Meeting the couple behind the deliciously flavoured pork at The Merry Pig
PUBLISHED: 12:43 08 October 2015 | UPDATED: 13:07 08 October 2015
Filling the gap: Sandra Smith meets a couple producing deliciously flavoured pork from local rare breeds at their Merry Pig farm
I’ve always assumed those who farm animals must, either naturally or through effort, develop an emotional detachment from the creatures they tend. For how else might anyone cope with the dichotomy of nurturing and slaughter?
It is surely expecting too much of human nature to foster a bond with an animal during its limited lifetime only to sever sentiments at the moment it is destined to satisfy our appetite by entering the food chain?
But I was wrong.
Upon meeting Paddy Stennings of The Merry Pig farm the realisation that having an affinity with animals runs parallel with the next stage of their usefulness quickly surfaces.
“It would be unfair of me not to take my pigs to slaughter, but to go to a supermarket and buy meat,” he explains. “That animal is no more important than mine. But I get to run my own farm and walk with my pigs every day.”
The farm is a two and a half acre plot, bordered by plum trees, near Coombe Hill in Buckinghamshire.
Being Saturday, Paddy is here with wife, Hannah, and young son, Otis, who divides his time between a small wheelbarrow and ride on tractor. Both Hannah and Paddy are civil servants. Yet, despite demanding full time careers, they have grown what was initially a hobby into a flourishing business.
Paddy recalls how their venture began: “About five years ago we sat eating dinner and wondered why we couldn’t buy local pork, not even from farm shops. So we decided to fill the gap. Initially our pigs were for our own needs, but the business soon developed.”
The first two Berkshire sows (called Trudy and No Name) were sourced from Nineveh Ridge Care Farm on the Worcestershire/Shropshire border.
“We wanted rare breeds in order to contribute to reviving traditional British breeds,” Hannah tells me.
Transporting the animals back to The Chilterns in a dog cage was the beginning of a journey of discovery. By their own admission, the couple muddled along, seeking help from other smallholders and picking up marketing tips from friends.
“We have a good product with a good story,” Paddy continues. “The Merry Pig name came to us while chatting over dinner, having had quite a few drinks. Since then we’ve built the business organically. I don’t have any sales background but I know how to talk to people and talk about our product. And a free sample goes a long way!”
With a regular presence at farmers’ markets, food festivals and the Bucks County Show, the reputation of their home grown, tasty pork quickly spread. Products are sold direct to their growing customer base as well as through Ten Mile Menu, an online supermarket based in Great Missenden which delivers rare breed and free range products from small scale suppliers.
Paddy, having long expressed an interest in curing and cooking, also creates his own charcuterie at the family’s Weston Turville home where he ensures little of the animal is wasted.
“At home we eat varied cuts including small, unknown joints. It’s nose to tail eating. I’d love to put together my own recipe book one day.”
The taste difference, I’m assured, is down to a number of factors: commercial pigs go to market far earlier than these rare breeds whose pork contains marbling – a layer of fat which promotes flavour and prevents the meat from drying out. Meat from The Merry Pigs isn’t injected with water and is traditionally processed.
“Good pork comes from pedigree pigs. My animals are slaughtered on a Monday, hung for three days, then I make sausages that weekend. Cheaper pork is available at supermarkets but it’s commercial and indoor reared. Animal welfare is key to us. We know our pigs by name, not number. We have physical contact with them on a daily basis. On a market stall I know which pig the meat is sourced from. Traceability is a big thing – it’s the same as welfare. If you don’t know an animal then their welfare suffers because you’re not putting time into them.”
As we walk around the farm, numerous Berkshire and Large Blacks of varying ages are grunting nearby in permanent discourse as they forage for fallen plums. I’m informed that breeds such as these can cope with free range conditions throughout the year. They make good mothers, are matriarchal and look after piglets in the worst of weather, including snow.
Not only do pigs come into season every three weeks, their gestation lasts for three months, three weeks and three days. The Stennings, however, limit their sows to one or two litters per year.
The whole family is so entrenched in their smallholding I’m not surprised to learn that they are here before going to work every day, returning each evening to tend their animals, regardless of the climate or season. “I work a 37 hour week,” Paddy continues. “But this is a lifestyle choice. No one is making us do this. We love it; this is our passion. What better way to bring up your children than letting them run around fields with animals?”
“Pigs are good at escaping, destroying their house and turning over the water trough,” Hannah adds with a smile. “They are complete show offs!”
Paddy and Hannah are keen to welcome visitors and share their values which form the core of free range farming.
This calm, likeable pair has gained much knowledge not only from other farmers but organisations such as the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Nevertheless, it is due to their own passion and determination that The Merry Pig is now served at local restaurants, while its reputation gains popularity in the kitchens of Buckinghamshire.
After marvelling at the excitement generated by the latest litter of piglets, I realise I now understand how the Stennings can be devoted to animals during their lifetime then feast on the succulent meat they produce. It’s a natural synergy, just like pork and apple sauce.
• Indulgent gifts and treats for men in Buckinghamshire - Men are notoriously hard to buy for, but Katy Eachus has tracked down a host of goodies and experiences for them to enjoy
• 10 of the best riverside pubs in Buckinghamshire - Many of Buckinghamshire’s best pubs sit close to rivers, lakes, streams or ponds, so Sandra Smith ‘dips a toe in the water’ with these favourites