I have now lived in the south west of France for nigh on fourteen years, and have made many French friends here in Albi. Most of the good times I have shared with them revolve around food or drink – an invitation to ‘boire un apéro’, ‘faire un barbecue’, or simply ‘boire le café.
But one invitation that made me feel I had really become ‘une Albigeoise’ was an invitation to the annual family pig kill – “le Tuaille de Cochon”.
Each year, my very good friends, Nathalie and Philippe, order a pig from their friends, Jean-Claude and his wife, Laurence, who have a small farm in the south of the Tarn. The pig killing usually takes place in the February/March period, when the pigs are fully grown, and involves a team of at least four to six family and friends.
When I first met Nathalie and Philippe, they discovered that I’m a great fan of just about everything that comes from a pig – including pigs trotters. As a result, they invited me to supper to experience Philippe’s legendary cassoulet, in which every bit of pork in it in whatever form – sausages, rind, ribs and all – had come from their pig. It tasted fabulous, and when he told me about their annual family ritual, I begged for an invite.
For years, I have tried to buy meat from butchers supplied by local farms, and organic if possible. In Wales, I would drive a round journey of 35 miles to independent butcher, Neil James in Raglan, to buy Gloucester Old Spot pork joints for Sunday roasts, excellent bacon, and the best-ever Faggots ( a favourite of Tom’s). When friends gave me pheasants, pigeons, or rabbits, I plucked, skinned and gutted. I felt that if I couldn’t face up to the blood, muscle and bone, the removing of intestines, the slicing and cutting, then I had no right to eat it.
These days, I would rather eat less meat. I can easily go two weeks before I feel the urge, and as for beef, everything I have read about the environmental impact of putting beef on our plates has made me draw a line – I try to avoid it. But chicken, ducks, and geese from local farmers (bought at the market here in Albi), along with local pork and pork products, pass my threshold – namely, healthy animals reared in humane conditions, killed and butchered locally. So when it comes to a pig being killed close to where it’s been reared, and where every product from it is made by the family, it feels to me like a much more ancient and balanced method of adding meat to the human diet.
Jean-Claude and Laurence have known Philippe for years. Their farm is in a small hamlet down on the Lauragais Plains, with the blue shadowy outline of Les Montagnes Noires defining the horizon to the south. The farmhouse is built of a mixture of stone and bricks, covered in lime crepi, and roofed in the red terracotta tiles of the Mediterranean. It’s a house where everything has a function and nothing goes to waste – down to the last bit of left-over string.
Like many farms in the region, the layout is entirely practical. The kitchen leads directly to the scullery, piled high with preserves, tins of confit de canard, and trays of eggs, which in turn is next to the butchery with it’s tools, knives, sink, and huge tables – and from the butchery, you get to the barn, where the goats live during the winter months.
Butchering the pig
The actual process of butchering the pig takes place over two days. Day One is taken up with cleaning the carcase, draining the blood, and making the boudin and melsat sausages. Day Two involves cutting all the various joints that are sealed for freezing, making the mince for the sausages, salami and patés, and preparing the hams for salting and curing, but I’ll cover Day Two in my next post.
The initial preparation of the pig carcase was done outside in the yard. Seeing the carcase is a humbling experience, a reminder that the eating of meat involves the death of an animal. Once killed, the pig was hung to drain off the blood used to make the boudin sausages.
Jean-Claude cut the carotid artery from which the blood flowed and was collected in a bucket. Philippe and Nathalie took turns in stirring the blood to stop it from coagulating. The pig generated between three to four litres of blood, but Philippe explained they don’t use the last blood (about one litre).
Once it was collected, the carcass was then immersed in a bath of boiling water with ropes around it to help turn the body. Using sharp spatulas, Philippe and Laurence removed the first layer of skin which has the fine pig hair. Afterwards the carcase was again hung and Jean-Claude burned any remaining bristles with a gas torch.
Then the serious business began. The pig’s head was removed and Philippe had the task of cutting it into pieces ready to put into a casserole with stock for the melsat; Jean-Claude tackled the task of cutting the carcase in two; and Laurence and Nathalie got the job of washing the intestines used for the casing of the boudin and melsat sausages.
Melsat (which is also called ‘boudin blanc’) is a speciality of the Tarn and Aveyron departments. To make the melsat, the white cooked meat from the head and offal from the throat and rind are chopped finely and then mixed with breadcrumbs, eggs, herbs, and seasoning. The mix is left to swell up before being pushed through a funnel into the intestines and sealed at both ends. Depending on the intestine, they take the shape of either round pudding-shaped balls or long thick sausages.
By contrast, the boudin is made with the chopped dark meat from the head, lard (made from the fat taken from the ribs), the blood, and finely chopped onions, parsley, chives, and seasoning. Again, the mix is pushed through a funnel into the intestines and sealed at both ends and can also end up as either long sausages or round pudding-balls.
Once sealed and tied, the boudin and melsat sausages and puddings are cooked in water. For this, Jean-Claude used an ancient metal copper placed upon bricks with a fire beneath. As they simmer, they often float back up to the surface so Philippe had the task of piercing the skins to make them sink back down to ensure they were properly cooked.
By the end of Day One, there was a full tray of boudin and melsat sausages and puddings ready for drying. To do this, they are hung in the loft for a week, at which point they’re ready to eat. But clearly with that amount, most of them are sealed ‘sous vide’ and frozen for use over the rest of the year.
I’m a great fan of Boudin Noir, and I often use it to make a quick lunch of Salade aux Boudin. Sliced and fried, I add it to a salad of lettuce, dressed with walnut oil and balsamic vinegar, with the addition of chunks of apple, fried and slightly caramelised, along with a good handful of walnuts, and salt and pepper to taste.
But with son Harry over here for the weekend, I decided to experiment. I found a new recipe for boudin, but as usual, I ended up adapting the recipe, so this is my variation on a recipe by Stephane Reynaud from his book, “Cochon et Fils”.
Boudin aux Noix, Chataignes, et Pommes : Serves 4. Preparation time – 30 mins. Cooking time 10-15 mins.
500 grams Boudin Noir
200 grams whole chestnuts (tinned or ‘sous vide’ are fine) but halve them before using.
100 grams whole walnuts
1 large apple, a sharp firm variety
10 ml spoon of powdered stock (chicken or veal)
125 ml dry white wine
100 ml pouring cream
Freshly ground pepper
Peel and core the apple and cut into small cubes. In a small pan, melt some butter and sauté the apple cubes until they begin to colour and caramelise, then set aside.
Peel the shallots but leave them whole, separating them into their ‘cloves’. Sauté the shallots in a frying pan with some olive oil. Meanwhile, heat the wine in a small pan and whisk in the powdered stock. Add the stock to the shallots and let it reduce slightly.
Then add the halved chestnuts and the walnuts to the stock and continue to simmer gently. Finally, add the apple cubes and the cream and stir. The sauce should end up with a syrupy consistency. Set it aside so the sauce doesn’t continue cooking while you fry the boudin.
Depending on the size/form of your boudin, divide into four equal portions (I had a long continuous sausage form which I cut in two for Harry and I). Then slice the boudin lengthways to create two halves for each person. In a large frying pan, with a little olive oil, fry the boudins skin side down to begin with, then cut side down.
Place two halves of boudin on each plate, the cut side down and gently peel off the thick skin. Cover with the sauce and serve with vegetables. I served it with shredded cabbage which I blanched then fried in butter and napped with a velours de Balsamique just before serving, along with mash potato, which Harry made. We both agreed later that perhaps some small crispy roast potatoes would have been a better combination, but that’s for you to decide.