Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Pigs and more; the story of our free range pork.

Free range pigs rooting around in the wild
Ponga is a very little known mountain range directly west of The Picos de Europa. It’s a beautiful rugged area which was declared a Natural Park a few years ago, and is home to the most important beech forest in the Iberian Peninsular. It’s probably one of the areas we most enjoy walking in and have gone there many times with guests and the family

Ponga; an amazing mixture of mountains, woodlands and traditional farming.
Many years ago I had a really lovely experience in this area when I discovered a group of ten large pigs lying in the shade of the beech trees close to a small mountain stream. They were cautious of us, but not frightened and we could see someone had been feeding them old pieces of bread. They got up, checked we had nothing for them to eat and then started rooting around in the ground and slowly trotted away. To see pigs in such a natural environment is a really lovely sight and since then we have spotted groups of pigs on various occasions in this area. I often wondered who looked after them and whose they were.

The first group of pigs we saw in Ponga 
One day back in 2004 when we first started sourcing organic produce for the hotel I found myself in a large supermarket in Oviedo looking at long rows of pork chops in polystyrene packs. There were also a few odd packs of organic pork from Soria which is about 500 kms away. This made me decide to investigate what were the minimum conditions necessary for a pig to be certified organic. Obviously organic pigs have better conditions than their poor factory farmed counterparts but I was still surprised on some of the practices permitted and I didn’t really know what was going on at this farm 500kms away. I suddenly remembered the wonderful site of the pigs roaming freely in the forests and decided I would try and find out who owned them and if he ever sold them.

Our neighbour Victor 
I spoke about these pigs to our neighbour Old man Victor, who at that time was 73 years old and had been a farmer all his life. He knew there were farmers who still let the pigs run wild and fatten up on the beach nuts and chestnuts in the Ponga Mountains. It had been quite some years since he had been in that area and decided he would like to come with me to try and find the pig’s owner. We set of early one misty morning, he threw his small cigar away before he got in my car knowing I didn’t like cigarette smoke. We drove up the Beyos gorge and after talking to 3 or 4 local farmers in the area realised there were 2 farmers who raised these free range pigs. After a few more coffees in some rather pokey local bars we discovered who was one of these pig farmers and where he lived. Amador Crespo from San Jaun de Beleño.

Beech nuts on the forest floor in Ponga
We met him at his house at lunch time, he had just come down from the high mountain pastures where he had his cows grazing, he was quite a small person and very open. He told us he had up to 30 pigs grazing in the forests from late spring to autumn. Most of them were already pre-ordered by local people, being fattened up ready for “San Martin” the sacred dates when sausages would be made. He had a few extra pigs and so I said I would be interested in 2 of them and arranged to speak with him 3 months latter in October to arrange the best time to get them.

Autumn colours of the beech trees in Ponga
October came and the pigs were ready. Amador’s son has a lorry and so transported them to the slaughter house in Mieres where we went to supervise the jointing of them. No money was paid to Amador till after we had the pigs delivered from the slaughter house to the hotel and we knew their weight. We told Amador the weight of the pigs and then paid the agreed price per kilo for the whole pig. It all worked on trust.

Cows enjoying the magical mountain pastures in Ponga
Over the years I visited Amador various times and got to know how he operated. He often talked to me about some of the farming problems; wolves being the major problem with his animals which were running free in the mountains. I learnt that if the snow line came down in the autumn the pigs would come down from the mountain forests to the town where they would run around in the streets or shelter in some of his old stone stables. When they couldn’t graze and feed in the wild (because of the snow) he would feed them on a mixture of cereals, mostly barley and maize. He didn’t use organic cereal and certainly wouldn’t be bothered with all the bureaucracy that would be necessary to certify his pork organic, but for me he worked so well with nature he certainly had my vote of confidence.

 Abandoned village in Ponga
Very sadly he died in the spring of 2008 and at first no one in his family wanted to carry on his work. It seemed like it would be the loss of another traditional hill farmer. Then his son Marcos decided to give up his factory job and return to the family home to carry on farming like his father had always done. Each year we still get a couple of pigs from Marcos and although they are not certified organic we are more than happy with the way they are produced. We consider ourselves very lucky being able to spend the time needed to discover and get to know our suppliers. This first hand knowledge about our suppliers is very importante to us. Obviously you can’t visit all the suppliers of the products you consume so that’s when we rely on other forms of guarantee or certification normally an organic certification.

Beech forest in spring
Sausage the lesson for the global trade.

Buying whole pigs direct from the farmer has made us realise other things. There was a time when the hotel first opened (17 years ago) when we always served pork tenderloins in the restaurant normally with a prune and Malaga wine sauce. However when we started buying the pigs direct from the farmer out of the 200kgs of pork meat from the 2 pigs we brought there were only 4 x 1 kg tenderloins! So what about the rest of the meat.

Our pork sausages made from the free range pork
One of the most popular dishes Joe developed was sausages based on a Danish recipe for “frikadelas” By mincing some of the poorer cuts she produces this lovely dish served with a mild mustard sauce. Cooking for a slower life also means learning how to use all the different cuts of meat of an animal, so as to reduce the global movement of specific meat cuts, from one country to another.

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Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.