“You can’t make everything,” Arūnas tells me when I call him in tears, upset that I’ve damaged the surface of one of my non-stick pans trying to make soap. “But I WANT to!” I cry. “I want real soap and it’s too expensive to buy. Why is it so hard to make?”
I know that I will never be able to make everything we use, nor do I really want to. It’s nice to knit a hat and gloves and I like being able to mend a hem or zip, but I don’t really have any desire to make our own clothes. And I certainly won’t be spinning wool or weaving linen. But there are some things I really want to make myself, most of them food-related.
Last year I successfully grew most of the vegetables we would need for winter. We are still eating them every day. We are still drinking the apple juice and wine I made. But we are still buying most of our meat, some from a local butcher (who buys pigs from local farms) and some from the supermarket. I really, really want to move away from buying supermarket meat.
For several months we have wanted to buy half a pig and a dozen or so free-range chickens directly from a farmer for the freezer. Unfortunately the freezer was full with vegetables and with the two deer we got from a hunter friend. We simply had no space. But now that we’re getting through the vegetables and venison we have freed up some space. So when one of the neighbours said they were slaughtering a pig and offered to sell us half we jumped at the chance.
It’s been three years since I processed my first pig. That was my first big animal to process by myself and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I had done a “pig in a day” course, but nothing really prepares you for doing it yourself. I was quite happy with the results but sorry I didn’t get to make sausages and smoke some of the meat.
As it happens, another neighbour recently built a cold-smoker in their back garden. Arūnas called and got permission to use it for a few days. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I’d never done it before, nor had I seen anyone do it, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew I needed to dry cure the meat first (which essentially involves rubbing a salt and spice mix into the meat and letting the salt draw moisture out of the meat while infusing the meat with flavour), but I didn’t know what to put in my cure, how much to use and how long to leave it. I referred to several books but none gave me a definitive answer – you needed to rub in a small amount of cure and then test daily to see if it needed more. More what, I thought? More salt? More time? Sheesh.
Time was ticking and my meat needed to be cured or frozen, so I threw together a cure with some of my favourite spices, settled on using 30 g of cure per kilo of meat (3%) and set to work. I rubbed my cure into each piece and stacked them on a rack in a bucket in the fridge for three days. The rack keeps the meat out of the juices that are drawn from the meat during the curing process. After the three days I transferred the meat to the smoker for a further two days. Using the smoker is full-on. The fire needs to be checked at least once an hour to ensure it is smoking but not burning too strongly. There needs to be continuous gentle smoke. Not easy when there’s a storm blowing!
Anyway, I did it. I cured and smoked my own meat. And I have to tell you, it is UTTERLY delicious. Some of the smaller pieces are a tad salty at the edges, but I can live with that. The flavour from both the cure and the smoke is phenomenal. There’s a lot of it, so I have hung it up to dry and mature. I will leave it uncovered for a day or two, then I will cover each piece with muslin to protect it from dust and bugs. We buy a piece of smoked meat like this about once a week, so I know we’ll get through it in time. I am very, very happy to finally be eating my own home-smoked meat.
I’m still working on the soap.