Sunday, 28 April 2013


Porchetta is no pig-on-a-stick (also known as the good old British hog-roast drying out over a summer barbeque): it's a completely different animal. Porchetta (stuffed, young, tender, whole, Italian roast pig) is often to be found in special vans which tour round the medieval market towns of Umbria and Tuscany.  The smell of roasting pork, fennel, rosemary, garlic and lemon quickly draws crowds, who queue up for fresh chewy rolls filled with tender, succulent slices of herb-stuffed pork.
You don't have to go the whole hog however to make something equally delicious at home, either as a conventional roast or to stuff rolls in the traditional, Italian manner.

The Pork:
Ideally it should be organic and of the best possible quality. You will need a plump tenderloin and a slab of boned belly large enough to wrap around the tenderloin to make a thick log.  A good butcher will help you to find pieces that make a good match (he may even give you some red/white butcher's twine to tie up the joint; otherwise you will need some twine).  Two to three kilos (belly and tenderloin combined) will serve 4, with plenty left over for snacks later.  Score the skin side to create diamonds to encourage the best crackling.
The Salt Rub:
1/4 cup sea salt
2 teaspoons rosemary leaves peeled from the stem, 
dry fried over a medium heat for a couple of minutes, then roughly chopped
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, roughly crushed
2 teaspoons chilli flakes (Turkish pepper flakes are good; a blend of pul biber and isot pul biber)
2 teaspoons black pepper, roughly crushed
zest of 1 lemon

sage leaves, chopped
Combine the salt rub ingredients. Make incisions in the fleshy side of the belly to help the salt rub penetrate and do its work; massage it into the pork, reserving some to rub on the skin side later.
The Herb Mix:
2 tbsp parsley
1 tbsp sage leaves
2 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves
1 tbsp thyme
1 clove of garlic
( a few fronds of fennel also go well in this mix)
Blend the herb mix ingredients in a food processor to a rough mix.  Then spread this on top of the pork belly (flesh side up), ensuring an even covering over the salt rub.  Lay the tenderloin along the middle of the belly.
Cut several (six is usually enough) lengths of twine and stretch them out underneath the pork belly at regular intervals. Wrap the belly up around the tenderloin, pulling up the twine and tying it tightly. Rub the skin with olive oil and the remaining salt rub, working it into the incisions.  Place the porchetta into a plastic container with a lid, cover and keep in the fridge overnight (for at least 12 hours and up to 24 hours) to allow the flavours to develop and the salt to tenderise the meat. 
Take the pork out of the fridge some two hours before you want to cook, removing it from the container and pouring away the juices that have emerged.  Place the meat on a plate to air and come up to room temperature. 
The secret to porchetta's moistness is long, slow cooking.  Pre-heat the oven to a cool 140C (275F).  Place the pork on a rack in a deep oven pan, as a lot of fat will be rendered out.  Place the pan in the middle of the oven and roast for four hours - turn the pan occasionally to ensure even cooking.  After four hours increase the heat to 230C (450F) for roughly 35 minutes to crisp up the crackling, checking from time to time to avoid burning. 
When done, remove the pork from the oven and allow to relax for 20 minutes before carving.  Use this time to make the salsa verde.

Salsa Verde:
1 large bunch parsley
1 cup olive oil
2 tsps toasted fennel seeds

2 tsps toasted coriander ground
2 tsps chili flakes (or Turkish pepper flakes, pul biber)
salt to taste
2 cloves garlic, peeled
zest of 1 lemon
juice from 2 lemons

Place all ingredients in the food processor and puree until quite smooth.  Taste and adjust to suit: it should be a fresh, zingy and bright green sauce.

Sunday, 14 April 2013


Remember the opening of Bladerunner: those moody shots of street-food shacks dishing out dumplings and noodles amidst the rain-drenched, post-industrial squalor that give the film its essential neo-noir quality?  Zhonghua Traditional Snacks, located not in a future Los Angeles or Hong Kong but here and now in Cambridge (no noir films set here to my knowledge), exudes that same decaying, urban, fast food spirit. You enter, sit down, order soup, dumplings or buns - there's no rice or sweet-and-sour anything - slap on the homemade chilli oil, and chow down before moving on. The Guardian afforded it great critical acclaim only a couple of months after its opening last summer, and it is becoming something of a cult hit among those in the know.

Homestyle cooking is Zhonghua's mission: comfort food packed with flavours and memories. The delightful owner points out the Chinese etchings on the wall depicting a typical Chinese take-away, soya beans being ground by a traditional stone, steaming cauldrons and yards of handmade noodles. This, she says, is the food they aim to reproduce: hand-made dumplings laced with herbs, pillowy char sui buns with an almost brioche flavour, and home-made silken tofu (yes, really), a dish of delicate, cloud-like curds topped with an intense fungi sauce.

It's remarkable value and is evidently a popular destination  for young Chinese students who come in large gatherings and surround themselves with piles of steaming dumplings while slurping hot noodles from soup bowls.

We manage a final steamed bun filled with a sweet sesame and peanut filling (leaving the prawn noodles, chilli chicken and hot cucumber salad for the future) and walk out into the dark, damp, neon-reflecting mean streets of Cambridge.

Saturday, 13 April 2013


The well-heeled of West London are slipping off their loafers and Louboutins and pulling on Hunters and Barbours.  They have cancelled this week's Riverford Organic box, and are heading down the M3 to the New Forest, drawn by the comfortable beds and "25-mile menu" at The Pig.  This menu is not only resolutely English: all its ingredients are sustainable, organic and sourced from within that eponymous radius, which helpfully includes a chunk of Hampshire coastline (which is perhaps how "Cornish" mussels sneak in alongside the sparklingly fresh hake and scallops). 
While nothing travels more than twenty five miles, some produce actually comes from very close to home: the organic walled garden and greenhouses are busy and productive even in a cold February. We meet one young chef crouching in a hedge row near the house: "I'm collecting wild sorrel" he mutters through chattering teeth.  Sure enough, the anonymous, small green leaves, well-hidden in the frosty grass, taste sharp and lemony and will add freshness to our salad this evening.

Then there are the free range hens and quail on site, and all the other resources waiting to be collected among the trees and on the heaths nearby. The New Forest is not unlike Spain, with fine pork raised in woodlands, so "the piggy bits", as the menu describes them, also play a large role.  The Pig makes its own lardo and benefits from the smokehouse at its sister hotel just outside Brockenhurst, The Lime Wood.
So it is that rare place, where the patrons travel further than the produce.  In these days of horse burgers and all-the-year-round green beans with passports and air-miles, no wonder the car park here is full of Mercedes, BMWs and Audis.
The dining area itself is as no nonsense and practical as the kitchen and garden: a simple, attractive, country-style glass extension, designed to display the food and views to their best advantage.  It echoes the greenhouse and is full of earthenware pots of thyme, scented geranium, mint, bay and chard, all of which will find their way onto the plates sooner or later.

The house itself, on the site of an old royal hunting lodge, has been fashioned into a faux-rustic, stylish and very comfortable 26 bed hotel.  From the doorway, guarded by two giant stone dogs, you can ride bikes along forest cycle tracks, walk for miles among ponies and deer. Or just while away time strolling in the parkland or admiring the walled garden.  Or even go foraging for sorrel in the hedgerows.

Alternatively, take a good book or newspaper and claim a comfortable sofa in front of a log fire or wood burner in one of the lounges or the bar.  While away the time: digest, relax; watch the sun go down or the foragers returning muddied but triumphant; and perhaps order a cocktail or two before dinner.