Hugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Conor

The long awaited day finally arrived last saturday. For my Christmas present last year, the world’s best wife got me a place at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “Pig in A Day” course in Ballymaloe Cookery School. I hared it over to Shanagarry early on Saturday and arrived just in time.

In my gormless naivete, I thought it would be an up-close-and-personal session with maybe 6-10 people. It never struck me that this was not financially feasible. So a big shock awaited me when I entered and found approx 60 people all seated watching Hugh prep. Poor muggins ended up down the back - hence the brutal quality of the photos.

The title of the session was “A Pig in a day with Hugh and Ray”. Ray being the butcher guy who made several appearences on River Cottage. It was a very well oiled double act with Ray doing the butchery of the pig and Hugh doing the cooking.

The demo-kitchen in Ballymaloe was fantastic. Huge long worktop where they did their work, with a giant angled mirror behind so you could see everything and then two monitors focussed on the worktop. Even the two boys were impressed.

The Big Mirror in Ballymaloe

I was very surprised to then see that Darina was staying for the entire day’s session. She did a huge amount - helping, querying, guiding prompting and taking notes. All male heads turned at once about half way through when Rachel appeared to have a quick word with Darina.

I was a little disappointed that they did not start with a full pig but the reasoning was that they could achieve more in the day if some of the basics were already done (head removed, brains out ect). The pig was one of Darina’s organic boyos who had been slaughtered and hung in Midleton on the Wednesday.

First off was a general discussion on the anatomy of the pig and how Ray intended cutting it up. I knew zero about where all the bits were until then (ok apart from maybe the trotters and the tail). He then started taking it apart with great skill whilst Hugh started on the Brawn. This is basically the head cut in four and boiled with a bunch of veg for a few hours. I never got to see the final result but the idea is that the meat is then stripped off the bones and a kind of rough terrine made.

Once Ray had the loins ready they were given a spicy rub and popped into the oven for our lunch. Something very smutty about that last line.

Then onto the pork liver terrine. Here the mincer was brought into action (“I’m free Mrs Sloacombe”) and a mix made of pork offcuts, liver, and spices. This was put in a terrine pot lined with bacon and then put in a bain-marie.

All the while, the two lads were extremely entertaining, informative and their enthusiasm was infectious. I took a bunch of photos at coffee break as the ones up until then had all been rubbish.

Hugh Posing for a photograph

Then they moved onto one of the main reasons I was there - sausage making! I bought a Kenwood Chef with mincer attachment and sausage making kit last year and have yet to use it. Fear mixed with total cluelessness about where I would get the sausage casings were the main reasons. A long session ensued with the discussion on the contents of the mix taking a lot of the time. This was a big interactive session with several people trying their hand at making the actual sausages. One guy even made a good stab at doing the butcher style linking of loads of them.

Ray

At that point they answered one of my questions - don’t ask your local butcher for casings as you are basically implying that you think you can do a better job of sausage making than him. Hugh highly recommended The Natural Casing Company in the UK. I emailed them today to check on postage to Ireland and mentioned the fact that I had been on a Hugh course. They replied, thanking me for explaining why they got so many calls from Ireland today! My order for Hog Casings is going in tomorrow.

As we ran towards lunch, Hugh decided to quickly cook up two things which cause many people to wince - kidneys and brains. Kidneys first - he challenged anyone in the audience who thought they did not like kidneys (and there were many) to try his devilled ones. I don’t mind kidneys at all and these ones were wonderful with a huge kick of cayenne.

He then asked if anyone wanted to try brains. My hand shot up. No way I was mising an opportunity to quote George Romero. He had boiled them earlier and now fried them. But a pigs brain is quite small (“mmm,mud”) and there was a melee with people trying to get a taste and I ended up getting none. So no prions for me then.

Pig Brains

We then broke for lunch which was superb. Starter was pea and mint soup which was the nicest I have ever eaten. Main was built around the pork loin which had the nicest crackling of all time. But with this went some of the sausages from earlier (predicted to be bland as they should really sit for a day; they were), salad and some salamis from the Gubbeen Smokehouse in Schull. I’ve had these salamis before and they are gorgeous. Fingal Ferguson, the maker, was there and Darina asked him to tell us what each type was. I was scanning the room to see which old geezer was talking - it turned out to be the guy who looked about 15 years old just ahead of me. Young whippersnapper making me feel un-accomplished!

Ray with Fingal

The crowd was interesting. The usual batch of know-it-all foodies who only asked questions so they could let us all know how much they knew. Four pig farmers. A lot of Brits (Hugh groupies?) and a bunch of pretty average nobodies like myself.

One guy had bugged me through the session - always talking, questioning, interrupting; Talked like pure D4; Haircut from Toni & Guy; name dropping Allen family members. Hated him. Of course I ended up sitting at the same table as him. He never stopped talking at lunch, and the more he talked the more I liked him. All of the “annoying” attributes were just youthful enthusiasm. Then someone at the table asked him how “Cully & Sully” was doing. I wondered how this person knew him. So I finally looked at the name-tag: “Cullen Allen, Ballymaloe House”. Ah for jaysus sake, he lives here, he is one of them. Now it all made sense. And I liked him even more.

Cully & Sully is a fabulous business idea and I think they will be very successful. If you are a pub in the Cork region and want high-quality hot food that you can serve but only have a toaster and a microwave, then give these guys a call. Their sous-vide food sounds great - I’m going to try and find their one customer in Clon soon. They hope to have some in Bandon in the near future.

I had a great chat with another guy at the table who was also there because his wife had bought it for him. But he was a really interesting character as he rears pigs the “usual” way - i.e. industrial production. He was actually a down-shifter who had left corporate life, bought a pig-farm in Tullow and was doing very well and loving his new way of life.

We both agreed that there were serious issues to address if he was to even consider looking at the “Hugh way”. His costs would go through the roof and unless he could somehow find another sales channel, he had no way of differentiating his pork/bacon from anyone else. As he said “to the average punter, a rasher is a rasher”. He quoted the Rudd’s example of someone trying to build a premium bacon business - they went bust. I mentioned that the big advantage that Hugh or Jimmy Doherty have in the UK is population density. Even if you sent up a farm shop in the countryside over there, your potential local market is far bigger than anything you would have here. Lots of food for thought.

I knew from the start of the day that I was leaving early to get down to Caroline’s wedding in Killarney but I was hoping to see either the Chorizo or the air-dryed ham preparation. I was gutted when Darina announced that the afternoon session was not starting until 2.45 which was only a few mins before I was going to leave. So I had to make my excuses and head back to Bandon.

Pig Leg before anything done to it

But that was one bloody brilliant (can’t find more expressive terms) morning. I learned tons. I wrestled with the “could I do that for a living?” question. I think I answered it - “not unless I win the lotto”. I saw bits of an animal that very few people get to or want to see. And finally, I saw that Darina Allen is a force of nature - long may she succeed.

I have a Flickr Photo Set of the day here. Quality is pretty low!

Whew, now for the wedding………

Conor O'Neill

Tech guy who likes running slowly

Bandon, Cork, Ireland http://conoroneill.com