"You boy's want a hog?"
Thomas and I stared at each other, neither one of us speaking as our neighbor climbed into the tractor. It was autumn, and the air had a noticeable chill to it. It was finally cold enough to start culling animals without having to worry about the bugs.
"He's a little feller', but he's good eatin'." We settled on price and butchering details that evening, as we have longed to raise our own pigs for some time now. This would fill the void for now, and give us a glimpse into the effort and technique required for processing.
Our meat was delivered the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as you see it in the picture above. We had decided to have it cut into sections, but wanted to do the processing ourselves. Having only processed poultry and wild game before, I had a lot to learn about the humble pig.
We began by adding the leaf lard to our venison breakfast sausage. This made all the difference, and finally gave us that "Jimmy Dean" sausage taste to which we were accustomed. We trimmed the ribs, front shoulder roast, and tenderloins, and after vacuum packing, placed them into the deep freeze.
Then came time for my favorites: Ham and bacon.
We cured our bacon with a mixture of salt, brown sugar, and black pepper.
I have a deep rooted love for food preserving, but curing, smoking, and aging meat was not a common skill that was passed down to my generation. Smokehouses had long gone, and only existed for me in the stories of my grandmother. I began to get a little nervous. I refused to believe that I could hang a ham on my porch for 6 months and it wouldn't be covered with bugs and half rotten. But, that attitude wasn't going to teach me what I needed to know, so I set it aside and turned to my dear friend google. I scoured government food safety websites, blogs, antique books and manuscripts searching for the perfect techniques. After a few hours I finally had read enough articles and information to give me the courage to at least attempt the task at hand.
I mixed up a simple cure of salt, brown sugar, and black pepper for the bacon. I slathered it on thickly and left it for 1.5 days per pound of meat, which was 5 days for one slab, and 8 days for the other. In lieu of a proper smokehouse, we modified a cheap commercial smoker to provide the cool temperatures required to keep the fat from rendering out of the bacon slab. A few hours later, I pulled this out:
Later that evening we fried a few pieces and finally got to experience real bacon. It was firm, yet juicy and tender, but without all of the wetness of store bought bacon that has been wet injected rather than actually smoked. Until now, I never knew the simple pleasure of being able to slice bacon to whatever thickness you want...it was sinful.
The next daunting task was the country ham (though ours was closer to a prosciutto, as we chose not to smoke our ham). I mixed up an even simpler cure of just salt and sugar, and to limit my chances of failure, chose to sacrifice my bottom refrigerator drawer for the curing location. For 38 long days I watched the salt drawing liquid out of our 15lb ham. I would drain the liquids that collected below the ham daily, and add a little more curing mixture to spots that had become bare.
After the cure time passed, I washed the ham well to remove all of the salt mixture. It was then wrapped well in paper, and covered with cheesecloth to prevent insect damage. Now came the hard part. Waiting. One month passed, and I checked the ham; it was frozen completely solid. Then came the warm days of spring which thawed the ham from the freeze of winter. Nearly everyday I would stop and smell the ham, expecting it to begin stinking from rot. It never did stink, and in the early summer months I noticed the first of the fungal growth on the paper wrapper. I had been waiting adamantly for some growth, as everything I read stated mold was imperative to a good country ham. After 171 days of being outdoors aging, I decided to cut our little experiment down. I laid the ham on the table in front of Thomas.
"What do you think is in there" I asked him...
"I don't know, but I hope it was worth it."
I ripped the paper loose to reveal the worlds ugliest ham:
I had already seen pictures of an aged ham, however, Thomas was not so lucky.
Looking very worried, he asked "Is it any good?"
"No idea" I said, "lets give her a bath."
Using a vinegar and water solution I began scrubbing at the mold, removing it all with ease. I grabbed a knife and began cutting away the desiccated exterior pieces to reveal a beautifully preserved ham; I couldn't tell of any changes that had occurred.
I sunk my knife into the pink flesh and shaved the thinnest piece off that I could manage. It had a slightly sweet, appetizing odor, that I could not identify. I ate it raw, as one would prosciutto. It had a very silky texture with a little less saltiness than commercially cured hams. That night we sauteed several more slices, and enjoyed them with homemade buttermilk biscuits. It was perfect.
No matter the preparation, a home cured ham rivals commercial hams in all regards.
So what have we learned throughout this exploration of pork? We learned many new valuable preservation techniques: curing, smoking, and aging. We learned to be reserved when choosing portions. We learned appreciation for the amount of work required to preserve the harvest.
Most importantly, we learned patience, because it was a really, really, long 171 days.