Market Life visits Charcutier Ltd’s Felin y Glyn farm, where the approach to food production is “part scientific, part mystical”, and learns about the pig genome, Navajo butchery and why a pork and apple sausage is an abomination
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili
It was, perhaps, the crowning glory of one of 2017’s most feted food projects: the head of a waste-fed pig from Charcutier Ltd, stuffed with brawn and baked in a salt crust. Dished up at WastED, the waste food pop-up launched in Selfridges by American chef Dan Barber earlier this year, it was a succulent, salty synergy of the American eco-chef’s trademark modernity and the farming practices that have defined Illtud Llyr Dunsford’s family farm for more than 300 years.
“Food waste is sexy at the moment—but it was just what we always did here,” Illtud shrugs, as we chat over tea in his farmhouse kitchen, surrounded by a comical assortment of pig paraphernalia. “I often say we are a waste management business rather than a meat processing business, because with a small farm you have to be.”
Using the whole carcass of a valued animal is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a no-brainer; feeding the pigs on whey from the local dairy and pressed apples from the local cider house makes sense in a community as tight knit as the one you’ll find in Carmarthenshire, once the tin mining heartland of South Wales. Today it has gone the way of so many industrial regions: socially deprived and weighed down by unemployment. But there is a lifeline, Illtud says, in the region’s potential for producing exceptional food.
Which is why we are here, sipping from pig-themed mugs to the faint sound of contented grunts and squeaks and the ripe scent of farmyard. Illtud is one of a growing number of artisanal food producers in the area. He’s been making charcuterie in this valley for as long as he can remember, having grown up with the tradition of the annual slaughter, in which a pig is killed, salted and processed, with family and neighbours joining together in the production of faggots, brawn, black pudding, sausages, bacon and hams. “We still do that today as a community,” he says.
Building on tradition
Nevertheless, when Illtud moved back home after spending his twenties in the film industry, and set about developing plans for reviving the commercial fortunes of Felin y Glyn farm, it was some time before he saw the potential of building on this tradition. “I think because it was just what we’d always done—it wasn’t like having a great new idea,” Illtud says now of his blindness, which was not helped by his anxiety that he “would slowly die in an office” if he did not seize the chance to take one of the voluntary redundancy packages his company was offering at the time.
It was winter, peak pig processing time, and he’d just finished a week of making sausages when he had his damascene moment. “My back hurt, I was exhausted—and I thought, I quite enjoy this. The physicality of working the farm can get the better of me, but the sausage-making I never give up on. There is something so real about it—about making food.”
It’s still his favourite part. “Wednesday is sausage-making day, and Illtud is in his element,” grins his wife and co-worker Liesel, as we leave the kitchen for the lush expanse of fields in which the pigs are kept. He travels often, keen to research products and traditions which will keep Charcutier Ltd relevant to urban foodie types as well as to the local population—but he is at his happiest elbow-deep in sausage meat, mixing salt, herbs and spices the way he has always done: by hand, from scratch, not using pre-prepared mixes, carefully judging the quantities by sight and feel.
This doesn’t sound particularly rigorous and scientific, nor does the farm look it, with its tumbling stone outhouses, dense woodland, unruly fields of wild grasses, and two kids—young goats—absent-mindedly chewing on bushes. (“The couple who help us look after the pigs own them,” says Illtud casually, “though I’m not entirely sure where they found them.”) Only Illtud’s knowledge betrays the depth of his cultural and scientific authority when it comes to all things porcine.
A country-wide project
Over the past few years, he’s pioneered an EU-funded, country-wide project studying the hair follicles of 700 piglets in an effort to better understand the genetic heritage of the pedigree Welsh breed. “We did a comparison between different breed lines, pinpointing what in the genome corresponds with what: for example, you can pinpoint what indicates a good length of loin, intra-muscular fat or good mothering ability. This helps us breed the right characteristics.” Suffice to say that understanding the animal right down to knowing which sow will have the best fat for, say, salami versus bacon, is at the heart of Illtud’s success as a charcuterie-maker.
In February, his research led to the EU granting protected status for his beloved pedigree Welsh pigs: a pale rose variety indigenous to Wales, and mentioned, Illtud says, in the tales of King Arthur. Although Illtud and Liesel also source other breeds from high welfare farmers across the UK in order to meet demand, the pedigree Welsh is at the heart of their business. “Some people swear by the Tamworth,” he says, “but we think the Welsh is a perfect all-rounder.”
When we reach the pig pen—a rough, unploughed patch of mud and grass through which the pigs roam freely whenever the weather permits—Illtud hops over the low wire fence to an orchestra of oinking, as the piglets waddle toward him. “These are four months old,” he says, scattering oats and grains to the sea of snuffling noses “so they were born in our sheds in winter.” This means they aren’t officially ‘free range’, a label that would require the pigs be outdoors all their lives, “but to be honest,” says Illtud, “you don’t really want a sow to be out in the middle of winter having her litter.”
In such weather as Wales is used to it can get very muddy, very quickly and there is a balance, Illtud continues, between providing the pigs with a life outdoors, and compromising their health and that of the land.
Fields and woodland
“Pigs can be useful for turning over the land, but beyond a certain point they just destroy it. You lose any biodiversity within that space, and the pigs aren’t happy because they are in a foot of mud and it is freezing.” It is one of nature’s better-known paradoxes that pigs, while dirty by repute, are fastidiously clean by nature. To keep them happy and the land fertile, a strict rotation system is in place across this lush expanse of fields and woodland, allowing the pigs constant access to shelter and fresh grass. Needless to say, it takes a lot of work to manage, not to mention a considerable amount of land.
Illtud is fortunate in that respect. At 367 acres, his is one of the larger farms in the area. As well as the pig pens and shelters, Felin y Glyn is home to a fruit orchard, Illtud’s uncle’s chicken coop and a vegetable garden, which his dad manages assiduously and which provides all their grocery needs. At the heart of all of this is the milking parlour: a stone outhouse, converted two years ago into a “meat lab”, complete with butchery, German smokehouse and Italian drying rooms.
There, among the gleaming stainless steel counters and temperature controlled fridges, Illtud and Liesel meld state of the art facilities with the magic of ancient charcuterie traditions from Britain and the rest of the world. “I’m a real traditionalist,” Iltud says. “Things like pork and apple sausages, for example—we don’t do anything like that. There is no history to it! The history is pork and apple sauce on the side. It’s taken until now for me to feel confident that we’re doing the traditional products well enough to think about experimenting elsewhere.”
While he will always major on British products, Illtud has an insatiable interest in meat traditions around the world. Only last year he was on a Navajo reservation in Arizona watching the mother of the local medicine man butchering the leg of a sheep. “Understanding the whole supply chain—the way the animals are reared, what the feed is, the breed, the size the animal is taken to and the techniques used to cook and make the product—it’s all part of it.”
A roster of recipes
Even if he’s not going to be working with sheep legs any time soon, he’ll certainly take on board the Navajo’s recipe for black pudding at some point, he tells us. It will join a roster of recipes, including Thüringer bratwurst from Chicago, traditional cured sausages from Parma and Umbria, and cooking chorizo from Andalucía, the latter of which is “fermented, not acidified. We take it back one step further to tradition than most chorizo you’ll find here today.”
Illtud points to rows of sausages, glowing scarlet in the gloom of the drying chamber which replicates to modern hygiene standards the temperature, humidity and air flow of Andalusian ageing rooms. “Recently we’ve noticed the flavour changing, as the chamber has developed its own atmosphere,” he says happily.
This elusive atmosphere is the holy grail for anyone involved in the fermenting or ageing of food. Where before what they made was “technically perfect, but clinical”, with time the intangible forces of latent bacteria, natural mold and even personal touch have worked their magic, imparting the sausages with a distinct flavour profile. “You can tell who was on sausage-making duty and when, there is such natural variation,” Liesel marvels. It’s a tasty testimony not just to the atmosphere, but to the truly artisanal nature of Charcutier Ltd’s method and philosophy.
“It is part scientific, part mystical,” Liesel believes. They make every batch of sausages by hand and eye, from scratch, but they know the science behind it: how the salt draws out the soluble proteins as they mix, binding the meat. It is part tradition, part monument to the genetic research and state of the art refrigeration which allows Illtud to recreate the conditions of north Germany one week, and those of southern Spain the next.
If WastED showed us anything, it was that many of the most effective counters to food waste are centuries-old classics: cod cheeks, brawn, beef dripping and blood—and that thrift, which naturally underpins farms like Felin y Glyn, could be fashionable. “It frustrates me when people say there is no history of it in the UK,” says Illtud. “There is a huge amount of history. It’s been present in the farming communities all along.”