Many people dream of growing their own food when they come to rural France and some even raise their own meat. Author Jacqueline Yallop took the plunge with her husband, Ed, and bought two piglets and the book she wrote as a result, Big Pig, Little Pig, comes out in paperback this month.
It is a searingly honest account of what it is really like to look after pigs and come face to face with the reality of killing them for their meat.
Jacqueline Yallop is a writer with three novels to her name and she currently teaches creative writing at the University of Aberystwyth. She and her husband Ed bought a house near Drulhe in the Aveyron twelve years ago, which was at first a holiday home.
They mulled over the idea of raising pigs for a long time and when the opportunity arose for them both to work as freelance writers, something they could do away from the UK, they were able at last to go out and buy two piglets, just weaned, from a local man who farms an ancient, hardy breed of pig called the Gascon Noir, or Noir de Bigorre.
They had never had any experience of raising livestock, never lived on a farm, never kept animals other than their dog, Mo, and chickens, but, “we had done all the research and knew that if we didn’t do it then, we might never do it,” says Jacqueline.
“Our aim was not to become fully self-sufficient, because that would have been too ambitious, but we did want to explore what it is like to raise our own meat and what that changes in regard to our perception of eating meat.”
She says that practically it was not as difficult as you might think: “There is so much information either in books or on the internet that you can easily find out what to do. As long as they are fed and housed properly they are easy to look after. We spent a lot of time with them, but that was our choice and we really enjoyed it. It never became a chore but was a real pleasure.”
Because the aim was to raise them for their meat, the couple decided not to give them names and referred to them as Big Pig and Little Pig to tell them apart.
They did not want them to become pets, but very quickly, they could not help liking these animals which had become part of their daily life: “They changed a lot while they were with us. They were about the size of small dogs when they arrived and were very curious about the world around them. They grew into big, solid, heavy pigs, really big beasts.
“The Gascon Noir is a very beautiful breed and they were aesthetically pleasing to look at and just nice to have around.”
The new pig farmers soon found that the common adage that pigs are intelligent is true: “They were very bright, very quick to learn. ‘They developed their own characters and provided us with plenty of amusement.”
The couple spent hours sitting with the pigs and observing them. They found that Little Pig was the introvert and Big Pig the extrovert.
They played games with them. One was pear chase, when Jacqueline Yallop stood at the top of a slope with a bucket of windfall pears and hurled them into the enclosure in all directions so that the pigs ran after them and had to hunt them down. Long after the bucket was empty, she watched them enjoying the search.
In the long, hot, summer days they hosed them down, playing with the water on their skin. Little Pig in particular loved it and their owners are sure that when he opened his mouth to catch the water he was laughing with joy.
When Little Pig became ill, they rushed to the vet and had to learn how to administer an antibiotic injection to save him. They had a glut of courgettes, but the pigs did not like them raw, so another job was to cook them up, as they adored the resulting green mush.
Accepting the inevitable
All along the shadow of the future killing lies over them. How will it be possible to slaughter an animal you have come to love?
“In the end, we had bought them for their meat”, says Jacqueline Yallop, “and there was no option as it would have been impossible to have kept the very big animals they had become.
“It is, though, a substantial leap for people like us who have not been brought up on a farm to make the change from working to keep them alive to slaughtering them. It was a process which was very thought provoking and not taken lightly. Afterwards, even though it was hard I was not sorry to have done it.”
The couple had decided long before the deed was done, that they would do it in the most humane way possible and so chose to do it themselves, on their own land. This is allowed, if the meat is to be for your own consumption and not sold.
They bought a stun gun, to prevent the pigs from feeling pain and a killing knife which Ed Yallop pushed into the skin at the base of the neck, just above the breastbone. He had read up about it extensively and practised the necessary moves and the couple watched an animal die in front of them for the first time.
“It leaves a deep impression. You are killing something the size of a man and it is a big undertaking. It was also physically exhausting and we came to understand why whole communities used to come together to kill the pig.
“It is in winter when days are short and you do not have much daylight to butcher it afterwards. When you open up the pig it is very difficult to know exactly what is what, and where to make the cuts. It was a huge learning experience but it turned out well. Our main concern was that it was humane.”
Big Pig was the first to be killed. It is too big a job to slaughter and then butcher two pigs on one day. The plan was to kill Little Pig a few days later, but it was just before Christmas when family were arriving and Little Pig was lonely, and kept escaping despite the fully charged electric fence.
Having a 170kg pig wandering around the garden with guests soon to arrive was not an option and as time was running out, the couple had to take him to the abattoir rather than kill him themselves. A difficult decision, but they felt, an unavoidable one. I wondered if at any time the experience might have made her want to be a vegetarian:
“I can understand that some people might come to that conclusion but in fact the experience confirmed what I had thought all along. If you are going to eat meat, it is important to know that the animal has had a good life. It is better to eat less meat and to value it and not regard it as something cheap to be consumed that you find on a supermarket shelf.
“I know now how to value meat because I know how much has gone into producing it, both from the part of the producer and from the animal itself. It really confirmed a direction I was already heading towards. I must also say that the meat we got was fantastic and worth all the effort.”
She says pork is regarded as a cheap meat and though most people are now aware of free-range chickens, fewer think about pig factory farming: “Now I have realised just how fabulous pigs are it is particularly hard for me to think about them being kept in poor conditions and so I am careful about the meat I buy.”
The experience helped the couple integrate in their village: “Pigs were kept by most families in the not very distant past and so there was a certain nostalgia for that and people were pleased to see our pigs. They would come to see them and it was always a talking point and they gave us plenty of advice. The local people were fantastic and we were very grateful for all their help.”
It also showed them how hard the traditional rural way of life used to be: “It really does bring it home in a physical sense, that not all that long ago farming life was tough. We tend to romanticise it quite a lot, but it was in fact hard. It is still an agricultural area here, but things have obviously changed. For one thing you don’t see pigs in every farm.”
She thinks if you have the dream to live the rural life, it is worth the doing: “All you can do is learn from it. You may decide in the end that you would prefer to have the freedom to go away when you want to without being tied to the house by animals but hopefully you will have had the pleasure of being with the animals and afterwards, you really appreciate the food on your plate.”
In the book the tale of their pigs is interwoven with the rural and social history of pigs in both the UK and France and shows the fascination humans have always had for this endearing creature.
Social history has always been a fascination for Jacqueline Yallop. She has a PhD in nineteenth century literature and culture, and has worked as a museum curator in Manchester and Sheffield.
In France she finds plenty of inspiration for her writing. One of her novels, Obedience was inspired by the closing of the convent in her village, which disrupted the settled life there.
It is about a once-bustling convent in the South of France which in its last days only houses three elderly nuns. One of them recalls her life during the war and her secret love affair with a young Nazi soldier, and the novel explores the themes of what is right and wrong in love. She is currently working on a new novel set in wartime France.
“I think there are many reasons why France is a good place for British authors to write. You can have the space and time here to put pen to paper. I, personally have been fascinated by the impact the Second World War had on small villages in France and I think that because I was not brought up here, I have a certain distance from the events which gives you an objectivity and allows creative possibilities. If I had always lived here the stories I find fascinating, might not have appeared out of the ordinary and interesting.”
After the pig experience, and a period living full time in France, she started working at Aberystwyth University and so spends most of term time in Wales. She says there are advantages to having homes in both countries: “I think I am very fortunate because Wales too is very beautiful and rural. It rains a lot though so if I want some sunshine I can come to France. I gain a lot from both places and can have the best of both worlds and it works very well for me.
Big Pig, Little Pig, A Year on a Smallholding in South-West France by Jacqueline Yallop, Penguin paperback €9.99 ISBN 978-0-241-97715-6