History of Scandinavian Pork

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1961

In centuries past, pork was a rare household delicacy in Scandinavia. Each farm had a pig or two, carefully fattened and butchered before Christmas, and this was a true feast, as it was the only time of the year when fresh pork could be had.

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The blood was carefully collected, the intestines rinsed, and used for fresh sausages, blood puddings and blood sausages. Most of the offal was eaten straight away. The rest of the pig was salted, dried and smoked for winter storage.

This means that pork is a revered part of our culinary heritage, and traditional, festive dishes with pork are numerous and very, very  good. Scandinavians also have a rich heritage of recipes for preserved meats, primarily eaten at Christmas.

Christmas rib
Christmas rib

With the advent of mass production, Scandinavians have long since lost faith in conventional pork as a food worth celebrating, and it is regarded by those who eat it as cheap and everyday commodity. However, the interest in organic and free-range flavorful and healthy pork is growing, and this has meant a recent revival of traditional and inventive pork cookery.

Roast pork wirh sauerkraut (surkål)
Roast pork wirh sauerkraut (surkål)

History
The domesticated pig has been with Scandinavians since the Stone Age. For many centuries, pigs were reared on a very small scale. Each family had only the number of pigs they could look after in a sustainable way, feeding them on scraps.

A male pig wild-boar cross
A male pig wild-boar cross

In winter the pigs were kept indoors, while in summer and autumn they lived in the woods, foraging and growing fat on beech nuts and acorns. (The woods all belonged to the local kings, and huge taxes were paid for the privilege of using these areas and feeding grounds.) This practice meant that the pigs could breed freely with wild boar, and the distinction between the two was not always clear. You can only imagine how delicious the meat from these animals must have been. This is how it is still is in less developed parts of the world.

Historical photo of transport van
Historical photo of transport van

In the latter part of the 19th century, a time of great political change, farmers and workers in the cities began to unite in a widespread cooperative movement, most of which still exists today. An important part of this was the establishment of hundreds of local dairies, which were an immense success. A dairy produces huge amounts of buttermilk and whey, so this was returned in part, to the farmers, but as production boomed they could not use up the whey, and pig farms were established in connection with the dairies, feeding the pigs on the surplus.

Organically pig farming
Organically pig farming

From these beginnings grew Denmark’s phenomenal export venture in pork and dairy products. As there were strict regulations for import in the rest of Europe, the first national system of veterinary control was established, reassuring the primarily English consumers of pork and bacon that the meat and butter they were buying was safe and healthy.

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Having a wide genetic background, with the spread of pig farming the pigs were bred into a common Danish landrace, a meaty, relatively lean, long porker, designed for bacon production. They even succeeded in lengthening the pig’s body with an extra pair of ribs, for even more bacon, an achievement that saw the landrace pig spread worldwide.

Danish pig farm
Danish pig farm

Denmark still has an absurdly large population of pigs, in the region of 20 million (annually) – about four times the number of humans. The pig populations are more modest in the rest of Scandinavia, where pigs are reared mostly for local consumption.

The level of Danish pig production is not in any way sustainable, causing immense pollution, and the quality of this industrial meat is so bad that it has led to many people not wanting to eat pork at all.

Swedish meat balls
Swedish meat balls

Appearance and taste
Organically reared pigs taste the best as they are left to roam, and use their incredible snout for foraging in the ground. They are fed organic food, and this amounts to happy pigs, with a superior taste and cooking qualities. Conventional pork is watery, chewy, far too lean and without the intense pork flavor that you are after.

Culinary uses
Pork is extremely versatile and lends itself beautifully to every kind of preserving, as well as spicing. Pork is rarely made into stews, but is used minced in a great variety of ways, including the popular Scandinavian meatballs; pork chops and roasts are also popular.

Every part of the pig is used; the bones are boiled for stock, and the fat is rendered and spiced, and used as a spread for open sandwiches. Meaty ribs are fried slowly in a brown sauce and eaten with mashed potatoes. The belly of the pig is made into bacon, or into tolled, salted sausages, the hind legs into ham, and the head into a delicious brawn. Odds and ends are usually made into sausages, fresh like medisterpølse, or cured, smoked and/or dried.

Medisterpølse
Medisterpølse

Modern pork is free from trichinella, a parasite formerly a threat when eating omnivores like pigs. This means that you do not have to roast pork beyond recognition. Toy can bake, fry or roast it until tender and pale pink, and retain the juiciness, which is so important when cooking pork.

History of Scandinavian Pork, written by Tor Kjolberg