Arguably the backbone of British cookery, here we take a look into the many uses of one of our best loved animals, the pig
I’m a besotted lover of the pig, but shaving the bristles from a pigs head with your wife’s razor doesn’t seem to go down too well. Nor, does leaving its ears in the fridge door, but then a bacon sandwich seems to smooth over even the most intense of arguments.
Historically, this time of year was known as pig sticking time, where the pig that had been fattened up during the year, would be slaughtered for Winter. For the beast to see a family through the bleakness of Winter, the entire animal would need to be put to use, from tight curly tail to blushing pink snout, or nose-to-tail as they say.
In the days before refrigeration, salting was the only way to keep meat. Pork and salt make a happy couple, more so than any other animal. Even now with ample refrigeration at our fingertips, we have continued to preserve pork with salt in a whole myriad of ways. From hams, gammons and the ubiquitous bacon, it seems our tables feel stark without some tasty salted pig parts.
Rare breed pork can make interesting eating. Look out for Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot, both breeds taste fantastic and are fairly easy to lay your hands on. Choosing outdoor reared pigs is where you’ll find the biggest rewards. “Our pigs live outside and feed on apples and fallen fruit,” explains Beverly Brown of Roundwood Orchard Pig Company. “This makes the meat sweeter.”
The nasty bits
Even the less attractive parts of the butchered pig have seldom been overlooked. Trotters are not only abundant in stocks soups and sauces, but also grace the linens of the world’s finest restaurants. There are even chefs who have become renowned for their pigs trotters.
Brawn, or head cheese, is a jellied terrine made from the boiled meats of a pigs head. Lightly seasoned and spiced. “It’s such an understated dish,” explains Paul Down, Head Chef of The Running Horse in Winchester. “There’s tons of flavour in the pigs head and brawn is a great way to enjoy it.”
Pigs cheeks, unctuous little pillows of tender meat, contain mountains of flavour despite their conservative size. For Bath Chaps the jowl and cheek are taken in one large cut then cured in salt before being boiled and finally rolled. This traditional British preservation of the pigs face can either be sliced finely and eaten like ham, or cut off and fried like bacon. It naturally has a lot of fat and as such, carries a more intense porcine flavour.
The flavours in the fat
One of the remarkable traits of the pig, is its rapid ability to grow. You can have a pig ready for slaughter in as little as twenty weeks, but at the cost of leaner meat. This is one of the many problems with intensive and commercial farming methods. “It’s too fast,” explains Tim Wilson, of The Ginger Pig. “No fat has been laid down and so there is no flavour.”
Not only a wonderful cooking fat, ideal for shallow frying, lard is also pastry’s best kept secret. Eccles cakes traditionally call for lard in their puff pastry, as does the self explanatory lardy cake. For the flakiest pastry with a well rounded and smooth flavour there is simply no contest, lard is king.
Crackling is the bit we fight over at Sunday lunch. My dad demanding he has the biggest, most crunchy pieces, but the rest of the table ignoring him. It’s every man for himself round our house. But crackling doesn’t always turn out a crispy success, “It needs to be cooked properly,” tells Pauline Butler of Blytheburgh Free Range Pork. “Choosing pork from pigs that live outdoors and get good exercise is important. They have a more succulent, fuller flavour which comes through to the skin making the crackling even better.”
As we part, we should not forget the pork scratching. Here in the UK we make them like no one else. Complete with stubbly hair, they’re the perfect sidekick to a pint of ale at the end of a long and tiresome day.
So what parts of the pig are you most in love with, do you fight for the crackling, or are there bits of the pig you just aren’t quite ready to face? Let us know.
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