No one could say that the Middle White pig is a looker – its short-snouted, squashed (what pig fanciers term ‘dished’) face and Gollum-esque ears would never have secured it any body-double work on Babe. But what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in the quality of its pork. And the man who breeds some of the best is Richard Vaughan, of Huntsham Court Farm, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire; whenever the UK’s best chefs need to source top-drawer pork, his is the number they call.
Try this for an impressive client list: Heston Blumenthal is a customer, as is Dominic Chapman, head chef at Heston’s Hinds Head pub. Jeremy Lee, head chef at Terence Conran’s Blueprint Café, also places regular orders. Also on the roll call are Sam and Sam Clark of Moro restaurant, Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce, (‘Middle White is the best pork I’ve ever eaten’) , Fergus Henderson of St John and Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of the River Café.
Huntsham hasn’t always occupied the top end of the meat producing market, though. The farm has been in Richard’s family for 400 years, and he’s been at the helm for 35, initially producing beef on a large scale for all the major supermarkets. It was a chance conversation with his local abattoir that changed all that. Realising he’d unexpectedly run out of joints of beef to cook at home, he rang them to ask for one from an animal they’d slaughtered for him. Their response – that they could supply him but that they would prefer to give him meat from another producer as they didn’t rate the quality of his own herd – was a jaw-dropping moment. As a result, in 1996 he abandoned large-scale animal farming to concentrate on the small-scale production of pedigree animals selected for the excellence of their meat.
Initially Richard experimented with other rare breeds but it was the Middle White that won the pork taste every time. Considering the animal’s history, it’s not such a surprise. First recognised as a breed back in 1852, it’s the only British pig that was bred specifically for pork, producing an animal that carried a lot of flesh, with enough fat to give it flavour, but not so much that it compromised the quality of the meat. Once hugely popular for these qualities, by 1973 it was in major decline and designated a rare breed pig (meaning there are less than 1,000 adult females in existence). The fact that Richard rears them for their meat doesn’t put the breed’s survival in jeopardy – if he and other rare breed farmers weren’t encouraging people to eat Middle White pork, the breed would die out altogether.
It’s not just the Middle White‘s natural characteristics that mean its meat is top quality – Richard’s husbandry techniques also have a huge role to play. His philosophy is simple: give them a happy life. Unlike intensively farmed pigs, which are frequently kept in the smallest space legally allowed, Huntsham pigs have the run of the farm. When the weather’s good, they’re out grazing the fields with the Longhorn beef and Ryeland lamb (both rare breeds) Richard also farms. When it’s bad they shelter in barns supplied with plenty of straw for bedding and recreation.
His approach to their feed is similarly straightforward; free from the growth promoters often fed to intensively farmed pigs, it’s a mix of cereals, soya bean meals, peas and beans – all top sources of pig-friendly protein. That neither the feed, nor Richard’s farming methods, are organic clearly hasn’t been a problem for the chefs who buy from him – in fact, Henry Harris, of London’s Racine restaurant, insists Richard’s Middle White ‘has a flavour that surpasses even the finest of organically reared porkers’. And, as for the bog standard pork you’ll find on most supermarket shelves, there’s no comparison. That kind of pork comes from pigs bred for bacon, whose more muscular, leaner meat is fine for rashers but just can’t supply the succulent, unctuous taste and texture you need for a decent cut of pork. No fat no flavour – it’s that simple.
Richard no longer counts supermarkets among his customers – he just can’t produce enough. Not that he’s worried: ‘If the supermarkets say “We’ll pay you x pence a kilo”, then it’s down to you to bring your costs down below x pence a kilo to make any kind of a profit. Instead, we ask ourselves what we need to spend to make a quality product, then price accordingly. Our only consideration is producing pork people think is delicious’. Looks like he’s done the job.