For that old fashioned country ham taste
History from the Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds
& The American Berkshire Association:
More than two hundred years ago, the Berkshire was a well known favorite of both farmers and royalty for its exceptionally flavored meat. It was raised on rich farmland west of London and fattened on food wastes. Yet its story illustrates the difficulty that can occur in tracing the history of a breed. Farmers frequently describe a breed of livestock with the name of the area in which it was raised.
In early 19th century agricultural records, several differently appearing hogs were called Berkshires. Some were large red or sand colored stock, often with black spots. Others were colored black and white or spotted. Both prick and lop ears were seen. Some possessed the characteristic Berkshire white points on feet and tail. Asian or Neapolitan breeds were also introduced to upgrade these native pigs, giving them a dished facial appearance and more rapid maturity.
Despite the confusion, the Berkshire became one of the earliest recognized breeds of pig. By 1825 in Britain, a registry and a standard had been established that described a medium seized, stout pig that was generally black with white points-that is, white on the face, feet and tip of the curly tail. An official breed society was formed about 1883. By the end of the century, the Berkshire had been changed by the demands of the show ring into a smaller, very fat, short snouted pig. Pure black with white points was the established coloration.
The Berkshire still supplied pork and bacon, but its dark skin was losing favor with butchers. Eventually, the Berkshire could not compete with the Danish Landrace, and its numbers began to slip. By 1979, only 16 boars were registered. The Berkshire was imported into the United States as early as 1823 and to Canada soon afterward. It was noted as a great improver when crossbred to native farm stock.
Beginning in the 1830s, the Shaker religious communities often raised the Berkshire. The Shakers at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, owned a boar named Black Hawk the Great, reputed to be the finest Berkshire boar in the state. In 1875, the American Berkshire Association was formed. This registry was limited to English stock and their direct decedents.
Accordingly, the Berkshire bloodlines have remained exceptionally pure.
About the breed:
The American Berkshire has up-right ears and a distinctive upturned nose. The breed is also noted for its good mothering abilities, heavy milking, quiet temperament, easy feeding qualities, and hardiness. Although the Berkshire has succeeded in confinement swine production in the United States, it remains an excellent pig for raising outdoors. Its dark color is an advantage in hot and sunny climates. In both Britain and the United States, the Berkshire has been selectively changed to meet the needs of the modern market, including fast growth, reduced fat, and greater standardization. A few breeders maintain an older traditional type. Because of the breedís purity, it has great value in crossbred hybrid operations.
The Berkshire is noted for its sweetly flavored, lean meat. Packers pay premiums for Berkshires because of the high quality pork. In the 1990s, a small group of Berkshires was again imported into the United States specifically to improve the flavor of meat destined for Japanese export markets.
The status of the Berkshire is critical in its native home. Fewer than 500 breeding adults are owned by 120 breeders. The Berkshire Breeders Club serves as a Breeder Society. In Canada the numbers are much lower, with only 50 pigs registered annually. It has been difficult for Canadian breeders to find markets for this rare breed, but the Asian interest in the Berkshire is promising. A breeder in Alberta imported 28 Berkshires from Britain in 1997.
Fortunately, the Berkshire has fared better in the United States, where it numbers about 20,000 and has excellent prospects for the future, owing to the demands for its traits.
The Berkshire is also found in Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. The British Berkshire has benefited from the reintroduction of these bloodlines.