandy, add cream, toasted flaked almonds and raisins.
10) Cut into medallions, flatten each one out and using a toothpick, pin a fresh sage leaf to the 'saltimbocca'. Heat olive oil in the pan and cook sage leave down first the flip over. Deglaze the pan with Masala and make a gravy with chicken stock.
Gold River Farm: Mark Winterbotham 086 8587080 and Alan Pierce 086 6048606
Pig On Spit Catering: Barry Joyce 086 8225349
Ed Hicks: The Pink Pig 087 2611258
BrookLodge & Wells Spa: www.brooklodge.com 0402 36444
For more on Rozanne Stevens and her work as a wholefood chef, visit: www.rozannestevens.com.
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