Chris Graham travels to beautiful North Yorkshire to meet Lisa Hodgson and her flourishing Otterburn Mangalitzas.
We're all attracted to pig-keeping for different reasons but, for Lisa Hodgson it was a chance encounter with some ‘Lincolnshire Curly Tales' which set her on the road to getting her first pigs and establishing a new business.
Lisa and her husband Tim manage a 200-acre arable farm in the North Riding of Yorkshire, not far from Thirsk. Up until recently, there hadn't been any livestock on the farm, after Tim disposed of his dairy herd and sheep in the aftermath of the 2001 Foot & Mouth outbreak. But Lisa changed all that.
Although she has no background in farming herself, Lisa grew up with tales of her parent's smallholding in Cumbria, and her mother's beloved Large White. But none of that particularly appealed to Lisa until she and Tim got together. When I arrived here," she explained to me, "I thought it was odd to have a farm with no livestock, especially as Tim had been so passionate about it in the past. So, I started making suggestions about what we could get, but they fell on deaf ears and he just wouldn't budge. Being a typical Yorkshire farmer, he was dead against any free-loading animals on his farm!"
Then, completely by chance during a visit to the Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham, the couple spotted some very unusual-looking pigs. They were described as ‘Lincolnshire Curly Coats', and Lisa was smitten from the moment she saw them. "Once home I got straight on to the internet and started researching more about them, which is when I discovered that the Lincolnshire Curly Coat was an extinct breed, and that what we'd seen must have been Mangalitzas," she recalled.
"The more I researched the history of the breed and the benefits of the meat and fat these unusual pigs produce, the more determined I became to get some. Unfortunately, Tim didn't feel the same, and there seemed very little I could do to generate any interest in the idea. But I'm nothing if not determined, and kept chipping away."
Pigs on the horizon!
"After about two years of cajoling, I thought I was starting to wear him down, and could tell that if I could just think of another angle of attack, his resistance would crumble. Then it hit me; all I had to do was think of something he wanted less than pigs, and use the threat of that as a lever. So, one evening, after we'd got a good way down a decent bottle of whisky, I suggested that we start a family! That did the trick and, rather than having some children, he agreed that we could get some Mangalitzas! His only condition was that anything I bought had to pay its way. The pigs had to earn their keep and the operation had to be run as a proper business."
Having managed to manoeuvre Tim into agreeing to get some pigs, Lisa began her search for stock, starting with the BPA's website. "I wanted to get pedigree animals from the start, so that I could be sure that I was getting the genuine article, although this was easier said than done. Those I did come across were dotted around all over the UK and, the more I looked into it, the more discrepancies I found between what was being advertised and what was being sold.
"There were plenty of breeders who I spoke to who'd been advertising ‘pedigree' Mangalitzas but, when it came to it, they had no paperwork to support that claim. So they were complete non-starters. We drove all over the place looking at stock and, sadly, some of the set-ups were absolutely terrible. I just couldn't believe how badly some people were keeping their pigs; it was genuinely shocking. As a result of that, the first trio of youngsters we got was actually a ‘mercy buy'; I just could leave those poor animals in their appalling surroundings."
"Those three went straight into our barn to acclimatise, and I don't think they'd ever seen clean, fresh straw; they were so excited! They weren't great examples of the breed, but I loved them and they gave me my first direct experience with pigs, which was great. I took to them from day one, and enjoyed every aspect of the husbandry involved. Everything went well and, flushed with success, we were soon out again, searching for some breeding stock."
From the enthusiasm with which Lisa still talks about those early days, it was obviously a very exciting time, and it's clear that she was convinced – from the very start – that pig-keeping was for her. "All my research, and the initial experiences with those first pigs, left me in no doubt that I was doing the right thing. Also, I was convinced that the unique Mangalitza meat would give us a different angle, from a business point of view."
Lisa found a breeder in Lincolnshire, selling good quality, pedigree stock, so she bought a five-month-old trio of two sows and a boar from him. "Tim came with me to cast his expert, livestock eye over them and, once he was happy that the pigs had good conformation and looked right, the deal was done. The boar was already enormous and I was a little wary of him to begin with, especially as I'd read all sorts of stories about how difficult they could be to handle. But, thankfully, he turned out to be a gentle giant."
The first litters arrived from the new breeding stock without any drama, although Lisa admitted that she found the whole experience quite traumatic! "I was very keen to watch and learn, and we'd brought the sows into the barn to farrow. Tim had built some farrowing pens and added heat lamps, but they hated those and tried to destroy them.
"The first sow produced 10 piglets, but wouldn't let me watch. All the time I was there, nothing happened then, the moment I went off to do another job, two or three more would pop out! But she coped really well – as did the other sow – and that success prompted us to start looking for another boar and some more sows to increase our breeding rate. I'd heard from a breeder in Elgin, Scotland, who had some pedigree stock for sale, but also wanted a red Mangalitza boar and sow. As it happened, I knew of a breeder in Lincolnshire who had some to sell, so we agreed to take those up to Scotland and bring the new breeding stock back with us.
"Unfortunately, soon after that, the weather turned in Scotland and it was impossible for us to get across the Cairngorms in the van, which delayed the trip by a month. However, the Scottish breeder assured us that our pigs hadn't grown too much, and were still a manageable size. But, when we finally got there, they were 100kg each! Nevertheless, we somehow managed to get them into the van and, although they were comfortable, space was tight.
"The weather was still freezing outside and things soon started to steam-up inside the van. I had to open my window and, immediately, had one of the sows with her head over my shoulder and snout out of the window, just like a dog! Also, the other sow was in season so, every time we stopped, the boar would rear up and start getting amorous with her; it was an eventful journey. We'd left home at 8.30am, and finally got back from Elgin at 4am the following morning!"
Lisa's strategy was now very much focused on building the herd, as she wanted a good number of meat animals to meet the expected demand. But, with the Mangalitza taking between 18 months and two years to reach a good pork weight, there was no easy or quick solution.
"Our business plan was based on the idea of selling whole carcasses to restaurants and meat suppliers," she told me. "At that time, the Wagyu beef craze had just hit the UK, and I felt that the Mangalitza could offer something similar in terms of its meat quality. I was very careful about what I fed our pigs, and kept their protein intake under careful control, in common with the approach adopted by the breeders in Hungary.
"I'd named the business Otterburn Mangalitzas and, eventually, the time finally arrived for us to kill our first pigs. We'd selected one that was 18 months old and a second that was two years old, and both had been finished for a couple of months on barley, to help firm-up the fat, and deliver a natural anti-oxidant that would help keep the meat fresher for longer.
"But I found the whole slaughtering process very emotional and hard to deal with. Lots of tears were shed and, although I had done my best not to get attached to those pigs, it was impossible not to because we'd been rearing them for so long. When we got the meat back from the abattoir, our butcher was shocked by the amount of back fat, which was between two and three inches thick. But I was delighted, especially as it was displaying the three, distinct layers, which is a characteristic of traditionally-reared Mangalitzas."
Lisa's butcher jointed half of one of the pigs for us, and this meat was sent out as free samples to chefs at pubs and restaurants. But the meat they kept back for themselves proved more of a challenge to deal with. "I found myself unable to cook it at first," Lisa explained, "and Tim had to do it. There were more tears but then, as soon as I tasted the meat, I knew we were on to something very special. It was so different to anything I'd eaten before, and actually seemed more like beef than pork to me.
"It was a hard job getting the samples out, even though they were free. Lots of people I spoke to had never even heard of the breed and simply weren't interested in anything different. Some were keen to try it, thank goodness, and offer honest feedback, which was all I wanted at that stage. One of those to show an interest was Marco Peerderman, who was then the head butcher at Jamie Oliver's steak restaurant in London, Barbecoa."
"Marco was very impressed and loved the taste, but said the price we were asking was too high. I also found that lots of potential customers were only interested in selected cuts. The chef at nearby Castle Howard, for example, was very enthusiastic about the meat, and wanted 10 loins a week. But supplying that number of prime cuts was impossibly impractical for us."
So Lisa changed tack slightly, and started marketing the meat to butchers. Several were interested and agreed on a price but, when she discovered that they were putting a 200% mark-up on the meat, that just didn't seem fair. Other butchers were unaware of the breed and didn't know how to deal with the fat. "I think, in some respects, we hit the market too early," Lisa added. "Three years ago, chefs and butchers simply weren't ready for it; most were still coming to terms with Wagyu beef, so our pork was a step too far.
"By this stage, it was clear that we needed to try something else. We couldn't continue just selling one pig now and then; the business wouldn't survive on that basis. Our herd was standing at 206 pigs, we'd only slaughtered about 12 animals and the rest were costing us a fortune just to feed. What's more, when we added everything up in terms of our set-up and on-going running costs, we'd sunk £250,000 into the business in a little over two years. And, with next to no return to show for that investment, we'd reached a serious turning point!"
"By chance, I'd stayed in touch with Marco Peerderman, who had moved on to a new job with food supply specialist, Classic Fine Foods, in London. He still really believed in the quality of our meat, and agreed to help promote it. But things continued to move frustratingly slowly, despite my best efforts. I remained determined that what we were trying to do was right and, exhausting though it was, I never once thought about giving up.
"Finally, I got a couple of lucky breaks. First of all, the online meat supplier, Alternative Meats Ltd, agreed to start taking our Mangalitza meat. I drove a hard bargain with them, ensuring that they simply didn't cherry-pick the most desirable cuts all the time. Also, while chatting to a hotel owner we supplied, I was asked if I knew of a decent black pudding supplier because the product they were serving up was always far too dry. It struck me that the Mangalitza fat – of which we had plenty to spare – might work perfectly to moisten black pudding."
Lisa jumped at the chance and began calling manufacturers and butchers who she knew made black pudding, suggesting that they try it. Eventually, she found one that agreed to try using the fat, and the result was dispatched straight to Marco in London, so that his expert chefs could sample it. "The initial feedback was really encouraging, and resulted in us being invited to attend a pre-Christmas food fayre in London. It was a trade event, so plenty of chefs got to sample the black pudding, and the orders started rolling in."
By the end of the event, it turned out that 60 blocks of black pudding had been requested, which amounted to 90kg, and it was needed by the following week! Demand grew quickly after that, soon overwhelming the capacity of the butcher she'd been using, so Marco found a larger operator in London, who could both make and distribute the product. "So now, all I have to do is place the orders and deliver the fat to London, which Tim does every couple of months. It's simplified the process enormously and is running very smoothly now."
This rather unexpected development really has turned things around for Otterburn Mangalitzas. "It's selling better than we could ever have imagined," Lisa told me, "and, during the run-up to last Christmas, we sold a quarter of a ton of black pudding in one week!
"We're now selling the product into a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, and it's developed quite a reputation, being branded as the ‘Prince of Black Puddings'! Building on that success, we're now looking into the prospect for a white pudding, in which the blood and fat are replaced with milk, eggs, Mangalitza meat and barley. It's a very traditional, wholesome food and we have samples out at the moment, being evaluated."
The black pudding success has certainly helped promote Otterburn Mangalitzas, and Lisa says that she's selling more meat now as a result. "We have customers who have done really well in the British Charcuterie Awards using our products, and I think that Mangalitza is really starting to take off now. Awareness is growing, as is the level of appreciation about the qualities of the meat and fat that these wonderful pigs produce."
Strolling around the many well-managed pig pens with Lisa, she was evidently full of enthusiasm about the quality of the pigs she's producing, and the high-welfare lives they enjoy. She still manages the whole operation on her own, although it's clear from chatting with Tim, that he's developed quite a soft spot for the pigs now, and is more than happy to muck-in when needed.
Lisa has had to be tenacious and determined to get this far, but you only need to spend a few minutes with her to know that she exudes such qualities in abundance. "I'm optimistic that the Mangalitza breed is really on the up now," she told me, "and that more people are starting to recognise it as a source of superb, tasty meat.
"My passion for the breed hasn't wavered, and I'm still getting just as much pleasure and satisfaction from looking after my pigs as I did back at the start. Quite honestly, I have no real inclination to move into another breed as, for me, the Mangalitza's got the lot. They are great pigs to be around and they are now providing us with a revenue stream that's making a genuine difference to the farm, which keeps me happy and a smile on Tim's face, which has got to be a good thing!"