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You swine!

Posted by Austin Morris on UTC 2015-09-04 07:27.

It’s a pretty horrible smell. Imagine Saturday night in the gents of the Dog and Badger, late, after every gent has been in there, and even the dog and the badger by the smell of it.

Now imagine that smell coming up from a freshly cooked, in all other respects perfect sausage, in this case a saucisson de Toulouse. It’s not just pretty horrible, it’s revolting.

Seeing my expression, my wife gives me that look: pity, contempt, menace – any married man knows that look only too well. She’s tucking into hers with gusto, this sausage, cooked by her own hand, and finds it perfectly delicious. She belongs to the 25 percent of the population who cannot smell it at all and I to the 25 percent who go green at the merest whiff : boar meat!

As with every other young male, when the young pig becomes sexually mature the hormones start flowing. Two of these, androstenone, which concentrates in the flesh and the saliva, and skatole, which collects in the gut, help to make girl pigs turn their heads.

Androstenone is the heady scent of the labourer’s armpit, skatole the stuff that makes droppings so interesting. Meat from male pigs near or beyond sexual maturity is laden with these two. They’re not bad for you, as far as anyone knows, and the meat itself is perfectly sound. The smell really only fully develops during cooking, so sniffing the raw meat is pointless.

Sensitive souls

75 percent of the population can detect the presence of these hormones in cooked boar meat or pork products containing boar meat, and 25 percent have a strong adverse reaction to the smell. The smell even has a special name these days: 'boar-taint', although, for me, 'taint' hardly does justice to this awful whiff. It was for this reason that a number of countries, foremost among them those great pork eaters the Germans, banned the sale of Eberfleisch, boar meat, fearing that the revulsion of the sensitive would damage the entire pork industry. The piglets had to be castrated at about two days old (cost: about 50p per piglet) or the meat had to be chemically analysed and certified free of these two hormones before use.

The animal rights people were unhappy about castration without anaesthetic, the farmers unhappy about the laboratory bill if they didn’t castrate, and we can assume that the piglets weren’t happy about any of it. Furthermore, male pigs with their bits left on produce more muscle mass and less pig waste and are therefore commercially more attractive. Still, if banning boar meat protected the German pork and sausage markets from the cases of revulsion that boar can cause, it was worth it.

Ah bliss it was to be there then, provincial Germany in the eighties, heile Welt indeed! In fact, apart from an article in Die Zeit in the mid-eighties, harrumphing about the remotest possibility that boar meat could get onto German shelves through the machinations of unscrupulous farmers and retailers, I have to confess that I remained contentedly unaware of the protective fence that surrounded us.

Until on one occasion sometime in the mid-nineties, driving through France, we stopped in Reims for dinner, at a restaurant we knew well. I ordered an andouillette, that speciality sausage of the region made from pig tripe, offal, and probably anything else that comes to hand – best not to ask. The English term is chitterling. It looked wonderful. Cut open, it smelt like the sty. That special look from my darling, who – of course – couldn’t smell anything wrong. Nor could the waitress, when she saw the uneaten sausage. Even two females looking contemptuously at me could not get me to eat that damn sausage.

Pigs with bits

This incident puzzled me for a long time. There is a society for lovers of the andouillette with its own certification system for this delicacy and the restaurants that serve it. Take my Parisien friend Jean-Marc: if there is an andouillette on the menu, he’ll have it. I’ve poked around in some of his specimens, too, and they are usually not bad at all. It was only after moving to France, and getting these unpleasant whiffs from pork and pork products on a fairly regular basis that the penny finally dropped. Boar meat.

And now the Germans are unhappy because EU regulations mean that they can no longer keep their shelves and counters free of the stuff. Reading the packet won’t tell you anything, since boar meat is just pork, and labelled as such. There seems to be a growing market in Germany for meat suppliers who are prepared to guarantee that no boar meat gets into their sausages. Will anybody be surprised if the consumption of pig products in Germany, hitherto legendary, goes down as it is doing everywhere else?

So as boar meat gradually invades our pork products – thank you, EU – 25 percent of us will become more frequently strongly aware of its presence and another 25 percent will stare at us in contempt and wonder what the fuss is all about.