The Year of the Pig is upon us – and it’s wallowing in beer, writes Alastair Gilmour
The Chinese New Year begins on February 5 and brings with it a fortnight of celebrations in communities across the world. The next 12 months commemorates the Year of the Pig, as dictated by the Chinese lunar calendar which initiates a cycle of 12 years, each one named after an animal.
It’s a time when ancestral spirits are celebrated, family unity is honoured, and a happy future is anticipated. Strict customs are adhered to and superstition is rife, such as sweeping the floor before the big day else good fortune for the coming year be brushed aside, and the wearing of red which symbolises sunshine and brightness.
Pigs feature highly in the lives of Sam and Red Kellie, the husband-and-wife team who run First & Last Brewery in tranquil Elsdon, Northumberland. They have been keeping pigs for several years, buying them in as weaners, supplementing their feed with brewery grains and building them up before they’re converted into joints and sausages – using everything but the squeal.
Occupying outbuildings behind the newly-refurbished Bird In Bush pub means there’s a ready outlet for doorstep delivery in beer and a supply of pork for French chef Will Rideau to feast his eyes on. And if there’s anything that French chefs like to do with pork, it’s brawn, rillettes, terrines, confits, black pudding and patés. He’s pretty handy with scotch eggs ausi.
The Bird In Bush reopened fully last October after a lengthy overhaul with the help of The Pub Is The Hub programme and The Prince’s Countryside Fund. It was just in time to be featured in a BBC One edition of Countryfile broadcast in December.
“We’ve been really busy since,” says Katie Bland, owner of the pub with partner Steve Shaw. “We call it the Countryfile effect because it’s definitely been a big help. We’ve seen people coming in from Alnwick, Hawick, Sunderland and Wylam and from all over the Coquet Valley. In fact it seems to have helped pull the valley together.”
First & Last’s beer also goes into Will Rideau’s kitchen – pickled sprouts in Equinox Pale Ale, cabbage in Mad Jack Ha’ IPA, plus chutneys, marinades and sauces.
Steve Shaw fully understands that feeding animals like the Kellie’s pigs on spent grains totally fits in with the pub’s ethos of keeping things local. Using spent grains as animal feed alleviates the environmental impact of the brewing process – and contain enough protein and fibre to make them a suitable supplement. Plus, it is environmentally and economically responsible to make them available to agriculture.
First & Last brewer Red Kellie says: “We started keeping pigs nine years ago when we were renting a house with a garden and an old pigsty which we did up.
“The first year we got three piglets, then four or five every year since. It was when we started home-brewing that we started feeding the grains to the piglets. They absolutely love it and go mad for it, sometimes tossing it up in the air.
“Spent grains are still full of nutrients and natural sugars and are great for bone and body growth. Our pigs have a balanced diet – happy pigs make great meat – and it might be my imagination, but they seem to like grain from dark beers and not just a plain barley flavour.
“We usually get them as piglets around March and keep them until September or October, depending on how old they were when we first got them. There comes a stage of growth when they’ll only put fat on – and you don’t want them too fatty.
“Pigs are very sociable animals – very intelligent and clean – and lovely to keep. You build a real relationship with them and they’ll let you scratch their bellies. We’ve had Gloucester Old Spots, Tamworths and Saddlebacks but to start us off we got Mangalitsas bred at Broom House Farm in Cambo (Northumberland). They’re a lovely breed.”
It’s probably not the greatest idea to give names to pet pigs, but if you’ve only got two or three of them plus children, the temptation is obvious. But there inevitably comes a time when they have to “go away”.
“That’s a difficult time for all of us and we have mixed emotions,” says Red. “We take our time taking them to the abattoir in the Landrover and make sure they’re treated right and cared for right to the end – but they know what’s happening.
“Our kids Noah, who’s 11, and Erin (8) name them after Roald Dahl characters. They keep bees as well.”
Will Rideau says it’s remarkable what you can do with pigs – “hot smoking, cold smoking, and you can use everything but the squeal. But I’m not sure about the tail. I cook gammon in Equinox beer and I’d love to hang a full animal up for six to eight months, but I’m too impatient.”
Feeding pigs on spent grains isn’t exclusively a First & Last Brewery exercise – Alan Hogg at the Yard of Ale Brewery at Ferryhill, County Durham, sends his to Medomsley Bangers and gets sausages back for his trouble (“great black pud too”). Those from Muckle Brewing near Haltwhistle, Northumberland, provide a hearty breakfast for the pigs at nearby Woodhall Farm, which is owned by a cousin of brewer Tom Smith. Then, delicious pork sausages and joints make the return journey.
Back at the Bird In Bush, Katie Bland says: “Cyclists, walkers and the local market have been great, particularly when Christopher Walker did an article in The Times on country walks and included the area around Elsdon. We had people in the next day.”
Perfectionist Will Rideau is also very much a pragmatist, believing less is more. “There’s a lovely atmosphere in the restaurant at weekends,” he says. “We could do more covers but if we limit it to 40 they all get the same quality rather than messing up going for 60 or 70. Then you’ll find you’ve only got 20 next week.”
Birds, bushes, beer, brawn and bacon: it’s going to be some year.
THE YEAR OF THE PIG
The Chinese New Year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. Legend has it that the Lord Buddha summoned all the animals to come to him before he departed from Earth. Only 12 came to bid him farewell and, as a reward, he named a year after each one in the order they arrived – Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.
People born in the year of the pig (2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935) are artistic, refined, intuitive, intelligent and well-mannered. These souls are compassionately aware, yet detached and resigned to their condition. They seek beauty and a sensitive love. They are caring, unique, self-sacrificing, obliging, sensible, creative, empathetic, tactful and prudent. On the other hand, they can also be naive, pedantic, insecure, cunning, indecisive, and pessimistic.