It was with great joy that I received an invitation from Lori's (Houman's girl) brother, Jake, to come out to California and hunt some wild boar. Having recently made a decision to curb my purchases of 'commercial, factory reared' meat due to some frankly hideous animal husbandry practices, I relished the opportunity to get closer to my meat, to put a face on it, to see how my pork lives in the wild. The boar we were to hunt roamed free in the picturesque hills of Coalinga, in the San Joaquin Valley. Variously described as "wild boars" and "wild hogs", "European" and even "Russian" wild boars, California wild hogs are all properly termed "feral pigs." They are descendants of domestic swine that were allowed to roam free, and they established breeding populations in the wild. After just a few generations in the wild, their physiology changes considerably. They become longer and rangier, with smaller hams and more powerful shoulders. The tail unkinks, the ears become straighter, and the snout appears longer.
Jake had heard through Houman about how I love to cook offal, and he was keen to learn how to prepare such variety meats, so that he could make the best use of all of the animals he culls. It was to be a meeting of the minds - I was to learn from Jake the rudiments of hunting, and I was to demonstrate to him a few simple cooking techniques to coax the flavour out of some unusual cuts. I was to go as a non-hunting guest, sadly, but I would enjoy observing and learning the hunt, and getting stuck into the gutting, skinning and butchery of the carcasses.
Jake and his hunting buddy Rich had hunted elk, deer and black bear for years but this was to be their first boar hunt. Neither of them had eaten commercial meat for years, choosing to live on the elk, deer and other wild creatures they kill with bow and arrow. I was very impressed. Four of us, (the 2 experts with bows and the two novices) gathered in Sacramento to round up supplies, licences, pig tags and weaponry, lots of beer.
To waste no time regarding his offal cookery education, on the first night, Jake had presented a selection of bollocks for me to cook (longhorn sheep, and elk) and I was encouraged to get 'peeling', (removing the rather attractive outer membrane) dredging them in curry flavoured flour and setting them into hot oil. After tasting, I think we all agreed that the elk knackers were the best, reminding us as they did of Italian sausage.The next morning, we set out. After considerable confusion at a hunt shop in Sacramento involving a genetically challenged individual who didn't understand simple requests made in English, and some frantic driving and much expense at the California Dept of Game & Fish, we had licences for all hunters and about 5 (!) pig tags, just in case we hit a rich seam of wild pork.The drive was about three hours from Sac to Coalinga, and along the way I got to know Rich, a fireman from Eugene, Oregon who had some fabulous tales of firefighting and similar political views to myself. We got along just fine, though on occasion I felt I had to help him navigate some of my alien phraseology. I guess I was the first drunken Northern English monkey he'd ever met.
Coalinga is undoubtedly beautiful. The town itself is set just at the feet of the rolling hills of the Diablo Range, part of the Pacific Coastal Range, and is surrounded by citrus, vine and olive agricultural flatland. We were headed up into the Diablos, to hunt in the scrub and deciduous forests. Our camp was fairly basic, and for a brief moment I was concerned about the outdoor 'kitchen'. The cabin was comfortable and set on top of a hill surrounded by boar country. I was reminded of the countryside in Umbria. Despite our bloodthirsty intentions, the scene was one of total tranquility.
We didn't waste any time in setting out. The bowmen were the first out and H & I were to be picked up later on by Jeremy, the owner's son, when the sun starts to set. We were told that early morning and late evening were the best times to hunt as it's much cooler and the boar come out of the shade to eat and drink. After two hours of 'glassing' (a hunter's term for searching for game through binoculars) an awesome view, we set off up to the top of a hill to flush out what we could find. On turning a corner, a huge black boar scampered across the road and paused to look at Houman, who was busy trying to prepare himself for a shot. Jeremy whispered, "Shoot that son'bitch!", but Houman's rifle wasn't loaded, his scope was turned up too high. The boar mocked us and trotted off up the hill. We tracked for a while but the swine was too clever for us and had hidden in dense bush where we would never find him. Disappointment for sure, but now we had seen the meat and Houman was sure he'd get another opportunity.With a setting sun now long gone and the landscape plunged into darkness, we returned to camp for cold beer and some dinner. What a sight awaited us! Jake had nailed a 200 lb boar with his first shot, and it was hanging in gambrels from a large tree outside our cabin. He was busy skinning and trimming, covered in blood, with a wild glint in his eye. Rich had a shot that night too, sticking a pig with an arrow right in the ribs, but it had evaded him and ran off into the bush. It amazed me that a stuck pig can continue running for a couple of hours after such an injury. These little fuckers are quite resilient. With Jake's dead hog smelling musty and swinging gently in the night air, there was no way I was missing out on the fun! I grabbed my knife, rolled up my sleeves and got to grips with it. What a beautiful animal it was. Big muscular legs, round firm shoulders, and encased in a layer of delicious fat. Jake had saved the liver, heart and kidneys for our dinner! I trimmed the skin from its subcutaneous fat, sliding my hands between the two to ease it away rather cutting it. It reminded me vaguely of rubbing sun tan oil on the missus at the beach, the feeling of lubricated warm muscle. The skin came away easily, Jake bagged and tagged his hog, and I set about making a saute of heart and kidneys for dinner. With some fat rendered from the fresh kill, I sauteed shallots, with thyme and garlic, threw in the sliced organs, some red wine and simmered for a few minutes. Delicious! I don't think I've ever had organs that fresh. The heart tasted delicious, the kidneys could have done with a good soak though, and we would save the liver for a magnificent pate when we got back to Sacramento.That night, we got to meet other hunting groups in the camp. There was Alan, an 65 year old ex-Army sniper, who now taught marines how to shoot and he messed around with ballistics in his spare time. He hadn't eaten commercial meat for 25 years, and he'd been to Coalinga for hogs a few times before. Rumour has it that he could hit a dartboard with a rifle at 1000 yards. Chuck, next door, was an ex-Navy bloke who'd retired a long time ago and had just lost his wife. He'd come to hunt to find himself again, with his step-son, Dan, who lived in San Diego. With Mike, an IT consultant from LA, Houman, the lawyer, Rich the fireman, and Jake and I, currently 'taking leave of our careers', we were a mixed bunch.
We went out the next day, again with no luck. We didn't see a single hog that day, but we did help Mike, who shot an impressive sow, lug his kill up a steep scree and into the jeep. We weren't sure whether the sow had piglets who could survive on their own without their mother, but her teats were swollen with milk and we feared the worst. I felt bad that afternoon. Rich never found his pig from the first night, but he shot another, who evaded him again! Two pigs, two shots, two hits, no meat. Rich was, quite understandably, a tad pissed off.
On the last day at the camp, Houman and I were split up, and I ended up hunting with Dan and Chuck. At 5.15am we left camp. By 6.15 am, Dan had shot a beauty. We were crossing the fields behind the ranch where we hunted that weekend, and Jeremy spotted a big hog at about 1000 yards. The jeep parked, we hid behind trees and Dan and Chuck loaded clips while I looked on through powerful binocs. Jeremy knew the pig would cross the field, come right past us, on it's way back from a nocturnal feed. I watched this pig do just that. What a beauty! The shape reminded me of a farmyard pig, but this one had more prominent features and chocolate brown hair all over its body, big floppy ears that dangled and bobbled in a carefree fashion as porky made his way towards us, unaware of his immediate lack of future. At maybe 90 yards, Chuck and Dan were head down, rifles steadied up along some fence wire, poised to shoot. I heard a click as Chuck pulled the trigger and realised the safety was on, then a crack! as Dan hit the sucker with a perfect shot, straight through the ribs, lungs, and out the other side. I watched porky spin like a top as it tried to work out what had just stung him, then as it flopped to the floor and kicked out for a few minutes. By the time we'd made it across the field, porky was dead on its side, eyes glazed. Ensuring a loaded sidearm, Jeremy approached the pig. These wild hogs can be dangerous at all times, but especially when wounded and we wanted to be sure. Sometimes, it's a good idea to pour water in their ears. This one was definitely dead. 120 lbs of Handsome Pig was gutted, and slung onto the back of the jeep. This was the last kill of the hunting weekend. On Sunday afternoon we packed up and left camp, heading for Sac.I was reminded of how bad captive animals can be treated before slaughter for meat, when we passed a huge burger farm. We could smell it miles before we saw it. Cows, nose to tail as far as the eye could see, some lying dead in pools of shit, others trampling the dead in an effort to reach the feeding trough first, for mouthfuls of corn, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals and ancestors. We were horrified.
I was looking forward to butchering the pig, keeping in mind the demonstration I'd seen by Tom Mylan in New York. Jake and I took the beast apart in about two hours. I enjoyed every minute: slicing muscle, removing whole loins, prying apart shoulder muscles, shaving sinew and silverskin, trimming fat. The head was taken apart for brawn. For my efforts, and because Jake is fantastically generous, H and I were handed a whole leg. I had mentioned to him that I wanted to cure one for proscuitto, and I promised to send him some sweet slices when it had finished the air cure.That night, we feasted on elk tongue, boar headcheese, boar liver pate, salad and bread. This was Jake's first taste of pate surprisingly, and I'm not convinced he understood the texture, being as he is a lover of leaner meat products. "Just think of it as meat butter, Jake." Maybe that did the trick.Back in New York, I bought 30 packets of salt for the cure. The bird at C-Town must have thought I was running some sort of meth lab. It's in the salt downstairs, to be rubbed down with vinegar and white wine tomorrow, bandaged and air dried after that. Should be ready, just in time for Christmas. I don't know how the flesh of the boar tastes yet, though I'm sure Jake has cooked some of it already. I bet it's brilliant. When a pig has a wild diet of acorns, grass, roots and flowers the meat and the fat can only taste fantastic.Houman & I are already planning a hunting trip in New York. I think he feels a little jipped at not coming home with any boar to call his own, and I am keen to go now that I know the basics and how much meat I can go and get for myself, without having to rely on the shameless American meat industry.