A pig breed that once traded alongside gold on the Hungarian stock exchange is now gracing the northern Pennines in Cumbria.
To the untrained eye they could easily be mistaken for sheep, for these woolly creatures, known as Mangalitsa pigs, are covered in a thick, course coat making them well equipped to deal with extreme weather.
These pigs, once known as the Curly Coated Lincoln, were traditionally lard producers, but they also produce highly marbled meat. They were common in the British countryside more than 200 years ago but are rarely seen on these shores today.
It is because of the Mangalitsa’s ability to withstand extreme weather and the sweet and tender meat they produce that farmer Jan Balfe, who farms in partnership with Carolyn Nelson, decided to introduce them on their 10ha smallholding on Alston Moor.
Jan’s aim is to try and raise awareness of the breed and get other farmers to consider breeding and finishing them in order to get the unique-tasting meat on to British menus.
“I want to be able to get Mangalitsa pigs back on the tables of Britain, like they would have been 200 years ago,” says Jan of The Old Battery House, Alston.
The pigs are slow growing, which gives the meat its unique ruby red colour and sweet taste.
“The meat looks just like beef and is even treated in the same way as beef at the abattoir, with the skin ripped off.
“It is sweet and tastes in-between pork and beef,” she adds.
Farm Facts: The Old Battery House
- 10ha farm on Alston Moor
- 1,500ft above sea level
- 18 sows and six boars
- Two litters a sow a year
- Finishing about 90 pigs a year
- Pigs housed in a straw barn over winter
- Farming in a sustainable and organic way
- Aims to increase awareness and number of Mangalitsa breeders and finishers
Jan runs a herd of 18 sows and six boars, finishing about 90 pigs a year.
She has gradually built up the herd from one boar and two sows after purchasing them from a breeder in Wales five years ago.
However, because the pigs are slower growing and due to the lack of breeders within the UK, Jan is unable to supply enough meat to fulfil any major contracts, despite supermarkets being interested.
“We approached Booth’s and explained what we were doing and we went straight to meet the buyer.
“When we took samples they thought it was beef as it looks like beef and is marbled in the same way.
“They really liked the taste of it and are interested in stocking the meat, however, we will struggle to fulfil supermarket contracts as we don’t produce enough.”
That’s why Jan wishes to set-up a co-operative so she can get lots of other smallholders together to produce and rear Mangalitsa pigs.
She says: “My aim is to try and sell piglets as breeding pairs to farmers that are interested in growing the herd size and producing meat.
“There is the potential to sell the meat at £10-£12/kg compared with the £1.25p/kg we were getting for the Middle Whites, which we had before the Mangalitsa,” she adds.
Jan has even invested in a dedicated catering unit on the farm where she can produce value-added products, such as chorizo sausages.
However, she has “hit a brick wall” as she is unable to sell any of the sausages because she cannot get a sell-by date for them from the Food Standards Agency.
“We are using a very old traditional recipe for the sausages that includes spices, red wine and Celtic salt.
“However, the FSA tried to grow bacteria on the sausages to get an accurate sell-by date, but couldn’t. That means we are unable to sell any at the moment.”
Rearing the pigs
The secret to producing the rich, red meat lies in the rearing process, says Jan who farms the land on Alston Moor as it would have been two centuries ago.
She doesn’t inoculate the pigs or use fertiliser. She also uses homeopathic medicines for the prevention and treatment of certain illnesses.
During the summer months the animals graze the land and are fed potatoes and vegetables, and during the winter diets are supplemented with barley, nuts, carrots and apples, sourced from local organic farmer Neil Hodgson, Carleton Farm, Penrith.
Jan admits the pigs are not the fastest growing creatures and do require more feed than a commercial pig to get them to a decent finish weight.
She says: “You can finish at about eight months at 70kg liveweight, but you would have to seriously put the feed in. I prefer to take them to 120kg, which I achieve by about 18-24 months and that’s when you get the red, beefy tasting meat.”
Jan also claims boar meat is tastier than sows, with no boar taint, which is common in older, commercial boars, which haven’t been castrated. As a result, she keeps most of the females for replacements and the boars go for meat and are slaughtered at Simpsons Abattoir in Bishop Auckland.
Although the meat is not sold through a retail outlet Jan has customers who buy a full pig.
“My customers then have the pig butchered to their own needs – mostly into joints and pork steaks, which look just like sirloin steaks,” she says.
During the winter, the pigs are housed in a timber-frame barn with straw walls, which cost £25,000 to install.
“We decided to invest in a straw barn as the weather can be so bad with wind speeds of 120mph.
Sometimes I even have to tie a rope around my waist as ‘the beast from the east’ would just blow me away,” she says.
Since housing the pigs, growth rates have improved and feed bills have gone down.
“The barn maintains an ambient temperature of 5C in the winter and about 14C in the spring. The feed bill has gone down by 30% at least as pigs are not wasting their energy on staying warm,” she says.