I came late to The New Forest National Park and it has found a nest in my heart. This 550sq km patch of ancient England is an all-year-round destination, but autumn is particularly alluring when the russet woodland plays host to Pannage. This is the practice of releasing domestic pigs into a forest (also known as ‘common of mast’), dating back to the reign of William the Conqueror, who founded The New Forest in 1079.
In this case up to 600 pigs are released to eat fallen acorns, beechmast, chestnuts and other nuts, which are poisonous to the ponies, donkeys and cattle which roam the forest. The season started in September and finishes on 18 November. It is the only time of year that the pigs are allowed to ‘roam’ – around the same time those commoner-owned native ponies are rounded up, some headed for auction.
This New Forest breed is most often associated with this former royal hunting ground. Pigs, though, have their own special status, too. Just to watch the wilded beasties wolfing down acorns is enough to induce dreams of free range pork products There is a good reason celebrated hotel/restaurant chain The Pig, with its stalwart commitment to local produce, first took root in the heart of the Forest, just outside Brockenhurst.
A glance at the original Pig’s ’25 mile’ menus reveals a Saddleback crackling snack, starters of Pannage Coppa or home-made black pudding, a Tile Bar Farm pork chop main and my favourite, Crispy Chilli Pork Belly, Garden Leaves, Makers Honey and Greenhouse Chilli – locally reared and grown ingredients, with zero-mile produce picked from their own kitchen garden.
A whole chapter of founder Robert Hutson’s The Pig Cookbook (Octopus, £30) is given over to ‘Porkology’, a snout to tail guide tackling the various breeds they farm and their kitchen uses, particularly charcuterie. Chef Director at The Pig James Golding even teamed up with a third generation local family butcher, Alan Bartlett, to create a curing company called A Pinch of Salt.
Which brings us to a more traditional outlet for all that pork. ‘Mr Bartlett’s Hampshire Hogs’ have a case to be the perfect bangers to match with mash. The recipe date back to Alan’s great grandfather. Jame and his team can’t resist updating the ‘secret’ blend with the addition of (my favourite spice) fennel pollen plus elephant garlic (think a cross between standard garlic and leek).
Ingredients: 100g breadcrumbs, rapeseed, 25g seasoning (roughly 20g salt, 5g sugar, a pinch each of sage, thyme and garlic powder), 700g boneless pork shoulder (80% lean, 20% fatty), 150ml cold water, sausage casings.
Method: Fry the breadcrumbs with a little oil until golden brown. Mince the meat straight onto the crumbs, adding the water. Mince again. Tie one end of a sausage casing with string, then insert the narrow part of a wide-necked funnel in the other end. With the back of a wooden spoon push the meat through the funnel into the skin. Once it’s full remove the funnel and tie the end. Pinch and twist into four individual sausages, then link and tie with with string. Overnight in the fridge. Best cooked over charcoal.
Enough ‘snouts in the trough’. So who needs Vermont when you’ve got the New Forest?
There are are many good places to walk and witness the autumn colours. Try the following. Hightown Common, located near Poulner in the Forest’s north, is perfect for experiencing colour on trees, from the brilliant yellow of the birches to the last clumps of purple heather and the delicate tracery of the dying brackens. The walk starts off by passing a clump of gorse bushes, which provide beautiful colour and a distinctive coconut scent. Rhinefield Ornamental Drive is probably the best-known road in the whole of the forest. Considered by many as the ultimate autumn colour-burst, the drive was planted in 1860 and offers colour and wonder all year round, as well as the Forest’s tallest tree. Time it right, and you can also proceed on to Blackwater Arboretum to see the falling leaves twirl and float into the pond there.
Staying in the New Forest
Many of the forest’s accommodation providers offer good deals to fill beds in the autumn ‘shoulder season’, and quieter roads, pubs and restaurants make it the perfect time for a short break. One place I’d heartily recommend is the four-star Balmer Lawn Hotel (above). This is currently offering three nights for the price of two until the end of November 2022. The break costs from £145 per person, B&B, based on two people sharing a room, and also includes full use of the leisure facilities including indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, jacuzzi and gym. Pigs can be spotted very close to the hotel, and some rooms are dog friendly (though dogs should be on leads where there are pigs.)
We stayed at Balmer Lawn on our pre-Pandemic voyage of discovery. Here’s my report on that equally enchanting spring visit – Tall Trees and A Small Dog in The New Forest. For further information on the area visit the New Forest website.