"Let's drink to the soul of the pig," said Isabell Wiesner. All 25 of us standing around the farm grounds raised our glasses and downed the shot of bourbon. Then we went into the forest and killed a pig.
We had come to the farm in Cornwall at the behest of Tom Adams, the head chef and owner of London's Pitt Cue Co. restaurant. Our mission for the weekend: to slaughter a pig, butcher it, and cook and eat the offal. Most of the guests were accomplished chefs who left their kitchen tools and Michelin stars behind to drink from the fountain of Fernet Branca and porcine knowledge. They were here to learn butchering from two people who Tom described as "Austrian pig wizards."
Tom has previously eulogized about the Mangalitsa pigs he cooks at Pitt Cue on Chef's Night Out. This hairy, tough-as-nails, rare breed of pork, which was originally championed by the Austria-Hungary empire in the 19th century, is renowned for its impressive fat content and equally impressive taste. The same super-furry animals roam free, get belly rubs, feast on peaches and courgettes, and live a life less ordinary for most swine on Charlie Hart's farm here in Cornwall.
Isabell and her husband Christoph had traveled from their farm outside Vienna to conduct the slaughter. Christoph is considered the foremost authority on Mangalitsa pigs and the seam butchering technique, in which you keep the muscles intact rather than bulldozing your way through the animal's anatomy. Word has it that he can crack a walnut with one hand, a claim you feel no need to test after shaking his hand. When Christoph cut himself on a pig's tooth during a slaughter, he stitched the wound together himself. As for sterilizing, it was only a wee problem. "My wife uses schnapps, but urine also works. That's normal."
He trained as a civil engineer, but Christoph has always had a yearning for farm life from summer holidays spent in the countryside. Now it pains him to leave his pigs and four kids behind, but the couple is in high demand. This year, they will travel to Traverse City in Michigan for the fifth year in a row to run a workshop at the Pigstock Festival for chefs and culinary students. "Chefs all know how to do tasty stuff," said Christoph, "but it's interesting when you give them a new idea. To show them the living animal, to show the slaughter, to show the butchering. It's the same with the offal. Most have never tasted good, fresh organs."
After drinking bourbon shots, we walked to the forest where a couple of Mangalitsas had gathered in a feeding paddock. Tom knelt next to a big wooly pig and rubbed it behind the ear. He had bought it in Wales when it was just an eight-week old piglet. Now it was two-and-a-half years and designated for slaughter. "I had these dual emotions," he said afterwards. "It got the best possible death but I also had that feeling of 'oh fuck, I'm killing one of the first pigs I bought and I'm doing it in front of 25 people'."
Christoph shot the pig with a captive bolt gun in the forehead before sticking the throat. Blood streamed out into stainless steel bowls as two people whisked with their bare hands to cool it down and prevent coagulation. Christoph grabbed the front right leg of the pig and pumped back and forward to empty out the remaining blood. The slaughter was a clean process, no misfires, no drama; exactly how Christoph had instructed us before. The aim was to keep the pig in its natural environment and avoid any stress which could harm the meat. "You can't make it any better but you can end up disturbing it. That's the reason why we slaughter the animal in its group and on the feeding place. A transport even two weeks before will show on the meat."
Back by the farm, the pig was scalded in a bathtub before its thick, wiry hair was trimmed off with bell scrapers (some people kept the hairs for making fly-fishing flies). The pig was hoisted by a tractor lift so Christoph could split it in two halves using his knife, saw and cleaver. He carefully removed the organs one by one, hung the heart and lungs next to the bunting by the dining tent, and fed us slices of raw liver. They had a fresh, mineral and wonderfully sweet taste. "This is almost like communion," said farmer Charlie as we stood awestruck following Christoph's every step. It was a visceral yet serene experience to watch a slaughter executed with such precision and respect for the animal. Isabell cooked the first bits of offal on a drum barbecue: spleen on toast, bloodcake, and brain with egg, lard, and parsley.
"It's the things that happen before a restaurant— the whole cycle of it—that interests me the most," said Tom Adams when asked why he had put together this weekend. "How the pigs get to the restaurant almost interests me more than actually cooking them. It makes a lot of London restaurant life feel very disconnected from what happens beforehand. Christoph and Isabell are an example of taking it to the very extreme of fulfilling the potential of an animal. They only kill their own pigs on their own farm. They only breed the best pigs in the world, they grow all their food themselves. There is no compromise."
While the slaughtered pig was taken away to a local butcher, another Mangalitsa was already grilling over an open fire.
Mark Parr, the man behind the London Log Company which supplies wood and charcoal to Pitt Cue, had put in a 23-hour shift the day before to build a four-poster grill pit cage made from scaffolding tubes and corrugated iron. The butterflied pig—including its split head— was sandwiched between two racks made from fused bars and elevated over the golden embers. It was beautiful craftsmanship with a touch of patina and a hint of medieval torture chamber. For the wood, Mark used a blend of oak and ash. "Oak has flavors of tobacco and beurre noisette," he said, "while ash has a more mineral note. It gives it a clean, zesty element."
The pig was glorious, with the skin snapping like toffee and the juicy meat flavored by thick layers of fat. People used knives and tongues to search out the ribs and the succulent belly, the true prime cuts for this merry band of connoisseurs. The feast also included grilled potatoes from the fire pit and salt-washed cauliflower whose leaves had turned perfectly crisp like kale chips. Later on, high on life and lard, people took turns to beat the crap out of a pig piñata stuffed with Spunk and miniature bottles of Fernet.
The next morning we gathered around our slaughtered pig once again. This time, we found ourselves at Philip Warren butchers, another one of Pitt Cue's suppliers in nearby Launceston. Warren's dry-aging fridge is like a Rolls-Royce showroom for dead cows. Whole carcasses of rare-breed beef and slabs of Burgundy-purple prime rib rest amid square blocks of Himalayan salt which help create the dry environment and purify the air. In the butcher's workshop, Christoph put a metal mesh glove on his left hand and grabbed his knife with the other. Over the next hour he used the seam butchering technique to break down the pig, muscle by muscle, cut by cut. With the back of the knife tip, he scraped away on the bones to unlock the sinew, then massaged and traced his fingers through the silver skin and fat—the white lines—to release the muscles without spoiling the meat.
Tiny drops of deep-red blood squeezed out as Christoph pressed his thumb up along the ribs. Then he lifted the thin veil of silver skin on the bones with a sharpening steel and took it off in one slick move. The ribs were taken off one-by-one with a Rippenschlinge (rib puller) which looks like a ball pump handle with a blue loop. There were gasps of awe from the watching gallery. "This is unbelievable," said Tom Adams, as Christoph deboned the shoulder. April Bloomfield, the celebrated chef from New York's Spotted Pig and The Breslin, simply shook her head in admiration. When she left, she called Christoph a "master."
As the chefs were given their own pigs to butcher, Isabell cooked the rest of the offal. There were liver with peaches (yes, it works), fried liver coated in coconut (oh yes, just as good), lung and heart stew, strudel made with pork fat, and a traditional Austrian klachelsuppe with knuckle and tail. She mixed the blood with fat, rind and barley, and poured it into a massive beef casing for the blood sausage. Then came the meat spread, minced trimmings from the day's butchery braised with garlic and lard. It had the chefs double-dipping into the bowl with smirky grins on their fat-coated lips.
Before we cleaned up the butcher's blocks, Christoph took the freshly-trimmed hams and rubbed them in a salt blend with ginger, caraway, juniper, and coriander. They were to be cured and hung, ready for tasting at next year's Pitt Cue Pig Weekend.
Ready for another toast to the soul of the Mangalitsa pig.