George’s Christmas Pig

We’re taking a trip back to the 1910s to discover the flavours of Christmas.

Nowadays, when bacon sandwiches can be a regular snack for many meat-eaters, few of us will ever appreciate what a treat the Christmas pig must have been then!

A rare rural memoir

We get a glimpse of the relish to be taken from this simple pleasure in a very rare first-person account from the area, told by a man known only as George Robert. George is believed to have been born around the end of the Victorian era to a farming family based near Kirkbymoorside. It is not known if Robert is his surname or a middle name.

His memoir was transcribed from an oral account in which he recalls his childhood as one of ten children. Full of fascinating details of daily life for the family, the account also tells the story of the Ryedale Christmas pig which would have been slaughtered at this time of year. According to George, “Nearly every cottage had a pigsty in the back garden.” George comments wistfully, “And a grand time it was too.”

A range of uses

If the animal were properly utilised, the family would be sustained by their Christmas pig for many months. Nowadays, Christmas is known to be one of the worst times of year in the UK for food waste. But George’s family was very careful not to be wasteful. A popular saying declared that every part of a pig should be used ‘except the squeal’.

George recalled heating or ‘rendering’ the fat to produce lard. The preparation was undertaken by the whole family. “We all helped in cutting,” George tells us. His family carved out ‘little squares’. George recalls that these were “put into a large pan to be hung… over the fire”. As the fat melted it was taken out of this pan and put into earthenware vessels.

The Victorian kitchen in Pickard’s Cottage, Ryedale Folk Museum

This lard would have been used for frying foods for many months and within a range of recipes and baking. It was particularly prized for making pie crusts and pastries. It may even have served non-culinary purposes, such as waterproofing. Medicinally, lard was also applied to treat burns and inflammation.

George’s family made brawn by boiling “the pig’s feet, ears, tongue, head and small bits of pork” until the meat came off the bone. This was then left to cool, resulting in the jelly-like product. As well as this, the pig’s blood generally became black pudding when mixed with oatmeal, suet, herbs and seasoning, and the pig’s intestine would have served for making sausages. Many local families had their own closely-guarded sausage recipes.

A traditional way of life

George also recalled the making of the “yearly supply of bacon and ham” by salting the sides and hams for about three weeks. Once cured, they were hung in the kitchen to dry. In George’s family, this task fell to his father who would also sell one of the hams each spring, using the income to buy next year’s pig.

This way of life continued for some families into and even beyond the 1950s, with a particular upturn during World War Two.

As the popularity of the cottage pig decreased elsewhere, the area of Ryedale became an important supplier of the famous York hams. These travelled the country via the railways, from Simpsons of Gillamoor, the Smiths of Eskdale, Harts of Ugthorpe and Boyes of Kirkbymoorside. They would have been particularly popular at Christmas.