This little piggy went to market... and the one that stayed home was called "Babe". The British fascination with the cute little pig goes back a long way. From early childhood we are taught nursery rhymes, told twee stories and given cuddly toys in the shape of little pigs. Then we are told how good they are to eat.
Like most restaurateurs, we are mainly concerned with the end product that arrives through our kitchen door, but in a perfect world it would be comforting to know that the animals we slaughter for human consumption have at least been shown respect while alive. The UK pig industry is responsibly working its way towards this goal.
Pork production is a fast-changing industry. The UK has the highest standard of pig rearing throughout Europe and by the end of this year it will be illegal to keep farrowing sows in anything other than loose houses where they have freedom of movement.
Something else which has evolved over the past few years is a surge in organic pig rearing. The method, although idealistic, is not cost-effective and whether the consumer will pay the resulting higher price is in doubt. There will always be an organic niche market, but it is not one that would justify a complete conversion for the average pig farmer.
There are some 75,000 sows in the UK and 13 million in Europe; and in 1997 15.2 million pigs were slaughtered in the UK. The two main breeds in this country are Large White and Landrace. We are told that a better eating pork comes from the Hampshire or the Berkshire, the latter being popular with the Japanese market because of its intramuscular fat - fatty streaks in layman's language.
A pig will reach its ideal slaughter weight of 90kg at around 150-160 days. High-protein cereal-based foods account for this fast growth rate.
Two facts have become abundantly clear to us after speaking to pig farmers and pork butchers up and down the country. First, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the present market price of pork and every effort is being made to enhance this. Second, legislation on pig welfare is becoming an expensive minefield which could bankrupt many smaller breeders.
We asked our butcher, John Petite from Grimsby, what sort of things he sold. His reply was: "Everything but the squeal". In other words, nothing on a pig is wasted. We know a pork butcher in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, where such delicacies as roast pigs' feet and belly pork, cooked ham shanks, spare ribs, haslet and brawn can still be purchased
The adage used to be: "Don't buy pork unless there is an R in the month." Of course, this has changed with the invention of modern refrigeration. Curing, however, is still best left for the colder months. Pork should keep for up to five days jointed but, if vacuum-packed, up to three weeks is OK. As with any other meat, freezing is also an option.
Look for pale, firm meat when buying, as a darker colour means the pig has been slaughtered while under stress. (At one time darker meat meant a swill-fed pig but this is no longer possible as swill has been outlawed.) Meat should be dry in texture, never sticky; marbling is desirable but because of consumer demand it is extremely hard to source. If you prefer a little marbling, as we do, then ask your butcher to supply you with some Berkshire. It will cost a little more but the difference is vast and worth the trouble.
Pork is still a cost-effective meat and could be considered a particularly safe option, given all the food scares we have been confronted with over the past decade. Swine fever has been non-existent in the UK since the 1950s, although this isn't the case in the rest of Europe. Germany, Holland and Spain are right now fighting an outbreak and in forthcoming weeks this will probably mean an increase in UK pork prices as demand increases on the Continent.
Pork by-products have been with us for generations: pork pie, pork sausage, haslet and brawn in this country - rillettes, boudin blanc and andouillette in Europe. All are classic dishes in their own right but, sadly, too much of what we see in the butcher's window today comes from a production line.
This has come about mainly because of legislation and the cost of keeping up with the ever-changing regulations governing cooked food production, which means it is now easier for the butcher to buy in these products rather than install the expensive equipment needed to produce them on the premises.
This will forever be a bone of contention with organisations such as Euro-Toques, which fights continually to keep the individual countries' food origins intact, thus protecting the small producer against the ever-increasing financial burden of legislation.
A pork product now widely advertised is minced pork, and the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) is promoting it with great gusto, producing a small recipe-based information leaflet for anyone who cares to ask for it.
There is an obvious advantage to the industrial caterer in minced pork, but we can't honestly see it being a great menu attraction in restaurants, other than for Mexican or Oriental dishes, even though - despite having 5% visual fat content - it is undoubtedly healthy, being full of vitamin B1 (thiamin), B6 and B12 and a generous amount of zinc.
Pork sales in the UK are on the increase and the MLC promotes pork sales to schools, hospitals and the catering industry as a healthy, cost-effective alternative to the troubled beef market. Although the Government is now backtracking on the subject of daily consumption of red meat - and it is now thought that 90g a day is not dangerous after all - many beef farmers have already gone out of business because of misinformed statements.
PORK ON THE MENU
So why don't we see more pork on our menus?Traditionally, British cuisine features pork quiteheavily but more in a domestic capacity thana commercial one. Roast pork for Sunday lunchis the norm from John o' Groats to Land's End, but why can't we see more adventurous dishesbeing offered?
Pork cheeks are a delicious alternative, and served in Calvados they can rival any beef casserole. Pigs' trotters have found a niche market, mainly due to the labours of Pierre Koffmann, and salted pork is one of Paul Bocuse's great dishes, requiring the shoulder or spare rib to be salted down for eight days.
Offal has never really caught on in UK restaurants but we would personally like to see dishes such as pigs' brains appearing on our menus. Brains are a real delicacy and used in much the same way as sweetbreads. They should be poached in a court-bouillon for 15 minutes, after soaking for about 12 hours, then quickly fried in brown butter with capers to make an exquisite first course.
After all, these dishes are eaten as a matter of course on the Continent - it's a shame to think of them as too daring for the British market. n