When the Maasai of East Africa kill a cow, the herdsman first coaxes it to the ground and then lies beside the animal, stroking and calming it. He whispers in its ear to explain why it must die and asks its forgiveness. Then he smothers it. I'd planned to do something similar when our pig Spidey's time came, but I didn't get the chance. To start with, smothering is not acceptable humane practice in the modern British slaughterhouse.
What I would have told him is that, while his death was ignoble, the butchering would be glorious. A food hero with proper respect for good pork was flying in all the way from Italy to do the honours. And we, who had fed him and visited him, were going to enjoy every bit of him. In turning Spidey into food we were going to bide by Nose to Tail St John chef Fergus Henderson's wise dictum: "If you're going to kill an animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing."
An hour or so into the job of chopping him up, we broke for lunch. And while Spidey is still with us in the form of salamis, bacon, a whole host of roasting cuts and some coppa ham that I'm very excited about, that lunch was his finest hour so far. We ate it round the table in Chris and Denise Walton's farmhouse, with Renato Toros and a bunch of Slow Foodies from Friuli in northern Italy, who had come over to see what the Scots do with pigs.
The Italians cooked. We ate the liver and the cheeks, sliced and fried with onions, juniper, bay and a little white wine; a traditional Pig-butchering Day meal, when the offal and the parts that can't be cured are eaten. We drank a crisp white from the Veneto, and on the side each of us had a piece of home-baked bread and a frittata made with the pig's brain. It was noisy, jolly, filling - a proper worker's meal. After it we went back to turn the lean meat into salsicce and salami.
The story of Spideypig Curly Bacon - to give him his full name - started nearly a year earlier, at Peelham Farm in Berwickshire. We knew Chris and Denise Walton, the farmers, and the fantastic organic pork, beef and lamb they sell at Edinburgh Farmers' Market. We drove to Peelham and picked our piglet, one of a litter of 10 Tamworths we found playing tag around the vast shape of their mother. I wanted to take him straight back to the terraced street in Edinburgh where we live and keep him in the back garden. But I was dissuaded. My next-door neighbour pointed out the "no livestock" clause in the title deeds. So instead we did a deal with the Waltons: remote pig ownership.
They'd look after him, we'd pay his bed and board at £18 a month and come to visit him. My children - then nine and three - chose the name. I was glad, because in it lay the story of the pig's ultimate fate. I wanted to avoid misunderstandings come slaughter-time.
Spidey, like all the Waltons' pigs, was a Tamworth, with a rough ginger coat and a long snout. The breed is known for being hardy, clever and quick, only a few genes removed from their wild-boar ancestors. And for evolving ultimately into great sausages. Through last spring and summer we went down regularly to visit him, bringing organic treats (he was the perfect outlet for the unwanted roots and leaves from our veggie box).
The children decided he deserved sweets, so since we had to abide by the organic rules, Spideypig became the only pig in Scotland to savour Green & Black's chocolate. It was a little like having a child at boarding school. "Well, he looks happy," my wife and I would say a little wistfully as we drove home after a visit. The children had less sentiment: "When we eat Spidey, we can eat all of him but not his nose," said the three-year-old.
They grow up fast. Spideypig seemed to have doubled in size each time we visited him. Pigs convert food to weight faster than any other domesticated animal, and he and his siblings swelled on the barley and peas that the Waltons grow as fodder. They lived very happily and healthily in the muddy fields on the bare Berwickshire hills; his total vet's bill was £1. I was proud to own a remote pig, free range and organically fed from the fields next to his own.
And as he got bigger, I got smugger. What had begun as a practical project motivated partly by economy but mainly by greed became a high moral stance as each month passed. As last autumn and winter went by, more emerged about the horrors and failures of industrial pig farming. Earlier this year in the Guardian, Jon Henley wrote a shocking exposé of pig farming in continental Europe. Most of our cheap pork comes from there, because welfare standards are lower, he explained. It became clear that if you paid less than £10 or £12 a kilo for bacon, you were buying cruel pork. But cheap bacon lies at the centre of the supermarkets' relentless "value" marketing - for most of 2008 no British ordinary pig farmer was covering their costs. According to the National Farmers' Union, they were in fact losing more than £20 per carcass.
The awful stories about the origins of the swine flu - a virus probably bred and mutated in the vast pig factories of American corporations - have now made the case for returning to the old, humane ways unarguable. In January this year Jamie Oliver revealed more in a TV show entitled Jamie Saves Our Bacon. European sows that are kept all their breeding lives in cages too small to turn around in; pigs, he thought, were treated worse than battery chickens. Supermarkets, he said, habitually bend the truth on labelling: Dutch or Danish bacon is described as "sourced in the UK", even if it is merely packed here. A "traditional Wiltshire cure" doesn't mean cured in Wiltshire. He advocated a boycott.
I wrote in the Observer's food blog, Word of Mouth, about another way - the remote pig. I boasted about my ownership of an interactive, educational pet-cum-recycling machine who would end his days as very cheap bacon, but decently produced and giving a proper return to the farmer. We should all form pig clubs, I said, like in the film A Private Function. But the readers didn't buy it. They emailed to say I was an "out-of-touch elitist", denying people the chance to eat cheap pork, and "twisted" for exposing my children to the brutal truths about where meat comes from. My three-year-old daughter, they said, was "scary".
We all stood in white coats in the meat-processing room at Peelham Farm. On the table lay the pig, gutted. Out came the saw, to split the carcass into manageable parts. Quite swiftly the pig lost its shape, like a house being demolished. It took about 45 minutes to turn him into piles of meat, skin and fat, and a bucket full of bones.
We were butchering two pigs that day, one Italian style, and one British, and the two butchers watched each other with keen interest.
Andy Winterburn, the butcher from Berwick-on-Tweed who works at Peelham, sniffed as Renato from Friuli made incisions to take out the spare ribs from the pig's belly, ready to roll up for curing as pancetta - Italian bacon. "No butcher in Britain would do that," he said. And when Renato started stripping down the pig's head for meat, Andy muttered: "I could have done two pigs in the time this has taken. This is just not cost-effective."
But as Renato pointed out, there was 2kg of good meat on the head, including the cheeks - a delicacy once sold in Britain as Bath chaps. Nowadays in most British butchers the head goes straight in the bin.
When we'd finished we totted up the proceeds. The British-butchered pig had started out at 75kg - from that we got 42kg of usable meat. The Italian pig weighed in at 62kg, and produced 52kg. The disparity shocked even Andy, who spent his career working in a busy butcher's shop.
"Until 12 years ago," he said, "we used to employ a man who spent all day taking the spare meat off the bones, for sausages. But we stopped. There wasn't the money in it. Now most butchers just skin and cut and take the joints - and you can do that in half an hour." So meat has become too cheap? "Yes," he agreed, "I suppose so. But everyone still wants it cheaper."
A leg and much of the belly and shoulder of the pig Andy had worked on went into brine, the beginning of the bacon- and gammon-making process. More was put aside for sausages, and the rest for shrink-wrapping as joints and cuts to go home with me. But Renato's work was only just beginning - he travels from farm to farm in his home region of Friuli, near the Austrian border. He's called in when a family pig needs turning into sausages and hams - often he'll take on a 200kg animal, a process that takes five or six hours. His arcane arts turned out to be surprisingly simple. First we took the best meat, about 15kg of it, for salami - at a 75% lean to 25% fat ratio. As it was ground through a meat mincer, one of Renato's friends mixed up the seasoning, a "French cure" - white wine, pepper, coriander powder, garlic salt and a little sodium nitrite, a preservative. With the children helping, the mixture was pumped into sausage skins and tied off with string by Renato. These then went into a warm, humid room to ferment for 24 hours. It will take a further six weeks before they are ready to eat. The osso collo - the pork neck - we spiced, wrapped in sausage skins (which are the cleaned intestines of another pig) and put away to cure - they will emerge in three months as a coarser parma ham, like coppa. And the deliciously fatty belly meat, which would go for streaky bacon here in Britain, was salted, rolled and trussed up to cure as pancetta.
Wine and pepper-heavy salsicce sausages for immediate frying came next. And then the last of the piles, which seemed to be largely fat and skin, went into fat nine inch sausages (called cotechini in northern Italy). The best fat, snowy white, from the back, we salted and peppered and put away to dry, for up to a year, as lardo - which in Italy is a delicacy cut petal-thin and served on bruschetta. The rest of the fat, mainly from the belly, was taken off to the kitchen to boil up with apple and bay, to render it into strutto - cooking lard for frying and pastry-making.
Herein lies the secret of why so little of the Italian-butchered pig was wasted: we used the fat, almost all of it. We discussed making pestadice, a sausage with little nuggets of fried, crunchy pork skin mixed into it. During this conversation I thought I might faint, I was enjoying myself so much. I think it may have been the finest moment yet in a life spent talking about food.
Meanwhile my son was attempting to cleave open the pig's head with a machete, to get the brain out. I watched him, with a deep and ancient pride brimming in my heart. Now if only I could get him to taste the brain frittata, then my happiness would be complete.
The test for the cotechini came a week later, after they'd dried in my fridge for seven days.
I was holding a pig-out for friends: a grand dinner with a startlingly well-balanced menu, so long as it was pig. We started with a pig's liver and lean meat terrine, encased in trotter jelly and the strutto fat, and served with capers and gherkins. On top I laid snippets of Spideypig's ear, brined for five days, and fried till they were crisp. That went down all right. Then there was a bonne bouche of roast pork fillet slices, with a spicy apple sauce. Gone in a second. Finally, served on a mound of puy lentils which I'd boiled in pork stock, the great baby's arms of the cotechini. And they scoffed the lot of them - the sausages surprisingly pungent for something made largely of skin and fat. Everyone got a going-home present of half a dozen salsicce. I think it was the best dinner party I've ever cooked.
And what of the children, you might wonder. There have been neither tears nor nightmares. They've declared Spideypig's bacon very good - my son, who likes to cook breakfast on Saturday, is impressed that when you put it in the pan there's no need to add any cooking oil. And no evil white gunk comes out. He thinks roast pork may be a competitor for his usual favourite meat: beef steak, well done. And my daughter? As we drove home from the pig-butchering she looked out of the window at the first of the spring lambs. "Can we get a lamb? Please!" she asked. We waited expectantly for her next line. "We could eat him."
Remote pig ownership: What it cost Alex Renton
£220 We paid the Waltons of Peelham Farm over 11 months for the pig's bed and board and vet's bills.
£25 To cover the slaughterhouse costs.
£70 For butchering, curing and packing the meat.
Total £315. (The price of the Italian butchering is not included.) We took home meat, sausages and bacon to a value of about £500.
What we got
1.5kg pork shoulder
1.8kg rolled pork belly roast
1.6kg pork loin
3.2kg boned gammon leg
1.8kg rump roast
500g spare ribs
2kg pancetta bacon
1.3kg streaky bacon
1.8kg back bacon
50 salsicce sausages
4.4kg traditional English sausages
12 x 500g cotechini sausages
500g salamis (10)
1kg osso collo ham
1.5kg strutto (refined lard)
500g lardo (cured fat)
1 smoked hock
4 trotters and enough bones to fill the freezer full of stock