Like the characters in La Grande Bouffe, they have brought their own knives, honed to razor sharpness. They also intend to indulge in mysterious and arcane food rituals. They are four chefs, whose idea of having fun on their day off (after working daily 16-hour shifts) is to spend 16 hours together making charcuterie.
Together they will take apart a pig's carcass while swapping recipes for saucissons, andouillettes, terrines, pates, boudins blancs and noirs, North African merguez sausages, Italian hams, coppa, cotechino, salami. It's a lot more fun than a day at the slaughterhouse, but not a great deal less bloody.
Alas, all resemblance to La Grande Bouffe fades as the script moves headlong towards a bizarre climax closer to Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, when a five-foot hoselength of liquid black sausage bursts, spraying a spiral of blood over the chefs' whites.
This expedition is all Pierre Koffman's idea. He is Britain's newest Michelin three-star chef. This has been an extraordinary year for Koffmann, a shy, retiring giant of man. In January, he became the third chef in Britain to achieve the French guidebook's highest accolade - held only by his mentors, brothers Albert and Michel Roux, for whom he has worked at both Le Gavroche in London's West End and The Waterside Inn at Bray, in Berkshire.
Last month he won the Andre Simon award for the best food book of the year, his autobiographical La Tante Claire. The first part, Memories of Gascony, had already won the Glenfiddich Food Book of the Year award. Food writer Arabella Boxer, the assessor for the Simon prize, described Koffman's latest as 'a heartening story, and very encouraging for someone who wonders if food is really a worthwhile subject to have devoted one's life to'.
Today, Pierre Koffman is paying homage to the spirit of his beloved Gascon past. Charcuterie, though universally loved in France, is humble pie and not appropriate for the temples of haute cuisine. 'We cannot serve pork,' he says. 'Our customers do not want to eat pig.' In fact at La Tante Claire, as a gesture towards his roots, Koffman has served Pieds de Cochon Farcis aux Morilles, his signature dish, from the day he opened the restaurant. It's something of a three-star chef's conceit; the trotters are laboriously boned, and stuffed with sweetbreads and scented morel mushrooms. (For the benefit of armchair cooks, we give his recipe overleaf.)
It is soon after 7am when Koffman arrives at the Old Manor House, in the medieval abbey town of Romsey, near Southampton, the restaurant of his old friend Mauro Bregoli. Bregoli, who learnt how to make salami with a family in Emilia-Romagna in the north of Italy, has offered to share his skills with Koffman and friends, and has nobly offered his kitchen as laboratory, as he puts it. 'There was a time when a chef would never share a recipe. He would carry his secret to the grave.' But if they don't share secrets, the chefs decided, much of the art and craft of charcuterie will vanish - particularly as Brussels pushes its relentless tentacles into every corner of rural France and Italy. 'Politicians don't know about food,' say the chefs. 'Why don't they keep their noses out.'
Bregoli, an avuncular figure, has already put in two hours in the kitchen, dismembering an old boar. It is the father of the beast Koffman has booked for his own use. Bregoli is relaxing over coffee and croissants when his guests arrive.
Koffman has driven 80 miles down the M3 with his friends, Laurent David, a chef, and Jacquot Gratton, who used to run a delicatessen. Now he unloads the boot; there's a plastic sack of peeled onions and garlic, the meat from five pigs' heads and a bucket with 10 litres of congealing pig's blood.
Mauro Bregoli's relaxed mood of bonhomie is jolted as he sees the bucket of blood. 'They've brought blood. My poor kitchen is going to be full of bloody blood,' he moans in mock despair. He shrugs with resignation and leads them to the kitchen to show them the 200lb beast they will have to work on. It's not any old pig, but an aristocrat of the genus, known as an Eldon Wild Blue, a cross between wild boar and Hampen Gilt.
It is a special pig. It has been bred by local pig-breeder Sam Olive. He is a special pig-breeder, who started his career working with bulls in Spain, on the farm of the charismatic El Cordobes. Sam Olive's pigs come from a herd of 300 prime animals whose meat is the most exclusive in Britain, available at a handful of outlets such as Boucherie Lamartine in Mayfair and Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge and costing at least twice as much as any other pork. An Eldon Wild Blue is reared for twice as long before slaughter, but it doesn't just taste twice as good; there's simply no comparison.
The point, says Koffman, is that most of today's pig-breeders have taken the modern pig to the point of no return. It is no longer worth buying at any price. Koffman explains: 'In the modern pig you get a huge amount of intra-muscular water.' Bregoli adds: 'If we were trying to work with a regular pig, the surface would be running with water.'
More than anything, it is the quality of the fat that excites the chefs. 'With regular butchers' pork, you throw away the fat. With this you can make lardo (preserved back fat) and good pancetta (the Italian fatty bacon which has no parallel in Britain).'
As they say, in France and Italy they use every bit of the pig except the squeak. Koffman is annoyed to find the abattoir has not sent the head. 'I wanted to make fromage de tete. In England it is hopeless. At the abattoir they throw everything away.'
The four of them work without a break, skinning, boning, chopping, mincing. Bregoli stuffs 12 pig's bladders till they swell like balloons and fills them with his sugo di salami, a pork mixture with port from his native Ferrara. Jacquot makes merguez sausages, half fat, half meat, wetting the meat with white wine, staining them red with paprika and chilli powder.
The two hams from the haunches are set aside to be salted down, massaged daily for three weeks, then hung to mature for a year or more. Other cuts are reserved for a brine bath, such as the meat on the chestbone, ventreche.
Prize cuts, the loin and the muscle from neck to shoulder, are seasoned with garlic and salt and tightly wrapped in one piece for coppa. Bones go into a huge vat of simmering shallots and garlic for the stock to make black pudding. Meat is graded in descending order, converted to salami and saucissons, minced into a pate to go into terrines (simmered for three hours in sealed glass jars) and the humblest grade of all into andouillettes, spiced with Dijon mustard and vinegar. Bregoli saves the skin - which he will freeze, then mince and combine with pork to make the boiled cotechino sausage.
The grand finale is the making of the black pudding; each chef in turn dipping his arms up to the elbow in the wine-red blood to warm it through to (human) blood temperature. Then the farcical climax, blood everywhere, Bregoli's Scottish wife having arrived to view the proceedings with alarm. 'They didn't say they were bringing blood.'
The day ends in laughter, and like sportsmen with a good bag of game, they carry their spoils home. The pig, costing about pounds 160, is now spread out in about pounds 600-worth of premium hams, salami and sausages. They are triumphant: 'These are better than you'd find anywhere in France or Italy,' says Bregoli proudly. 'They don't have pigs like this anywhere.' They don't have three-star chefs among their charcutiers either. Here, to demonstrate his talents, are three Koffman recipes:
Recipe: PIEDS DE COCHON FARCIS AUX MORILLES
(Stuffed pig's trotters with morels)
4 pig's back trotters, boned
4oz carrots, diced
4oz onions, diced
5fl oz dry white wine
1 tablespoon port
5fl oz veal stock
8oz veal sweetbreads,
blanched and chopped
plus a knob for the sauce
20 dried morels,
soaked until soft and drained
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 chicken breast,
skinned and diced
1 egg white
7fl oz double cream
salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 325F/160C/Gas 3. Place the trotters in a casserole with the diced carrots and onions, the wine, port and veal stock. Cover and braise in the oven for three hours. Meanwhile, fry the sweetbreads in the butter for five minutes, add the morels and chopped onion and cook for another five minutes. Leave to cool.
Puree the chicken breast with the egg white and cream, and season with salt and pepper. Mix with the sweetbread mixture to make the stuffing. Take the trotters out of the casserole and strain the cooking stock, keeping the stock but discarding the vegetables. Open the trotters out flat and lay each one on a piece of foil. Leave to cool.
Fill the cooled trotters with the chicken stuffing and roll them up tightly in the foil. Chill in the fridge for at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7 or prepare a steamer and, when the water is simmering, steam the foil-wrapped trotters until heated through. Alternatively, put the trotters in a casserole and heat for 15 minutes.
Put the trotters on a serving dish and remove the foil. Pour the reserved stock into the casserole and reduce by half. Whisk in a knob of butter, pour over the trotters, and serve hot.
Recipe: JAMBON SALE
(Salt-cured leg of pork)
Serves as many as you like
20lb leg of free-range pork
from a reputable supplier
20lb coarse sea salt
coarsely ground pepper
Sprinkle a 2in layer of sea salt in a large wooden box. Lay the leg of pork on top, rind-side upwards. Cover with the rest of the salt, making sure the pork is completely covered. Lay a wooden plank over the meat and secure with a 20lb weight (you could use tins from the storecupboard; a dozen tins of tomatoes will do) to extract as much moisture as possible from the meat.
Leave the pork in the salt for one day per 1lb meat, ie in this case 20 days. Remove all salt with a brush. Rub the ham energetically all over with wine vinegar, then dry thoroughly with a tea towel. Spread the coarsely ground black pepper all over the cut, fleshy side of the meat, making sure that it penetrates the flesh around the bone.
Wrap in a muslin cloth and hang in a well-ventilated cold larder for six months.
Recipe: BOUDINS VERTS
Makes 8 sausages
2oz plain flour
5fl oz milk
1 onion, finely chopped
1oz duck fat
1oz Bayonne ham, diced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
4oz spinach, cooked and chopped
1 teaspoon chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon snipped chives
30in sausage casing
Mix the flour, eggs and milk and leave to rest for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, sweat the chopped onion in the duck fat for five minutes. Mix together the ham, garlic, parsley, spinach, tarragon and chives. Add the cooked onion and mix into the milk mixture. Season to taste. Spoon the mixture into the sausage casing and tie at 4in intervals to make about eight sausages. Poach the sausages in a saucepan of water at 194F/90C for 15 minutes.-
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