Rind of the times

It's the most traditional of pub snacks. But now the sandwich chain Pret a Manger want to sell pork scratchings to the Atkins generation. Will it work? Caroline Stacey samples the evidence

They're fatty, sometimes hairy, occasionally with an inky hint of a tattoo, and most of them come from the West Midlands. They have names like Mr Porky, and their image is not traditionally a glamorous or healthy one. This week, pork scratchings (what else were you thinking of?) have taken on a bourgeois respectability. Bags of the crunchiest pork rind are lining up alongside crayfish and rocket salad and free-range egg mayo sandwiches to be sold in Pret a Manger. The shiny, smiley sandwich'n'sushi chain - the people who are "passionate about good food" - are testing their customers' reaction to "pork cracklings" in half a dozen of their shops.

They're fatty, sometimes hairy, occasionally with an inky hint of a tattoo, and most of them come from the West Midlands. They have names like Mr Porky, and their image is not traditionally a glamorous or healthy one. This week, pork scratchings (what else were you thinking of?) have taken on a bourgeois respectability. Bags of the crunchiest pork rind are lining up alongside crayfish and rocket salad and free-range egg mayo sandwiches to be sold in Pret a Manger. The shiny, smiley sandwich'n'sushi chain - the people who are "passionate about good food" - are testing their customers' reaction to "pork cracklings" in half a dozen of their shops.

"They're not good for you, they look awful, and they tread a fine line between delicious and absolutely disgusting. You'll either love them or hate them," warn Pret's snazzy packets.

"It is not the sort of product we usually do," admits Pret's range manager Simon Hargraves, who is responsible for investigating what sells in the shops. So they're hedging their bets with a "don't say we didn't warn you" Marmite-like line. "We don't want any customers ringing up saying they're disgusting," he says, but he's backing a hunch that this little piggy's worth a punt. At first they thought it was going a bit far, but while the company toyed with the idea, any prototype packets introduced into head office and initially spurned were later found tellingly empty on employees' desks.

If the scratchings experiment is successful - the way no-bread sandwiches have been - they'll appear in all 127 UK Prets in September. And it won't be just because gourmets have a weak spot for a trashy snack. Never mind that the snacks are lardy; what matters to the bread-fearing dieter is that they're low in carbohydrates. One of the strange and unexpected side effects of the Atkins diet is that pork scratchings are suddenly gaining popularity. After a few calorific pints of lager, the reasons anyone stuffs down a grease-filled packet is hunger, and a devil may care attitude to nutrition, the palate-deadening effect of alcohol and sheer bravado.

Without actually name-checking Atkins, Pret is aiming at a very specific species of snacker. The estimated three million dieters now eating fat without fear - in the hope of shedding some of their own - have made a weighty impression on the marketing people. A report by Reuters Business Insight found that almost all Western food and drink manufacturers now recognise that they can't ignore the demand for low-carb foods.

Even before carbohydrates became dietary pariahs, the market for pork scratchings was growing - 8.5 per cent between 1999 and 2001. But, even if we invented scratchings, there's nothing we can teach the Americans about fatty snacks, and their own pork rinds have done very nicely, too. In the US, sales of pork rinds have grown three times more than the overall snack market since 1997.

The US has spurred on the British to make more of our scratchings assets. Freshers Foods in Wigan, who make Pub Originals, realised that not everyone wanted to keep going down the pub to score heavily marked-up fatty snacks. So they've rebranded their entire range of "pork snack products" as Top Notch, and are now selling them in supermarkets. You have to wonder, however, if they're really taking the right approach to moving scratchings upmarket: their television commercial for the Granada area was shown in the break after Coronation Street. Neck and neck with Freshers Foods are Red Mill Snack Foods, based in the West Midlands, this country's scratchings heartland. Traditionally, pigs have always yielded every part of their body for consumption, from nose to tail, with trotters, ears and innards all proving useful along the way. Dating back to the early 19th century Black Country, when many households kept a pig, you could call pork scratchings the British contribution to charcuterie. Butchers started selling the fatty snack in the 1930s, and some still make their own.

This casual crunching on piggy must horrify veggies. But as vegetarian baiters like Gordon Ramsay gleefully point out, their number is going down. Blame Atkins again. And fat, as any hardcore foodie will tell you, is where the flavour is. Pork scratchings' time has come. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall ought to approve of such ingenious use of pig pieces. His chunky new manifesto The River Cottage Meat Book argues that carnivores have a moral imperative to eat every possible part of an animal: "Meat should be something precious, always to be savoured, never to be squandered." What he's unlikely to approve of is that most of the rind that finds its way into the scratchings packets comes from Denmark. Someone should start producing organic pork scratchings.

Red Mill Snack Foods make Mr Porky, 20 million packets of which are sold a year. These carry a warning: "For people with strong, healthy teeth." Cathie Foster, the marketing and development manager, agrees there is a resurgence in the snack. Mr Porky has also broken out of the dingy confines of pubs into supermarkets, in three varieties: traditional, crackles and crunch (coming soon - barbecue flavour).

Pork snack products, you see, don't represent an indistinguishable lump of fat. There are three distinct types. Traditional scratchings come complete, if you're lucky, with a highly prized hair and even a seam of dried-up meat embedded in the thick strip of subcutaneous fat. These are made from fatty shank - shoulder rind - and cooked just once.

Pork crackling is also made from shoulder rind, but double-cooked. It is first rendered at a low heat, and then cooked at a higher temperature for a less fatty, puffier result; some flavours are lost with the fat, making a less tasty scratching.

And now, comes the most fashionable development in scratching - the pork crunch, which is made from back rind and double-cooked to become a hugely inflated crispy snack. Lower in fat, the crunch appeals most to the new converts - the Atkins dieters - women, mostly, who wouldn't touch a hairy scratching with a snooker cue. Are they less tasty? "I wouldn't say that," says David Openshaw, Freshers Foods' sales and marketing director. "It's a drier taste, almost melt-in-the-mouth."

"They're a bit more cultured than the hairy ones," laughs Simon Hargraves. For it is this bubbly, 20 per cent-fat crackling, made from British pork and without the usual MSG and colourings, that Pret a Manger is testing.

Your traditional pork scratchings consumer, meanwhile, wouldn't know low-carb if it grabbed him by the love handles. But if his favourite packet of fat takes off as a fancy snack with London's lunchers, who knows what to expect? Next in line for promotion from the pub snack league could be the pickled egg.

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