The bacon Garth cured is done now. The smokiness of the bacon is a little more "grill" than is ideal, but the meaty flavors are top-notch. We just had a friend stop by for two days and he used three superlatives to describe how good he considered it. Perhaps not a completely unbiased perspective since he's a friend, but it's nice to have some "outside" confirmation that the tastes are as good as we think they are. I trust the pigs we send through slaughterhouse to subsequently sell will have their bacon dialed-in a bit more precisely than we managed on the homestead grill here. I've been really loving slices of warm bacon on slabs of cold squash for breakfast.
We also ate some home-cured ham.
I am thrilled with the quality of the eating experience. And the pork I'm eating has room for improvement. The gilt it came from was not actually quite big enough to be fully "finished" and therefore not at its peak when I slaughtered it, while the pigs that go to slaughter next week look mighty good to my eye.
From reading and direct observation I think there are a bunch of factors that influence flavor -
1. Feed the animal is on for weeks leading up to slaughter. I'm not sure how many weeks, but it must be at least a few. I suspect that the time frame is actually on the order of months, but I don't have any empirical evidence to base this belief upon.
2. Age of the animal. Older animals have more intense flavors. For this reason I'm willing to accept a slower growing pig than many other producers aim for. So long as my total costs are low enough, I can handle a longer grow-out. Pigs with a lot of fiber in the their diets gain more slowly.
3. Whether the animal is actively gaining weight, stable, or losing weight at slaughter time. The best is gaining.
4. Exercise. Standing around makes for blander meat.
5. Stress, or lack thereof, in the hours before slaughter.
6. Genes. Self-explanatory? Every individual is different.
7. Post slaughter handling. Contamination in the slaughterhouse can ruin meat. Proper aging can enhance it.
Some of the world's most famous hams come from Iberico, Spain. The hogs that make the highest grade hams get turned out into oak savannas where they gobble acorns by the bushel and graze. The acorns get all the credit for the incredible quality of the aged hams. Any oenophile can extoll the flavor virtues of tannins from oak... but forages are loaded with aromatic compounds too. I wonder what role grazing plays in development of the meat quality. There is a second class of hams from the same region that are less expensive than the acorn fattened variety. The pigs they come from are of the same breed and finish on oak savannas, but they're supplemented with barley. The barley supplement means they hit market weight younger. In addition to the younger age though, I have the idea that perhaps the barley "dilutes" the other things the pig would eat given a big enough range and no easy meal. Most grains have little in the way of complex flavor, at least compared with the punch that growing greens pack. And there is a third class of hams, even less expensive, that are cut from the same breed of pig, but they live only on dirt lots and farmyards and never have access to oak groves. This illustrates to me that genes play a role, but feed is really critical.
I have direct and immediate appreciation of this point because of my self-imposed diet for this year. One of the things I appreciate about the oats I bartered for last month is their relative blandness. Squash and roots taste good most of the time, but it is more difficult to amend the flavor of a pumpkin powder than oat flour. Using oat flour to thicken a beef stock into gravy of sorts tastes really good. I don't dare try it with pumpkin powder.
If my idea about grain dilution is true, it could explain why the whey/hay fed pork is so flavorful. Both the hay and the whey are "aromatic" to say the least. I've tasted the whey a few times, and it is almost spicy it's so fermented, especially after sitting for a few days. It tastes like the most powerful yogurt imaginable. The hay varies from bale to bale in the way it smells, but it always smells.
Despite the content of my recent posts , I don't really have, 'a thing,' about feeding grain to pigs. I would not make grain-fed pork a centerpiece of my diet, but that doesn't make all feeding of grain to swine verboten in my book. Pigs and poultry provide an incentive for farmers to produce grains above and beyond what humans can consume each year. Some people make a stink about the so-called 'inefficiency' of feeding foods suitable for humans to livestock and then eating the resulting animals. I see it differently. Without the extra demand those animals provide the world grain supply would much more closely approximate the needs of direct human consumption. Any shortfall from drought or pest could then easily cause outright food shortages. With a livestock buffer, a bad harvest in a Iowa drives up the price of meat as herds are culled, but it does not cause human hunger.
The take home message here is not that grain is evil and horrible to feed to pigs. Rather, for those in pursuit of quality and higher end markets it is advisable to get as much forage/variety/pleasant aroma into the finishing ration as possible. If this means reducing the amount of grain in the mix, so be it. In my case, at least for 2015, I'm going to have zero grain in the finishing ration, but I am not claiming everyone else who raises pigs should attempt to do the same.
This is my last post on pigs/pork... for now...