Good pork

Duke of BERKSHIRE

Boerderij de Walnoot en Wilg
Hogevleurweg 5, Best

(source: cookbook Herman Nearby)

The past twenty years, I’ve rarely done anything with pork. The meat quality didn’t appeal to me. The past couple of years, fresh pork has been coming from Spain, called Iberico. Good stuff, even chefs from the finer restaurants dare to put this meat on the menu. I, myself, had some doubts. Finally we get some decent pork, but why does it need to come from abroad. In the Netherland there are millions of pigs wasting their lives on pig farms, why is it so hard to get a decent pork chop from them? The pig, a fun little animal, but I’m just not feeling it. Until a butcher all of a sudden came to me with a pig’s neck and a big rib. The pieces of meat came from Brabant. He asked if I wanted to try them. I didn’t know how the meat would respond to heat. What stood out was the fattiness. The meat smelled healthy. I decided to simmer the meat, so that the fat could melt out of it and flavour the meat. Then wait and pray the meat would be edible. When the desired temperature was reached, I removed the lumps of meat from the oven and first cut the neck; the smell that came off those slices brought tears to my eyes. The nostalgia gland was hit hard. It instantly brought back the past, the days of old, when everything was better. Ok, Ok, let’s try it first. I cut an island of meat surrounded by thick layers of soft fat. The meat felt velvety, had structure, certainly wasn’t dry, and had an intense flavour. So this is Berkshire pork from Brabant, I thought, so it is possible. I didn’t inquire about the price. It’s probably a lot more than a pork chop at the pub.

But he’s selling blown-up protein, so what are we really talking about, call it weekend meat, but why would you eat pork every day? The animals pays the price of the low prices.’ ‘Later on I heard that the man who brought me the pork, Kees Scheepens, had given me some test pieces years ago. Apparently, I was very satisfied with the meat, but I somehow forgot, unjustifiably. I would advise people who love a good piece of pork to try this meat. Did I set things straight, Kees? The farm of Kees and Frances Scheepens has something idyllic about it. While in a 50-kilometre radius roughly fifty million pigs live their short lives on huge farms totally invisible, the piglets on the educational farm Walnoot & Wilg can muck about and run after horse. They snap at the horse‚Äôs grazing mouth and bolt when the noble creature threatens to jump into action. Pure entertainment, but can you make a living of that? Yes, but not without a fight. When approaching thunder threatens to punish the land near Best, Kees Scheepens explains unconcerned that it is indeed wise to breed pigs with fat meat when people tend to buy lean meat. Kees makes the impression to have carefully thought out his plans. Scheepens is veterinarian and renowned expert on pigs, he wrote his doctoral on the pig. He knows the large stables and the farmers of the intensive pig farming. Kees knows the quality of meat those pigs deliver, how much of it is sold, and literally and figuratively at what cost. His words gets you thinking, because they come from a man who, together with his family, made sacrifices to give the pig a face again. Kees en Frances Scheepens were at the turn of this century still practicing veterinarians. The continuing increase in scale and the way of combating animal diseases made them decide to turn their backs on intensive pig farming. They did not want to let their knowledge dissipate and to prove that it can be done differently. Kees knows the farmer’s life. He comes from a family that has been farming for seventeen generations since 1425. Kees decided to start a breeding farm for Berkshire pigs. He knew what he was up against. It still surprised him what distrust people had for him. But someone with that much experience simply cannot be ignored.

It appears that Scheepens, after years of toiling, finally gets the recognition for their approach and tasty meat from their fantastic ‘Berkies’. ‘After some research, I was aware of the extraordinary meat properties of the Berkshire pig. But I wanted to hear a professional’s opinion first. In 2002, I can still remember, I decided to buy a carcass in France. I chopped up the carcass at home and drove to Parkheuvel restaurant in Rotterdam. I wanted to know how a good chef would judge the meat. Cees Helder immediately recognised the quality, but had doubts whether you could put pork on the menu of a Dutch three-star restaurant. He gave me a tip on restaurant De Engel, according to Cees, a chef worked there with a lot of feeling for meat. Herman was hard at work in the kitchen. When I showed him the piece of meat, he immediately put it on the stove. He really liked it: “Pork as it is intended to taste”. I knew right then and there that I was onto something. After the swine-fever crisis of ’98 I drew a line under my veterinary clinic. I helped clearing the stables in abundance. The low point was reached when I had to euthanise piglets less than a week old. That got me. A soldier checked if you didn’t put already dead piglets in a barrel, you could make 35 Guilders off of that. Those were bizarre times. I said to myself: “Never again. You didn’t become a veterinarian for this. Kees is not going to practice anymore.”

‘The connection with the country has been partially lost with the rise of the increase of scale. What feel does a poultry farmer with a million chickens have with his surroundings? A decreasing number of fathers pass down their knowledge to their sons. I regularly teach courses to farmers on the behaviour of their pigs. Keeping pigs in stables is not a strange idea in itself. Pigs have always been among people. There are a lot of visitors here who still remember the pig as that animal that lived in the shed at the back of the house. Working class families fed their pigs leftovers. This pig was a pleasant and social farm pet. The pig has the misfortune that it’s easily put away in a little sty. Meanwhile, pigs are underappreciated. A lot of people think pigs are nasty creatures. They smell the notorious smell of ammonia from pig manure and draw their conclusions. The ammonia comes from a mixture of urine and manure. The pig answers nature’s call separately. It’s a domesticated animal that hates nasty ammonia smells.’ ‘I saw during my studies that the increase in scale was unavoidable. But nobody could have predicted it would skyrocket like this. Small-scale is not the way of the future. Let’s not be romantics; the time of Little House on the Prairie has been long gone. Our agriculture is a success story. The farming cooperation saw to it that products were sold. But the current increase in scale has no future in the Netherlands. Globalisation has increased competition. The largest company in the world has 1.2 million sows and fattens 25 million meat pigs. These kinds of globally operating companies determine the price for pork.

The Netherlands doesn’t have a good point of departure with intensive cattle farming. The food has to come from far away and keeps getting more expensive. We are no longer allowed to export the manure. You have to feed your animals plenty of protein in this North-western European climate, otherwise you cannot fatten your pigs and chickens enough. Soy is the only suitable product. You have to wonder if we want to give a place for these large companies between the forests and villages. We don’t have the enormous plains of Iowa and Minnesota. There, you don’t even notice a company of a thousand sows. The food is cultivated around the corner. There you can give large-scale pig farming a place. For us, there are different opportunities.’ ‘Come, I’ll show you something. I’ve been given this sty by my neighbour to use. He was a pioneer in pig farming back in the day. Three times a year, he fattened ninety pigs, which yielded over a hundred thousand Guilders gross. A breeder now dreams of such a turnover with three thousand pigs. You can see from this sty why so many people quit pig farming. Everyone who could mortar bricks, built a sty and farmed pigs. With my company, I want to show there is another way. My pigs can be pigs. A breeding farm that respects the animal and biodiversity, has opportunities. Controlled working, not controlling. I understand the suspicion. “Is it even possible what this Scheepens character does?”, I can hear them thinking. Some are afraid of diseases. Talking helps. I casually ask for the health status of their sows. Usually, they are not free from the known swine diseases. Mine are, so who’s a contamination threat for whom?