At the start of last year I decided I wanted a really big food challenge. Like bigger than anything else I’d done. I think Thanksgiving for 19 people may have been where I’d previously topped out in terms of volume and logistics, but I also wanted something technically challenging in terms of the actual food.
I’ve never had any desire to go to culinary school or do any extended professional training in the kitchen. I don’t want cooking to become A Job of any kind. But I still want to push myself and learn as much as I can, so I’m always looking for crazy new things to try just to see if I can do them.
I’d recently watched Michael Pollan’s Cooked on Netflix, and the episode where he does a whole pig under a foil tent in his back garden got me thinking that cooking a whole animal was absolutely doable if I had the right people.
I do a lot of putzing about in my little kitchen experimenting, but part of the point of wanting a big challenge was to do it as a team. Five of us ended up working on this together – Holly, Chris, Migle, George, and me. We are all a bit food obsessive, and between us, we have enough experience with building things, growing things, cooking things, fire, logistics, organisation, and general bonkers creative ideas to make this sort of project work. When I brought up the possibility of cooking a whole animal, the answer from everyone was an unreserved, enthusiastic ‘yes’.
Absolutely the right people.
Shortly after we decided we were all in, I read Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter. In the first chapter she recalls these yearly parties her parents would have when she was a kid where they’d spit roast a few lambs. They’d build the fire the night before, sleep outside tending it overnight while it died down to coals, and cook the animals all day until people showed up with beer and sat around eating and drinking into the night. This was precisely the sort of thing I was aiming for, and it kind of became my personal gold-standard model whenever I was trying to work out what we needed to figure out next.
Once we settled on a weekend – the last of the summer, and a great time to get the hell out of the city at the height of Festival madness – our original plan of roasting a sheep somehow morphed into roasting half a pig. (We’re thinking about trying a sheep this year.)
We would be doing all this at Gorton House and Cottages, which is where George grew up and where his family lives and runs the business. There’s a lot of space, and it’s just far enough outside the city to feel like a real escape. We were also able to sleep there for the weekend, which was immensely helpful. We’d be having the main bit of the party in the garden, where G’s cousin Will also set up a marquee in case it rained. The fire pit was just on the other side of the tree line in a field where we’ve had a lot of bonfires.
We ordered the pig about two weeks ahead from Peelham Farm, which is just over an hour outside of Edinburgh. They’re at the farmers markets every week, so we were already familiar with them and Chris had spoken with them about ordering an animal earlier in the year. I don’t know where people are getting the pigs they talk about online when blogging about pig roasts, but our half a pig was bigger than most full pigs I was reading about. It came in around 25kg. Chris went to pick it up from the farm early Friday morning, and I met him and George out at Gorton where I proceeded to take over the kitchen and bathroom on behalf of our pig.
On the list of things I never thought I’d be doing is ‘carrying half a plastic sheet-wrapped pig carcass up the stairs of my friend’s family home’. But I wanted to brine this beast, and the only food safe place we had to do it without spending a ton of extra money was in the bathtub. Luckily, George’s family didn’t seem too fussed about half an animal having a salty 24-hour spa day in their bathroom.
We spent a fair amount of time marvelling at the pig before I got to work. It’s quite humbling to handle something that big that was alive only a short time ago. The flat plane of the cross-section of a sawn-in-half animal almost looks like a scientific illustration. Then you look at the other side and it’s as though it could just be a whole, sleeping (albeit very chilled) pig.
During the weekend, more than one person commented that the sight of an entire animal sawed down the centre was enough to make you want to go vegan. But I didn’t find it gross being up close to the inner anatomy of an animal – I found it kind of fascinating. I handled that pig cold, dead and bloody in the tub right up to hot, cooked and sprawled on a plastic and paper covered table in the quickly fading daylight. We tried to treat it as well as we could the whole way through and waste as little as possible. (For Burns night at the end of January, Migle made ramen, and used the last of the pile of meaty pig bones from the back of the freezer at Gorton to make the stock. The pig that keeps on giving!)
I also know because of where we got it from that it did not suffer. And people against farming may argue that a farmed life is not the right life for a pig. But for an animal that was raised specifically for us to eat, it had a great life on a good, small farm. It wasn’t shoved in a box in the dark. It wasn’t dirty and stressed. And you can absolutely tell the difference when you eat animals that are given a good life versus animals that are merely produced as though they were parts of a machine.
We pulled this whole thing off without any specific instructions. There was a lot of googling, although most of the info I found online was from the US, so different measurements, different ready-made cooking methods (I now know a lot about a thing called a Caja China), different sizes of pig. Offline, I consulted The River Cottage Meat Book (a very useful thing to have if you’re a carnivore) and Larousse Gastronomique. Both were helpful, but we still needed to do a bit of innovating.
The brine involved a lot of math and estimating the size of a bathtub I’d never actually seen in person. The most useful thing I found at the time was this post on brining a whole pig, which helped me decide on the right ratios of salt and sugar. But none of the weights or volumes matched what I had in front of me. (I have since found this salt brine calculator, which I wish I had found earlier. Clearly my Google-Fu has improved greatly in the past 6 months.)
I amalgamated some bits and pieces from a few other recipes I found and came up with my own formula. Here’s roughly what I used:
- 20 parts liquid to 1 part salt – I believe I used about 3 kilos of salt in the end, estimating I’d have 60 litres of liquid. This was mostly water and ice, plus 4 litres of cider.
- 1 kilo brown sugar
- 8 oranges cut in half
- 4 bulbs worth of garlic cloves peeled (I spent a lot of time the night before peeling garlic, and despite being in an airtight container in my fridge, my entire flat smelled of garlic for days. I didn’t mind, but, fair warning.)
- ¼ c peppercorns
- About 2 fist-sized pieces of cut up ginger
- 15 bay leaves
- A bunch of thyme from the garden
I made the brine as two batches of concentrate in two massive pots (salt in one, sugar in the other), cooled it down with ice and cold water in smaller batches, and carried it up the stairs to pour over the ice and the pig in the tub. Then we topped up the water directly from the tap.
Our half pig hung out in the bath for 24 hours while we went about the rest of our Fridays, ate a bunch of oven pizza, constructed the grill, made a plan, slept not nearly long enough, ate some bagels, and built the fire.
Our cooking method was also cobbled together from a lot of different ideas we’d seen (not least this very impressive roasting of a whole cow on Vice). To continue our attempts to keep the cost down, we tried to use as much readily available material as possible while remaining food safe. Luckily, we had a garage full of stuff to rummage through at Gorton for various random supplies. After some sketches and chats and research on the cost of supplies we had no choice but to buy, we settled on something we could flip, raise, and lower over the fire.
We bought two grids of carbon steel rebar, about 2.5 by 1.5 meters, which we cleaned and pressure washed the rust off of. These were to be attached to two old pipes (former clothesline poles) that we covered in multiple layers of heavy duty foil. We used jubilee clips to attach everything, which were galvanised and therefore not food safe, but the pipes and the clips stayed far away from the pig, which was sandwiched in between the rebar.
The fire pit was around the same dimensions as our homemade grill, with fire bricks lining the bottom to retain heat. There was an old fence post at each corner. On the short ends of the pit, we put long screws into the posts at about 6 levels so we could move some old curtain rods up and down. The ends of the pipes that held the grill together sat on these curtain rods. This meant we could raise and lower the grill, and flip it over relatively easily. (It was huge and probably weighed around 40kg with the pig strapped in, so definitely a 2-person job.) It was a pretty impressive construction we built almost completely in the dark under some floodlights and head torches with a sledgehammer, a fencepost driver, a spirit level, a drill, and three pairs of hands.
In the morning, we lined a table with some plastic and greaseproof paper and brought the pig down to prep. While the boys built the fire, Holly and Migle were doing a final prep and clean of the grill (pressure washing! so satisfying) and I dried the brine off the pig and scored the skin with a Stanley knife. It then took all of us to strap it into the grill and move it out to the fire pit.
It took a while for us to work out how low to set the grill at the start. We didn’t want it to cook too fast, but we didn’t want to let it spoil either. (It was actually a warm day for once.) We brought the skin side a bit closer to the fire at first since there was plenty of (delicious) fat to protect the meat, but we kept the cut side a bit further up and basted it just before each time we put it over the fire with olive oil that had a bunch of garlic, herbs, salt, pepper, and a bit of orange juice sitting in it. Migle made an incredible basting brush of herbs from the garden that we used for this. We flipped it over about every hour, and a bit more frequently at the end. Holly had to go on another supply run because we grossly underestimated how much charcoal we would need. So. Much. (Expensive.) Charcoal. (And also: lunch.)
The pig had about 10 hours on the fire total. For the last half hour we used some wood chips (which I think we soaked in ginger wine because it was the only extra booze we could find that no one was attached to) to do a bit of smoking before we pulled the thing off. It would have been better to cook it even longer because the bigger bits weren’t as fall-apart-y as I’d have liked, but we were running out of fuel (again) and light. Fuel turns out to be more expensive than pig, it’s hard to feed a crowd in the dark, and we were all getting quite hungry.
My meat thermometer told me we were in the safe zone, so the pig came off the fire and out of its grill cage at around 8pm. We left it on the table under foil for half an hour to rest before I started pulling off the skin (which got further crisped up in the oven) and started ripping at the meat.
Pro tip here: I didn’t want to spend over £20 on heatproof barbecue gloves that didn’t even have good reviews, so we got some heavy duty kitchen gloves from tesco and I wore my wool glove liners underneath them for insulation. It worked perfectly. It also meant we had another pair of hands for this job, because the gloves came in a two pack. This part is actually a massive job, so extra hands were needed, especially in the fading light. Also, if you do this, definitely wear an apron. Or clothes you don’t care at all about. You probably shouldn’t care too much about your shoes either. Between the brine and the fire and the fat, it gets gloriously messy.
We served the pig straight from the table we picked it apart on. There were probably about 30 people in the end, but we could have easily fed 50 with the amount of meat we had. I took about two kilos of meat and one of bones home for my freezer, and the others took as much for themselves. I’d say it took around 2-3 hours to strip all the meat off and break down the bones into saveable portions. I did take a short break to sit and eat, but I also steadily snacked on delicious, delicious meat as I pulled it apart. This was perhaps the best perk of the job because I got to try little bits of every part of the pig and see how different they tasted.
This whole endeavour cost us a lot of money. The pig was £144 (I believe £6/kilo), but the stuff we needed to prepare and cook the pig was more than the same again at around £170. I was kind of amazed that the supplies we needed added up to more than the pig itself, and that was without buying everything we needed new.
For me, the experience far outweighed the cost, and I had been prepared to spend a lot so I wasn’t too fussed about the expense. We got very lucky with the weather and probably had the nicest weekend of the summer. It could have easily been miserable and rainy, and much more difficult as a result. But sometimes the universe delivers.
In addition to being tasty and rewarding and a really nice way to bring people together, doing this sort of thing is also mentally and physically challenging, and just overall exhausting. I don’t think any of us got much sleep that weekend. We got up early on Friday to pick up the pig and prep it, on Saturday to get it on the fire, and again on Sunday to get on with the epic cleanup job. We stayed up late Friday building the firepit and grill (which I enjoyed just as much as prepping the pig) and Saturday doing our actual partying. And we were out in the sun (sun!) all day Saturday, flipping the pig, drinking a few slow beers, and just hanging out getting things ready for people to arrive.
It was awesome to have everyone rock up and share the last part of this with us, but for me the best part was the work itself and the hanging around all day figuring stuff out with my friends. I was so exhausted by the time people arrived to eat that I don’t think I was particularly good company. My brain was a puddle, so I was better at pulling meat than chatting. But it was absolutely worth every minute of work and exhaustion. We pulled it off, and we pulled it off well. And how awesome is it to take half an animal and turn it into dinner with your friends?