This past weekend marked four years since we moved to the farm. Not four years since we’ve been farming, because that first year was a lot of cleaning and moving. And honestly, we didn’t know what we were doing. But four years ago we started this weird journey. I remember sitting down by our creek and in our new house full of old people furniture from the previous owners and dreaming of what our life would be like in the future. We moved out here with the goal to be homesteaders; have a few chickens for eggs, a garden, maybe some livestock. Over the past four years we learned a lot, quit our jobs, started a business, expanded our garden three times, currently care for 100+ animals and met some pretty incredible people. We had some of those incredible people out at our farm this past Sunday to help us fill our freezer with delicious, heritage breed pork that we raised ourselves. In short, it was the best day ever. Oh, besides our wedding. Whew. That was a close one.
The Sunday before, the meatheads at Bolyard’s Meat and Provisions in Maplewood, MO and our neighbors, the Luebbers, came out to help us process our very first hog on the farm. It was honestly a great experience and went very smoothly. But I’ll spare you the details for another blog post. So anyway, we hung the pork in our walk-in for a week and planned for a butchery day the following weekend.
Two of the butchers from Bolyard’s, John and Jon, came back out to show us how to break down and make use of an entire hog. We love Bolyard’s for many reasons and maybe one day we’ll write a love letter blog to them. But one of the reasons we love them so much is because they’re doing an excellent job by not only providing St. Louis with some high quality product, but they’re educating their customers as well. Their emphasis is on using farms that are certified humanely raised and practicing whole animal butchery. They visit just about every farm they buy from and know the quality of life that animal receives. When that beef or pork or whatever is brought into the butcher shop, they use every part of the animal they can and don’t let anything go to waste. To say that we were excited was perhaps a bit of an understatement. I couldn’t sleep the night before! This was the day that we had been waiting for since we started raising pigs and in a way, since we bought the farm. Plus, I get great joy from watching someone who is passionate about their craft, expertly demonstrate and teach their craft. Bonus points if they do it out the farm! John and his wife Mary (chef Mary from Strange Donuts) arrived at the farm and started getting set up in our makeshift butchery area next to our walk-in.
We set up two tables: one large stainless steel table for the actual butchering and a folding table to freezer wrap and package the individual cuts. John set up his knives, bone saw, cutting board and SUPER COOL chain mail apron. I mean, what? This day just got that much better. We also got an extra large stock pot and propane burner set up for head cheese.
Butchering the Pig: The Ham
John took one half of the pig out of the walk-in and got down to business. First, he cut out the tenderloin. The next cut was to separate out the ham from the center portion. Our plan is to cure the ham so we left it whole, wrapped it in freezer paper and put it in a ham net, old school style. Then John cut the front quarter off and set it aside for later. Now we could concentrate on the good stuff.
Butchering the Pig: The Belly
First he separated the belly from the chops. Oh man… pork belly. A whole slab of meat candy. We’re planning on curing our own bacon and leaving some uncured to eat as just regular ol’ awesome pork belly. From that cut, he separated the spare ribs. More meat candy. This is about to be a salty meaty lovers paradise. If you cut off the brisket bone of the spare ribs, you have St. Louis style ribs and rib tips. But we left our spare ribs whole and in tact.
Butchering the Pig: The Loin
Now comes the good stuff. John shaved away from of the back fat and put some in our head cheese pot and set some aside for us to render into lard. When he started to cut the chops we were really able to see the great quality of the meat. The meat was a beautiful, deep red, marbled quality and surrounded by creamy, white fat. Mouths = watering. We chose to leave our chops bone-in because 1) it’s easier to butcher and 2) we like them that way. Now this is something I didn’t know. But in pork, you start the chops between the 3rd and 4th rib. The remainder is your sirloin or loin roast. Again, we kept ours bone-in but you can debone it.
Butchering the Pig: the Shoulder
Now that the belly and loin (center) section was done, it was time to move onto the shoulder. The pork shoulder, also known as shoulder butt (why? I don’t know. I always thought these were two different things) can be cut into roasts, like the picnic roast or butt roast. You can also cut it into stew meat or grind it for ground pork. But since we live in St. Louis, which is in the good state of Missourah, we cut the shoulder into pork steaks. And they’re awesome. After the shoulder was cut, we left the lower shank whole for stews or braising.
And with that cut, the first half of the hog was done. John has butchery in his blood and you can tell as he cuts. Every cut was clean, keeping the integrity of the meat and fat. He’s also a very good teacher. As he went he told us about the different cuts and what we can do with each roast or cut. He asked us what we like to cook and what we like to eat, which helped us decide what cuts we wanted or didn’t want. He knows his way around a hog. Insert penis joke here.
By this time, Jon arrived and butchered the second half of the pig. Here’s his glamour shot:
Jon walked us through the second half of the hog, giving us the same whole ham, belly, spare ribs and chops but we separated this shoulder into roasts instead of pork steaks. I think. I don’t know, I was pretty hypnotized by meat at this point.
The Taste Test
The best part about butchering a hog at the farm is being able to cut pork steaks off the shoulder and throw them right on the grill. So that’s what we did! Jon smoked the pork steaks until the red meat was tender and juicy, and the fat was soft and carmelized. No white meat here! It was no question that it’s better (and bigger) than any store bought pork. After tasting our own Iowa Swabian Hall, there’s no way we could go back to pork from the big box stores. Tasting is believing my friends! This pig was bred from quality genetics, raised on pasture, fed produce and spent grain. He was processed humanely, quickly and expertly butchered. That was how the pork got to our plate. When you go to the supermarket, could you say the same about the pork you buy there? Nope. That’s why I love what we do and what Bolyard’s and other small craft butcheries do. They know their shit and we were lucky to share this experience with them.
This was the most idyllic day. Not just because we got to fill our freezer with custom butchered pork that we raised. But because we got to spend it with some wonderful people that care about what we do and most importantly, love what they do. These dudes are craftsmen that make it look easy which I imagine it is not! We’re so lucky that they were able to teach us about butchering animals and I hope that we were able to teach them about raising animals. This mutual respect, support and collaboration is what keeps us motivated and what led us from day one at the farm four years ago to today. And I can’t wait to see where it takes us in the future. I’ve said it 1,000 times and I’ll say it till I’m blue in the face: we’re very lucky and very, very thankful.
On our next blog post we’ll talk about how we used every part of the pig and didn’t let anything go to waste including extra fat, the head and even the organs. Until then, if you’re interested in learning about whole animal butchery, we recommend checking out the book “Whole Beast Butchery” by Ryan Farr.