So…I think winter is actually just around the corner. As in maybe snow tomorrow, maybe the next day – but definitely on it’s way. As always, we’re running around ‘getting ready’ – one would think after all these years that it wouldn’t be such a science, but our ever evolving plot of land, nothing ever stays the same. Of course some things don’t change – the rain gutters must be taken down for the winter – actually we could leave them up, but neither of us wants to be killed absolutely dead by an ice and snow filled rain gutter when it detaches itself from the brackets and hits the ground with a thud that shakes the house. So…the rain gutters get taken down every winter. The ‘yard’ gets cleaned up – not interested in running over a rake or a shovel or a large rock or chunk of lumber with the snow blower. The heated water buckets get plugged in where needed, the pens get a thorough cleaning and the garden beds get topped up with the contents of the pens so next summers garden has something decent to grow in.
This fall has been particularly hectic – we decided to do all of our own cure and smoking for the two pigs we put in our freezer. Usually, we have the slaughterhouse cure and smoke our pig to order – mostly due to lack of time and quite honestly, it’s a large project and not a commitment you can quit on half ways through. For the slaughter and butcher, we decide how much time and energy we have and go from there – we’ve cut and wrapped on the kitchen table, taken them to the slaughterhouse, or taken them to an old farmer down the road that has a good sized cooker to scald them in and scrape the hair off, not to mention a big meat saw and a grinder. This year Bruce helped the old farmer down the road and I dictated how I wanted them cut and wrapped so I could do what I wanted to with the cuts.
It’s times like these, that I wish my dad were still with us – he just knew how to do the curing and smoking, it seemed simple when watching him as a kid. I’m not sure how he figured it out, but he did – our bacons and hams were always top notch. I have actually shied away from this particular project for some years, ever since we decided (in year three I think) to tackle that very thing with a large sow we were putting in the freezer. I used the same curing product my dad did all those years ago, followed the instructions to the letter, and……disaster. For whatever reason, it had not occurred to me that the sheer size of that particular sow, dictated that we cut the hams down to a fraction of their size in order for the cure to penetrate in a timely fashion, before sour set in. It did not occur to me that I should have trimmed the bacons in a similar fashion. The end result – bacon that was so salty it was nearly inedible, hams that were on the verge of souring and literally so salty there was no saving them. I tried. I soaked them, I boiled them – in the end I shredded them and canned them up and now and again open a jar up and feed it to the barn cats.
So this year, on top of the canning and freezing and processing our chickens for the freezer, and after much discussion and no small amount of research and reading, we decided to have another go at it. Near as I can decipher, if one gets online and starts checking out methods and recipes and times and etc. etc. etc……there is literally no end to it. It’s nerve wracking. Some information I found was obviously false, or worse yet not ‘food safe’, some was so complicated it made me afraid to even try (hold smoker at temperature x for this long, bring up to temperature z for that long, open damper one quarter for abc long……). Seriously?? I wasn’t trying for cold fusion – I just wanted to cure and smoke some pork.
In the end, I stuck to the basics. So – for anybody out there that is curious or thinking about taking the big ‘make all our own food ourselves’ step…….
Keep the portions you are curing small, we cut the hams into three pieces, I trimmed the bacon (okay fine, bellies, they’re not bacon yet) so it was a uniform thickness. I wanted to cure one set of loins and cut the other set into regular chops, so I trimmed the loins of most of the fat. I talked to the butcher in town for a couple of tips, and decided on a combination cure for the hams and the loins. Now I used to work way back when, in a very busy butcher shop, run by a German fellow that really really knew his stuff – I have a good idea what to do and what not to do – and I also understand that commercially processed hams, loins and bacons are not something you can duplicate well at home without at least some investment in equipment. So again – basics. One can easily cure the bellies with a simple dry cure (I used Morton’s Smoke flavored sugar cure). They should be no more than an inch and a half thick. The hams are another story – you can (according to the book, according to any number of websites) use a dry cure on the hams – BUT – we’re talking LOTS of time. As in five to seven days per inch of thickness. Try leaving a six inch thick ham in the fridge for thirty to thirty five days and hope the cure gets to the bone before it sours – or in my case, twelve pieces of what I hoped would be ham when I was done with it. My point – after all the hard work and expense of raising the pigs, I wasn’t remotely interested in another epic failure. A combination cure uses a curing brine injected along the bones of the ham, and a dry cure rubbed into the exposed portions of the meat as well as all over the skin. The brine cure is injected at a ratio dictated by the weight of the piece of meat. I weighed the hams, twice with two different scales, and injected those hams until ALL of the brine was somewhere in that chunk of meat. Then I rubbed dry cure over the rest (again at a ratio dictated by weight). The loins, I did a ‘pickle’ cure, that is, mixed up a brine that I could submerge the loins in, but not before I again injected the brine by weight, all along the entire loin and along the bone until I was sure the cure would reach all of the meat. I also dry cured the hocks and jowls – they are my favorite for making split pea soup, and I figured they would make a small sized ‘test run’ for the smoker Bruce was busily putting together on our back patio.
Now, reasonably confident I had made every effort to make sure everything was actually going to cure, I started stressing out over how long to cure it. The bacons were easy – five days, two days for ‘equalization’ (leaving them to dry in the fridge and the cure to equalize throughout the meat). The loins I decided on four days (the butcher said at least three but then he has commercial equipment for injecting them and I was worried the cure might not make it all the way through), and three days for equalization. The hocks I cured for four days, dried for one. The hams were the big unknown. The big big unknown. I finally decided on seven days, and two days to equalize. For the life of me I could not find two pieces of information the same on how long to cure hams at home using my best effort at a combination cure. I just knew the previous method I had used did not work.
Now came the smoking part – this fell to Bruce, who has the patience to sit and mind a smoker and pay attention to the temperature and the smoke and the……you get the picture. He took an old fridge, stripped it, made racks, piped a small wood stove into the back of it, cut a vent into the top rear with a slider so he could control the amount of draft and smoke, and found a spare oven thermometer that belongs to our cookstove and donated it to the cause. We were up and running. The test run on the hocks went reasonably well, they did get a little on the hot side and he was having trouble figuring the best way to get the hickory smoke in but keep the pine smoke out. We have no hardwood growing naturally around here, so we purchased hickory chips for smoking, but we burn mostly pine. Pine smoke gives a bitter taste and blackens the meat. Still, once the hocks were done and he had a good idea how the whole system was going to behave, he made some adjustments and a few days later we did the loins. I wrapped the loins in cheesecloth, much easier to hang in the smoker. They turned out awesome – we sliced four whopping chops off and ate them for dinner – I started to relax, knowing we’d hit the mark on the loins. The bacons got smoked on a Saturday – they turned out perfect. We took a break Sunday (if you can call it that) to process half of the meat birds, then hung and smoked the shank ends of the hams. Monday, the rest of the hams went in and come dinner time they were all out and hanging to cool. Monday was also the day I popped one of the shank ends into the oven for dinner.
Now I’m not an emotional person, I’m not given to extreme highs or lows, I’m one of those people that soldiers on and on – no matter what kind of day I have I figure I’ll just get up the next day and start over and keep on keeping on. So it was a surprise to me, as I sat at the kitchen table and chewed down that first bite of ham, that I inexplicably, felt like crying. The unbelievable stress I had put myself under to get this project RIGHT, was finally off of my shoulders. The ham, was perfect. In total, we had cured and smoked a hundred and sixty pounds of pork and it had ALL turned out exactly as it should have. That definitely beats turning out a hundred and sixty pounds of cat food for the barn cats. Thankfully, I kept meticulous notes – next year should be a slam-dunk.
This brings me back to the point of my title. For the past ten years, we have straddled the farming/homesteading fence. For the past ten years, we have devoted ourselves to production, production, production – it’s hard to say no to people when they want to buy anything and everything you raise – all the while trying to stick to the minimum electricity usage, heating and cooking with wood – well, doing most everything the hard way. It’s easy to think ‘oh what the hell, what’s another few pigs, or another few chickens, or another few goats……’. The incredible amount of work involved, doubly tough when you both work regular jobs, the ridiculous investment in feed, housing, time…..work work work. This year, I set out at the beginning of the year, to convince Bruce, as well as myself – that it was time to stop. At least for now. I wanted to raise only what we would need for ourselves (and of course family, when they come calling for good farm raised food). I wanted to go into this winter with as few livestock as possible – less feeding, less watering, less shoveling out the pens. As hard as it was, we hammered out a polite way to say ‘no’ to people. I reminded Bruce that we didn’t need a ‘good excuse’ to say ‘no’, we could just say ‘no – we are not raising this or that this year’. I pointed out that at any time in the future we can ‘ramp it up’ again – this is reassuring to Bruce who almost gets an anxiety attack over the fact that he might have nothing to do. This is a bit of a tough pill to swallow for a man who gets up at four in the morning to start the chores so we can get to work on time – then generally collapses into bed at eight after doing the rounds again and getting dinner down. It’s what he does – work. He hasn’t a clue how to sit and do absolutely nothing. It’s a relief to me altogether – although I get up at five to do my part, I’ve never mastered the art of sleep – and often find myself dragging my butt through things that I used to tackle with energy. I’m looking forward to spending the winter doing – oh I don’t know – something besides farming every ever loving minute of the day when I’m not at work. Maybe read a book that isn’t a ‘how to’ book. Maybe put a few more stitches in a needlepoint I started two years ago. Maybe go for a winter ride on my horse.
Homesteading. I’m not sure of the exact definition of the word – but to me it’s a vision of how things used to be done. Doing for yourselves, making your own food, living life simply. Appreciating what you have. It would be nice to get back to enjoying the small things – in the past few years I’ve gone from grinding my own grain for bread to yanking the flour out of a bag from the store – grinding takes time – there are only so many hours in a day….. and so on.
This year was a turning point of sorts. We built our horse lean-to without a lick of help from anybody – the way we used to do things – put our heads together and just figured it out. We now know we don’t have to pay somebody to make our hams and bacons for us – just one more step on the journey to self sufficiency. We will be meeting winter with the fewest animals in years – one Jersey heifer, a hodgepodge of twenty or so mixed layers, twenty or so Sussex layers that will be in canning jars the minute they stop laying, two goats, three horses, eight geese, six ducks – might keep the ‘geep’ for company for the heifer….well then there’s the ten barn cats, two dogs, a raven (yes I’ll tell you about the raven in another blog)…… hey. Baby steps. For the first time since we backed the trailer in and unloaded Hammy – there are no pigs on the property – and yes it seems very odd. And Bruce – well I can keep him busy regardless. Believe it or not, I still don’t have running water in my kitchen – and when that heifer pops out a calf, and Bruce wants butter and cheese…….I have pointed out that there is no dealing with that volume of milk unless I have running water in the kitchen. Fingers crossed. Aside from that, if he starts getting twitchy to be outside, he can always harness up the drafts and start hauling dead-falls out of the bush and start making some trails.
I think we’ll stick with this ‘homesteading’ version of things for awhile – I’m finding myself quite looking forward to it. Maybe we’ll find time next year to build the clay oven we’ve always wanted so I can bake bread outside in the summer, there’s a gazebo we want to build out by the goose pond – suddenly the possibilities seem endless – and the goals attainable.
So, on that note – it’s late, it’s raining cats and dogs outside – and supposed to drop below zero overnight, so maybe snow – maybe skating rink. Won’t matter, I’ll be inside baking bread, making wraps, and roasting one of those big meat birds for dinner. 🙂