How to get the best from pork

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The Independent Culture
Ham and bacon: These may be dry-cured in salt (rare today), or cured in brine. The modern treatment is to inject the brine with needles, so the meat takes up up nitrates and nitrites. Polyphosphates (jellying agents) allow the meat to absorb 15 per cent of the brine, and this added water doesn't have to be declared. If they manage to inject 25 per cent water, say, the label will read; 10 per cent added water. A butcher putting his thumb on the scales will be prosecuted. This cheat is legal. The worst ham on sale is not a ham as we know it (from the leg) but a mix of other pieces, reformed in blocks, glued with gelatins, flavoured with hydrolised vegetable protein.Smoked hams and smoked bacon, says Joanna Blythman, may not be smoked over wood as we are entitled to expect, but sprayed with a synthetic flavouring product known as liquid smoke. There is no legal requirements to state the source of the smoke flavour. If you feel this a cheat, you need to look for a label which actually states, smoked over wood chips or, traditionally smoked.

SAUSAGES: Since going over a sausage factory some years ago I have never bought or eaten commercial sausages (the exceptions being some from Harvey Nichols and others from a local country butcher). But I applaud my colleague Matthew Fort who organised a national sausage competition, investigating some 1,500 examples of this arcane British craft. The best, predictably, were those with high quality meat and a high quantity of meat. But aren't they all meat? Back to Joanna Blythman. No, far from it. The good news is the growth of specialist sausage-makers and their shops. But labelling in supermarkets and small shops is misleading; terms like traditional, old-style or original may be empty claims. She amplifies what I guessed at in my one factory visit. A pork sausage must legally contain at least 65 per cent pork but the meat can be anything; scrape from trimmed carcases, tail meat, head, cheek, neck, tongue, kidney, gristle, sinew, fat (up to 50 per cent), fatty cuts (belly, flank), pork from tired-out old sows, frozen imported pork, and mechanically-recovered meat (MRM). MRM has to be declared on the label. Some mass-manufactured "value" and "economy" lines contain as little as 50 per cent meat, usually an unsavoury blend of low-grade poultry, pork and beef. Don't touch them with a barge pole, she warns.

From the deli: If you fancy courting food poisoning, says Joanna Blythman, then look no further than the deli. Spot checks on sliced ham by the Consumers Association produced 80 samples contaminated by Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. Pork pates are highly suspect too, and may harbour the bacteria above. These and residues of illegal medicines routinely turn up in Brussels- type pates. Beware the rustic ceramic bowl and fine-sounding names, pates with pheasant or wild mushroom; there is a high proportion of pork liver, with a high degree of residue of undesirable drugs fed to pigs.

Salami: The cognoscenti will know their way round top shops selling excellent salami. But a warning from Joanna Blythman. Unlike France, Italy and Spain, we have no tradition of making chopped meat products and so we are a captive market for junk. Most salami we are asked to buy are of really poor quality. Most industrial salamis are copies of the real thing, but the worst examples are bargain-basement Danish and German copies of copies, fatty, salty, made of inferior meat, braced with chemicals.

The cuts

LEG: The whole leg, weighing about 10 lb, makes a ham. It usually comes in two large pieces, the knuckle half or hock, and the fillet half.

Shoulder: Roasting and braising joints. It divides into hand, knuckle and blade.

Chops: Chump chops and loin chops, taken from the hind-loin and fore- loin, lend themselves to frying, barbecuing and grilling. Cook well, but not too fiercely. Make incisions into the fat to stop it shrinking and curling. There are also cheaper chops from the neck end.

Belly: Spare ribs come from this cut. A boned belly of pork, though rather fatty, is usually rolled and stuffed. Pork belly is ideal for sausagemeat and home-made pates and terrines. Many cooks put a slice of pork belly in casseroles with other melts to add richness and flavour.

FAT: Not to be ignored. In Hungary, where it is known as spec, the best back fat is so prized it is rolled in paprika to be sliced and eaten on bread. Back fat, sliced thinly, is what you need to line a terrine or pate. The French cut it into strips or squares, lardons, to thread into lean joints of beef with a needle. Strips tied on to dry game birds help baste them as they roast, called barding.

How to get the best of pork

Pork has generated some of the most exciting, inventive, astonishing dishes around the world. Every cut is prized from head to tail. Succulent brawn is made from the head (there are 5lb of meat in the head). In France the trotters and ears are boiled, then breadcrumbed and grilled, to be served with a sharp sauce. In Brazil and the West Indies the salted tails enrich a feijoade (the national stew of spicy black beans and pork) or a callaloo (crab and greens). The Germans favour stewed knuckle (eis-bein). The Chinese developed their world-renowned dish of sweet-and-sour spare ribs. And did not the once-great British Breakfast revolve around crispy rashers of dry-cured bacon with new-laid eggs, best pork sausages and perhaps a slice of black pudding (pigs' blood, pork fat, oats).

Roasting: Almost any cut of pork, large or small, lends itself to roasting. Pork needs to be well-cooked, and preferably slowly. Cooking times suggested are conflicting, but Sophie Grigson, who presented Channel 4's Meat Course, advises for larger cuts, 30 minutes to the lb (33 mins per 500g) plus an extra 30 minutes. Cook in a hot, but not too hot, oven, say 450 to 375F, 180-190C, Gas 4-5. The joy of a roast is the crackling. The butcher will do it, but you can do it yourself most effectively with a Stanley knife, cutting through rind and fat, but not into the meat below. The fat bubbles up through the cracks to crisp up. Damp meat is an enemy of crackle.

Grilling, barbequeing, frying: For chops and small cuts. Don't cook too fiercely or too fast.

Casseroling and stewing: Pork lends itself welll to these methods, producing particularly moist and tender results. Some of the best Hungarian goulash is made with pork.

Poaching: Suitable for salted hams and joints. Soak in water overnight to draw out some of the salt, then simmer with vegetables, about 25 minutes to the pound.

Accompaniments: With a hot roast: apple sauces, prunes, apricots, even pineapple. Cold: sharp pickles or hot mustards to cut the fattiness.