PORK can be the best and worst of meats. If ever there was a need for a New Charter for Merit it is for pork. Pork products are some of the tastiest foods in the world. Think of slow-cured Parma hams from Italy, Spanish jamon serrano, French Bayonne ham, German Westphalian ham. Think of French saucissons and Italian salami and German wurst.
But in Britain it seems we have few pork products left which excite the imagination. Melton Mowbray pork pies, perhaps. Cumberland sausage, maybe. But in the name of cheap food we allow manufacturers to debase pork, and sell hams injected with water, sausages stretched with other meats, bacon which leaches a white scum into the frying pan.
We build and feed most pigs intensively, resulting in tough, stringy, watery, tasteless meat. When there is a choice to be made, to be made we'll make the wrong ones, instanced by the move towards fast-growing, high-yielding breeds rather than those that develop flavour. In the name of health (the Fear of Fat) we farm leaner animals. Yet it is the fat (of free-range animals at any rate) which contributes to pork's delicious flavour.
The Roman emperor Vespasian was dismayed to discover there were no beech trees in England in his day. Significant to him, because the Roman pig grew fat and tasty on its diet of beechnuts and acorns foraged on the forest floor. The question of flavour was not on the agenda when I visited the Meat and Livestock Commission's HQ at Milton Keynes earlier this year. The meat scientists I talked to were concerned only with developing more tender cuts. Flavour wasn't an issue that concerned farmers or manufacturers, or customers apparently, and was thus not regarded worthy of research.
Pork-lovers agree, however, that outdoor pigs taste vastly superior to those bred intensively indoors, regardless of feed. Marks & Spencer, who were among the first to promote free-range pork, are in fact investigating the effect of different feeds, conducting tests on the Duroc Cross with eight different types of pig food. Thanks to their initiative, around one-fifth of British pigs are now bred outdoors. Be warned, though, that there is as yet no legal definition of "outdoor" - and occasionally it can mean a bleak, dark shed outdoors.
Where pigs are concerned, welfare isn't exactly top of the farmers' agenda. Half the pork eaten in Britain comes from Denmark, Holland and Ireland where it is nearly all intensively reared (much of it is labelled British, which is legal if it's processed here). Four-fifths of British pork is produced intensively and a full account of the degrading conditions in which our pigs live can be found in Joanna Blythman's The Food We Eat (Michael Joseph pounds 7.99).
She describes how they live in a series of small pens on hard concrete or slatted floors, tethered and unable to turn around (a practice to be discontinued by 1999). Piglets have their tails docked, their teeth clipped. They are fed pelleted rations, contain carbohydrates and protein which may take the form of fish meal and DPM, dry poultry manure (it was only in March this year the practice of feeding them processed cattle and sheep offal was banned.) Antibiotics and probiotics are routinely delivered in the feed, with residues occasionally turning up in pork for human consumption.
All this is fairly offputting. But suppose you have found some good pork at last, bred outdoors, perhaps from a rare breed. Here are some recipes that make the most of such a find.
PORC AUX PRUNEAUX DE TOURS
This recipe is taken from Sophie Grigson's Meat Course (Network Books pounds 17.99). She says it is a fabulous dish for a dinner party, particularly mid-week when cooking and preparation time is in short supply.
seasoned flour, for dusting
300ml/10fl oz Vouvray or other dry white wine
2 pork fillets
1 level tablespoon redcurrant jelly
300ml/10fl oz whipping cream
squeeze of lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Soak the prunes in the wine for as long as possible - at least an hour - but if you have time, leave them overnight. Slit open the prunes and remove their stones. Reserve the prunes and don't throw out the wine.
Slice each tenderloin thickly into nine discs (that's 18 altogether). Heat the butter in a wide frying pan until it is foaming, dust the pieces of pork with flour and fry over a moderate heat until just tender. If necessary, do this in two batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Slices of fillet don't take very long - about four minutes on each side. Remove from the pan, arrange on a serving dish and keep warm.
Pour any excess fat from the pan, return to the heat and pour in the wine from soaking the prunes. Bring to the boil, scraping in all the meaty residues. Stir in the redcurrant jelly, then boil hard over a high heat until reduced to a syrupy consistency.
Now stir in the cream and reduce the sauce until nicely thickened. When it is almost done, add the prunes to warm through. Add a splash of lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Dot the prunes around the pork and pour over the sauce. Serve at once.
ROAST LOIN OF
PORK WITH APPLE, GINGER AND
This recipe is also from Sophie Grigson's Meat Course. It is a suitable size for a family meal, and particularly easy to carve. To save time and effort, ask your butcher to prepare the joint. The apple and orange in the stuffing provide the fruitiness that goes well with pork and the ginger adds a high note without dominating. Sophie Grigson recommends serving the meat with apple sauce.
1 boned loin of pork, weighing about 1.25-1.5kg/3-312lb
1 big glass cider, optional
pinch of sugar, optional
For the stuffing:
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 small eating apple, cored and finely chopped
50g/2oz fresh white breadcrumbs
1-2 spheres preserved stem ginger, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
salt and freshly ground black pepper
finely grated zest and juice of 12 orange
Pre-heat oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5. If you've bought the joint ready boned and rolled, snip off strings and unroll pork carefully. If you have a whole untouched piece, score the crackling, then bone. If the joint comes from the upper fillet ends, make a pocket for the stuffing. Otherwise, make a flap.
Mix the stuffing ingredients, adding just enough egg to bind, and push into the pocket or spread over the cut sides of the meat. Either way don't cram it all in or it will expand as it cooks, oozing out in an unsightly way. Far better to save the excess to make little stuffing balls. Roll up the meat and tie it firmly in place with string, making sure that the skin which will become the crackling is back on top of the joint. Weigh the joint and calculate the cooking time - allowing 33 minutes per 500g (30 minutes per lb) plus 30 minutes.
Set the rolled joint on a rack over a roasting tin. Dry the skin thoroughly, then rub plenty of fine salt into it. Roast in the oven.
Roll any left-over stuffing into walnut-sized balls and pop them into the roasting tin about half an hour before the joint is done so that they have time to brown and cook through. Remove when they seem nicely browned.
Test the meat to see if it is done; if it is cooked through properly, the juices should run clear when a skewer is inserted. Transfer to a serving plate and let it relax in a warm place for 15-20 minutes while you make a simple gravy, if you want to.
Spoon any excess fat out of the roasting tin then place it over the hob and add the cider and a pinch of sugar. Bring up to the boil, stirring and scraping in the meaty residues. Let it bubble for a few minutes before tasting and adjusting the seasonings, adding a little more sugar if it is on the sharp side. Strain and serve with the meat and crackling, accompanied with home-made apple sauce.
MEDALLIONS OF PORK IN LIME
In this recipe from A World of Flavours (Pavilion pounds 19.99), Willi Elsener, executive chef at the Dorchester Hotel, uses medallions of pork which are cut from the fillet or tenderloin and served with a tangy citrus sauce. These could easily be replaced by pork steaks or chops to make the dish more economical.
8 medallions of pork, each 50g/2oz
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
For the garnish:
1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1/2 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
For the marinade:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon lime juice
freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon English mustard powder
For the sauce:
100ml/4fl oz brown veal stock
150ml/5fl oz double cream
Mix the lime zest with the parsley and garlic. Keep aside. Mix the ingredients for the marinade, pour over the meat and allow to stand at least 20 minutes or overnight.
Remove the meat from the marinade and pat dry. Reserve the marinade. Heat the oil, season the medallions with salt and pepper and fry until golden brown on both sides. Remove from the pan, and place on a baking tray. Cook in a preheated oven at 180C/350F/Gas 4 for 6-8 minutes (medium/well), depending on the thickness of the meat.
Using the same frying pan, add the marinade and the veal stock. Bring to the boil and simmer over low heat for three minutes. Add the cream and simmer for a further minute, then season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Place medallions on dish, bring the sauce back to the boil, and pour over. Sprinkle with lime/parsley mix.
Serves 4 1kg/2lb pork spare ribs, either in a sheet or separated
4 leeks, cut into "brushes" for basting
For the Down Home Dry Rub:
1 tablespoon onion granules
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon garlic granules
1 tablespoon crumbled dried bay leaves
For the Lone Star Moppin' Sauce:
150ml/1/4pt cider vinegar
90ml/3fl oz vegetable oil
60ml/4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon mild chilli powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon crumbled dried bay leaves
1 teaspoon garlic granules
1/2 teaspoon celery salt, or to taste
Barbecued ribs are traditionally rubbed with a dry spice mixture, then basted or "mopped", as they cook on the barbecue.
Mix the dry rub ingredients together in a bowl. Dust the ribs with the dry rub, then rub it in well. Leave the meat to marinate for 30 minutes. Light the barbecue, or preheat a gas barbecue.
To make the Lone Star Moppin' Sauce, place all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well together. Cook the ribs on a cool part of the grill, basting with the Moppin' Sauce, using a leek brush. Keep covered, so that the smoke scents the meat. The secret of their flavour is long slow cooking, the ribs growing tender and smoky as they cook over the fire. The longer and slower you leave the ribs to cook, the more tender they will be.
Allow between one and two hours if the ribs are joined together in a sheet; about 40 minutes if they are separated. To cook over medium heat, halve the cooking time.
Brush plenty of sweet and spicy home-made barbecue sauce with a good chilli kick to it onto the ribs during their last 10 minutes on the barbecue, and don't forget to offer a generous extra bowlful at the table for guests to serve themselves, too.
This is a recipe taken from The Classic Barbecue and Grill Book (Dorling Kindersley pounds 14.99), by Marlena Spieler.