October 31, 2011

A Good Death

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Humane animal husbandry makes meat tastes better . . . .

Farm animals end up at the abattoir. That’s a fact most modern carnivores don’t like to think about. Here’s another fact: Meat tastes better when an animal has a good death.

This is not new age blather. Scientists from agencies as diverse as the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and Purdue University Animal Sciences have issued papers on the subject.

But I first heard it from hog farmer Fred de Martines. He says stress hormones turn pork pale and oozy. “It’s got a sloppy consistency. It really ruins your primal cuts.”

De Martines runs a heritage pig and wild boar farm in Perth County with wife Ingrid and family.

He says his animals are taken to the slaughterhouse on Saturday, then sit over the weekend. “They are allowed to calm down instead of being stressed,” de Martines says. On Monday, they walk – without being goaded – along an enclosed wooden ramp into a small pen. Then they are electrocuted, rendered “instantly unconscious.”

       Tamworth pig, a heritage breed. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson

Arguing for ethical, humane husbandry also turns out to be a pragmatic argument for improving the taste of meat. Farm animals are food sources, not pets. But too many are living and dying in misery with the rise of vast farms that operate like agro-corporations.

Shock, anxiety, fatigue, overcrowding, hunger and thirst, overheating, cold, pain, sudden changes and strange environments cause the release of stress hormones such as adrenalin compounds and cortisol. This can happen in the slaughterhouse, where a pig becomes pork. This can also happen in the barn or in transit. The bottom line: The meat either turns pale and exudes moisture, or ends up dark, tough and dry. Injuries from ill treatment, such as bruises, wounds or broken bones, also mar the meat.

“We raise them here in a humane way,” de Martines tells visitors. “We want to keep them at ease.”

“Here” is the de Martines hog farm in tiny Sebringville, Ont., just outside of Stratford. I visited on a tour led by the Ontario Farm Animal Council and AGCare, two groups that represent local farmers.

The farm is home to some conventional pigs, but best known for heritage Tamworth and Berkshire breeds, wild boars, and de Martines’ pet project, cross-breeds.

       Stone Age piglet, a Berkshire/wild boar cross-breed.

In England, Tamworth/wild boar cross-breeds were dubbed Iron Age. De Martines has also crossed his boars with Berkshires and called the breed Stone Age.

The Stone Age piglets trot up amiably to the fence. But it’s impossible to focus on anything else when their sire, Prince the pig, lumbers up to check out the visitors. The group is stunned speechless by the vision of his testicular overendowment.

De Martines guesstimates that Prince weighs 600 to 700 pounds. The wild boars are much smaller – and friskier. They actually gallop around, and are nimble enough to jump the fence.

“They wouldn’t stay here if they weren’t happy,” de Martines says. “We try to keep them in the field and forest conditions they are used to. We don’t do anything to them.”

       Prince, the wildly overendowed boar with room to roam.

The wild boars are, well, as wild as they can be on a farm. They are not detusked. Nor are they housed in stalls in a barn. They live outdoors year-round. Bales of straw are used as birthing areas. They forage, and in the winter, are fed mainly barley and a bit of corn. At one wild boar pen, de Martines stops to toss black walnuts to his charges. The pen resounds with cracking, chomping and snuffling. The boars’ jaws are strong enough to crack the tough shells, and the walnuts make the pork taste good.

The pigs can’t do that. The gargantuan red-brown Tamworths look placid enough in a pasture complete with mudhole. Only three flimsy wires separate them from doing a walkabout. They get very close, but know not to touch the wires. The top wire is electrified and will “put your lights out,” de Martines warns the group. He recalls accidentally touching it, collapsing and coming to halfway down to the ground.

The de Martines started out as conventional hog farmers after immigrating from Holland in 1979. Their standard pink pigs are in the barn, in stalls. Out in the field, pigs don’t grow as fast. A farmer’s gotta make a living, and keeping his eye on price per pound is essential.

The Tamworths take 50 per cent longer than commercial pigs to grow to market weight. A British grazing forest pig, the Tamworth is historically prized as a “bacon pig.”

The meat of the Berkshires is rich, dark and marbled. Some describe it as a “full flavour.” I call it porkier. A favourite of the British royal family, Berkshire tastes like pork from the olden days.

Boar meat is fine-grained, lean and wild-tasting.

In Toronto, you can buy Perth Pork Products at specialty shops such as Cumbrae’s, The Friendly Butcher, The Healthy Butcher and White House Meats.

Or visit the farm yourself and buy on site. Go to perthporkproducts.com for tour information.

We ended our visit ransacking the freezers and fridges at the tiny farm shop. Earlier in the day, I had swooned over the farm’s pork cheeks at Bijou Restaurant in nearby Stratford. Braised goulash-style, and accompanied by celery root, fiddleheads and wild leek salsa, they were so tender, I didn’t need a knife. So I was hoping to snag a package of pork cheeks.

Me and everyone else! Pigs have only so many cheeks. De Martines says they are snatched up by chefs, in Stratford and from Toronto locavore and meat-centric eateries such as The Black Hoof.

So I settle for four juicy, all natural, wild boar sausages finished with maple and garlic ($9.50), and meaty Berkshire bacon ($6.50 per pound).

Humanely raised, humanely slaughtered, and delicious.