Food: Ham it up

Simon Hopkinson's alternative dish for Christmas: I thought some sort of piggy thing should come to the fore this year, snorting its way to the front of the festive queue Photograph by Jason Lowe
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When I was working in a seaside hotel in Pembrokeshire, at the beginning of the 1970s, there was a dish on the menu with a very strange name. I certainly had never heard of Le Saupiquet des Amognes before, and, when a rather jovial and regular guest asked after a description of this said delicacy, he was told - in all seriousness - that it was ham in a cream sauce. Well, he simply fell about. Kathy, the head waitress at the time, didn't see the joke at all and proceeded to go off in a huff - I seem to remember she had a few of these huffs, did dear Kathy.

Humour and huffs aside, it is a supremely good dish this Saupiquet. Big Sal, the extremely gifted - if a little temperamental - cook at the hotel had unearthed the recipe from the pages of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking - the source, in fact, of a great deal of other good things that appeared on the menu. Come to think of it, this was the period when I really discovered E D, too.

Mrs David writes: "Saupiquet consists of a sauce piquante a la creme served with slices of ham fried in butter. It is a modernised version of a famous and very old speciality of the Nivernais and the Morvan districts of Burgundy." She goes on to say that the sauce "... is one well worth knowing". Well, it has certainly been one of those charming and idiosyncratic sauces that has remained dear to my heart ever since: simple to prepare, lovely and creamy, yet light and sharp on the palate. It partners ham superbly and it is excellent with a salt tongue, too. I have always thought that it is sauces such as this one that confirm the genius of the French cook.

So this is my suggestion as an alternative to the Christmas bird. Not an alternative for the sake of it, you understand - I loathe the idea of that being a reason for not eating goose or turkey. Some sort of piggy thing should, I believe, always be around anyway, but I thought it should come to the fore this year, snorting its way to the front of the festive queue.

Pork, as a braise, is not necessarily something one thinks about at any particular time, let alone at Christmas. But it can be truly delicious when put together with sympathetic partners. Red wine, as a braising liquid, is surprisingly complementary to such a pale meat, tingeing the meat a dark red with its vinous juices without masking its delicate flavour. A partially boned joint is ideal here: neat and tight, easy to slice into thick slabs and moist and tender, too. Rosemary is the herb to use for the best effect, along with a generous amount of whole cloves of garlic in and around the joint as it cooks. And remember, the better the pork's pedigree, the finer the dish will be.

The important secondary ingredient is to include some plump prunes in the pot. They add a nuance of sweetness (always a good thing with pork) to the dish, as well as contributing body to the cooking juices. (Note: please don't use stoned prunes, as they have a tendency to disintegrate.) A judicious squeeze of lemon juice and a softening balm of the mellowed garlic, pureed into the juices at the end, results in the most delectable of sauces.

Le Saupiquet des Amognes, serves 6

I have found that cooking one joint of ham is preferable to frying slices, as Mrs David suggests. Apart from anything else, it is a more fitting thing to do for Christmas, and you should then also have some left over for eating cold. I have also taken the liberty of adding some chicken wings and a trotter to the cooking pot, so that the resultant broth has more body to it. You may then use some of this liquor for making the sauce and maybe keep the remainder for a delicious split pea soup.

For cooking the ham

1.8-2.3kg/4-5lb boned and rolled gammon or shoulder joint

900g/2lb chicken wings

1 split pig's trotter (optional)

2 carrots peeled and quartered

2 onions, peeled, one stuck with 6 cloves

4 sticks of celery, cut into lengths

2 leeks, trimmed and washed, cut into lengths

8 bruised juniper berries

2 bay leaves

3 sprigs fresh tarragon

a few peppercorns

For the sauce

4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

150ml/5fl oz white wine vinegar

4-5 juniper berries, bruised

200ml/7fl oz white wine

25g/1oz butter

1 level tbsp flour

10fl oz/275ml ham broth

10fl oz/275ml double cream

freshly ground white pepper

a little salt, taking into consideration that the ham broth will already be saline

a little chopped parsley, for decoration (optional)

Put the gammon or shoulder joint into a large pan and cover with cold water. Slowly bring to the boil. Just before the water starts to bubble, and when you will also see that there is a great deal of scum covering the surface, lift out the joint with a carving fork or similar, and rinse under cold running water. Discard the water and wash out the pan. Return the joint to the pot and add the rest of the ingredients for cooking the ham. Cover everything with fresh water and simmer very gently for around 112-2 hours, skimming off any scum from time to time, as it settles on the surface. Double check for tenderness after 112 hours, using a skewer to probe the meat; there should not be any noticeable resistance.

To make the sauce, put the shallots, vinegar and juniper berries in a small stainless-steel or enamelled saucepan. Simmer together until the vinegar has all but boiled away to nothing. Add the white wine and reduce by half. Put on one side. In another saucepan, melt the butter and add the flour. Mix together with a wooden spoon and cook very gently, stirring slowly, over a low heat for a few minutes, until this roux has become pale golden in colour.

Measure off the given amount of hot broth into a jug and gradually add this to the roux, whisking after each addition, until the sauce is perfectly smooth. Strain through a fine sieve into the shallot/vinegar/wine reduction and bring all this to a gentle simmer. Cook for a further 15 minutes over a very low heat; finally, add the cream, whisk together and simmer for 5 minutes or so until the sauce is unctuous and a beautiful ivory colour. Check for seasoning.

Carve the ham as you prefer (I like the skin left on), spoon over the sauce and serve with plainly boiled potatoes and buttered leaf spinach.

Pot-roasted pork with prunes, garlic, rosemary and red wine, serves 6 - and, hopefully, enough for seconds

Get the pork from your local butcher rather than the supermarket. Ask him for the best end, which usually has a count for 7-8 chops. Nicely suggest that he separates the skin (making sure that the fat is left on the meat, rather than attached to the skin), chines the joints and removes the flat piece of bone, but leaves the rib (chop) bones intact. Gently plead with him that he might also chop up that flat piece of bone into smaller pieces, using his big cleaver, and then hand over your bottle of Scotch and wish him a very Merry Christmas.

500ml/two-thirds of a bottle of light red wine, such as Beaujolais

1.4-1.8kg/3-4lb skinned and partially boned, best end of free-range pork

salt and pepper

25g/1oz butter

1 tbsp olive oil

20 cloves peeled garlic

18 prunes

2-3 sprigs rosemary

3 pieces of lemon rind

juice of 1 small lemon

1 tsp red currant jelly

2 tbsp Armagnac or Cognac

Put the wine into a stainless steel or enamelled pan and bring up to a boil. Ignite with a match and carry on boiling until the flame goes out. Remove, pour into a bowl and allow to become completely cold.

Now melt the butter and olive oil in a large pot (with lid; an oval Le Creuset is ideal here) until sizzling. Season the pork all over and put into the fat, fat-side down. Seal gently, until the fat from the meat starts to exude and takes on a little colour. Turn over and around in the fat until the meatier parts are also browned and crusted. Remove and put to one side. Now add the chopped bones and colour them, too. Also remove and put alongside the pork. Tip out the fat, lay the whole piece of skin - fat-side down - into the bottom of the pot, scatter over the bones and lay the browned pork on top, bones uppermost. Now put in all the other ingredients listed, cover, and leave to marinade for 4 hours at a cool room temperature. Half way through, turn the pork over, with the bones now underneath, so that the whole thing will now be ready to go in the oven in a couple of hours.

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/ gas mark 6. Place the pork in the oven, uncovered, and roast for 20 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 325F/170/gas mark 3, put the lid on and pot-roast for a further 45 minutes. Lift out the pork now, and put into a roasting tin. Turn the oven up again, to 425F/220C/gas mark 7. Pick out the prunes, add a few tablespoonfuls of the cooking liquor and put them into a small oven dish and cover with foil. Put on one side. Search out the lemon rind and rosemary sprigs and discard; do the same to the pork skin and bones. Put the pork back into the oven for 15 minutes, to crispen somewhat and to gild the edges.

Meanwhile, put the pot directly on to a moderate flame and heat together the winey juices and remaining garlic cloves. Taste the juices and allow to reduce a little, if you think the flavour needs strengthening. Now tip the whole lot into the bowl of a liquidiser or food processor and puree until smooth. Tip into a sieve and push through into a small pan, using the back of a ladle. Now this loose - for want of a better word - gravy should have the consistency of a voluptuous cream soup. If it seems too thick, add a little warmed double cream. Keep the sauce warm.

Remove the pork from the oven, switch it off, and put the prunes in there to heat through in its waning heat. Allow the pork to rest for 10 minutes before carving. For each person, carve one thin-ish slice between the bones and then a thicker one with bone attached. Or, if you prefer, remove all the bones in one fell swoop and slice away without hindrance. Garnish each serving with three prunes each and a welter of the garlic sauce. Accompaniments could include sprouts, braised celery and a dish of crunchy roast potatoes. Come to think of it, these very vegetables would be awfully good with something like roast turkey, don't you think?