A sense of place: Gloucestershire old spots

Categories: Product stories

Britain’s oldest pedigree pig breed, the old spot, once faced extinction. But a dedicated group of farmers and foodies have worked together to ensure this special breed’s survival

Words: Daniel Tapper

An alien visitor to Earth might well be perplexed by our approach to taste. We rejoice in learning the unique aromas and flavours of almost every food variety imaginable, from grapes to coffee beans, hops to herbs, and spices to tea leaves. Damn, even the strain of yeast we bake our bread with is now open for debate. And yet, though around 95 per cent of us consume meat, few of us ever consider the breed of cow, chicken or pig we eat. We really should. Britain boasts a rich heritage of regional speciality animals and the meat produced from them isn’t just delicious, it is easily distinguishable—the result of hundreds of years of pedigree breeding.

If one animal illustrates this more than any other, it is surely the Gloucestershire old spot: a pig that at one time faced extinction but is now celebrated the world-over for its unique texture, marbling and taste. Though it is not known when the breed was first developed, it is believed to have originated around Berkeley Vale along the shores of the River Severn, where local smallholders crossed the original Gloucestershire pig—a large, off-white variety—with the unimproved Berkshire, a sandy-coloured prick-eared pig with spots. The resulting porker was usually kept in local cider and perry pear orchards, where it gorged on windfall fruit—local folklore says that the pig’s inky black spots are bruises from the falling apples.

Emperor’s order
Highly prized for its meat, as well as its cheery temperament, the breed flourished throughout the 1800s and in 1913, the Gloucestershire Old Spots Breed Society was launched to help protect its pedigree. One year later and the reputation of the pig was in such rude health that the German Kaiser himself is purported to have ordered and paid for an old spot. However, when the first world war was declared, the pig was never sent and the emperor was never remunerated.

By the early 1920s, the old spot was the most populous pig breed in the country. To meet demand, a growing number of breeders began crossing the pig with lower quality animals. Un-fooled, consumers boycotted the breed and the number of purebred pigs plummeted.

The nail in the old spot’s coffin was the development of faster growing breeds, better adapted to intensive farming. By 1973, there were just 100-120 registered sows in existence. Around 80 per cent of those were in one herd in Worcestershire owned by George Styles. Thanks to the efforts of George and other hobby farmers like him, the breed gradually began to increase. Though there are believed to be fewer than 1,000 registered breeding females today, in recent years the breed has begun to enjoy another resurgence, fuelled by increased interest in provenance from chefs and consumers alike.

Reared slowly
More promising still, in 2010 the old spot became the first breed of any species in the world to be awarded Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) status by the European Union. Like West Country farmhouse cheddar cheese, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Cornish sardines, any pork product boasting the Traditionally Farmed Gloucestershire Old Spots Pork name must now adhere to a number of strict rules: both parents must be registered pedigree Gloucestershire old spots; all pigs must be reared slowly from birth to slaughter in an environment that enables them to grow at a natural rate; the application of medication should be avoided unless absolutely necessary; routine tail docking and teeth clipping are not permitted; and slaughter must take place in small-scale abattoirs to minimise stress. Finally, old spot carcases must be hung on the bone for a period of three to four days from slaughter.

The pork produced in this way isn’t just better for the welfare of the animal, it results in palpably distinct meat. One study by Bristol University found that meat produced from old spot pigs not only boasts increased fat thickness but also greater retention of moisture than modern breeds reared on an industrial scale. An independent tasting panel found that the pork was juicier and more tender—proof if ever you needed it that the quality of your meat is only as good as the animal it came from.