Can free range pork reared on a commercial scale taste as good as rare breed or organic? Suffolk pig farmer Alastair Butler certainly thinks so and runs a successful business at Blythburgh Pork producing top quality pork through a system of true free range farming where piglets are born in snug sheds in the outdoors and then reared outdoors until they are ready for slaughter. The approach championed by Butler and his father Jimmy is one of which they are so proud that they are one of the few pig farmers in the UK who will let the public visit their farm to see the high welfare stanards.
Food Safari's Pig in a Day was a chance to see the real story behind pork. The first part of the day was a visit to the farm on the sandy heathlands of the Suffolk Coast, an Area of Outstantding Natural Beauty. Alastair described how 'free range' is still not established as a label but can sit happily (and tastily) alongside organic and rare breed.
Blythburgh Free Range Pork hope to get an average of 11 piglets per litter (more than the 4-8 a rare breed farmer might expect but fewer than the 16 or so expected from an intensive European pig farming operation). Seeing a group of piglets thundering across a field is like watching a group of over-excited school children charging around a playground. These pigs clearly enjoy an excellent quality of life. Butler argues that the main drivers of taste in pork are the right breed (in his case a four-way cross), a longer life than an intensive system offers and the optimum amount of fat.
Asked how quality producers are working with leading restaurateurs to promote pork Butler enthused about serving pork pink (rather than rare) instead of the traditionally acceptable well done. Eaten this way the meat is juicy and as long as it comes from a trusted source, perfectly safe.
So how does Blythburgh pork perform in the kitchen? Back at the Anchor, butcher Ray Kent proceeded to deftly tackle half a pig revealing the various joints: collar, shoulder, tenderloin, loin, chops, leg and favourite of Chinese cooks and cheap but outstanding belly. We explored how to use each cut in the kitchen and were inspired to buy pork from butchers rather than picking up a packet in the supermarket - for example why ask your butcher for chops with the tenderloin attached - exactly the same concept as a T-bone steak - and something you won't find in a supermarket.Ray is a traditional family butcher and a great Suffolk character - with a fabulously strong Suffolk accent he pronounced it a particularly 'noy-uss' (nice) side of pork.
After the butchery demonstration Mike Keen, head chef challenged three groups to prepare a winning sausage mix. With powerful flavours such as chili, ginger, garlic, stilton and pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika) on offer it was an exercise in restraint as much as unbridled creativity to see which sausage would pass the Food Safari taste test. Not only did the teams prepare the mixes but Ray and Mike soon got them making and tying the sausages like professionals.
The climax of Pig in a Day is a porky feast which celebrates the glories of this most succulent meat. With the sun shining we ate a long table outside. Spare ribs marinated in an intriguing mix of banana blitzed with chilli and then roasted with the marinade; light asian-style pork balls; a perfect roast loin with a deeply flavoured nettle sauce (currently abundant - why not learn more on Food Safari's upcoming Wild Food Forage on 6 June?).
Each dish was well matched with a different beer by beer guru and Anchor proprietor Mark Dorber. Dorber argues that beers can work more interestingly than wine since they have 'flavour hooks' that really bring out the taste of both the food and the beers. Beers included the complex and exotic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with its fragrant 'cascade hops' as an aperitif, a German Schneider-Weisse wheat beer (with banana and bubblegum notes) to match the ribs and Adnams' well hopped new brew Innovation from just up the road in Southwold alongside the loin. The highlight of the feast was a taste-off between the sausages made earlier. All were excellent but for me, the stilton had the most intensely savoury, mellow and juicy quality.
Pork is perhaps underappreciated in Britain compared with beef and lamb - it's somehow not always the obvious choice. We learned on Food Safari that there's much more to pork than chops and that treated simply and boldly, it is peerlessly good. As the old saying goes, you can eat every bit of a pig, bar the squeak.