Food: Imperative cooking: The bottom of the barrel

Food: Imperative cooking: The bottom of the barrel

Anderson, Digby

LAST MONTH I decided to start the cure again. And so should you. It is partly a matter of the taste: pork tastes better even for one day’s soaking in brine. And ox tongues, silverside and longer-salted pork are as different from their unsalted originals as lamb is from chicken. You get, as it were, a whole new range of different meats.

But the main reason for starting the brine tub or crock again is the difficulty of finding good meat. The combined effect of government regulation and consumer ignorance and laziness means that meats once available at any high street butcher have virtually disappeared. The Imperative cook, of course, is willing to make the effort and travel further. He might also find someone who keep pigs, feeds them properly and has them killed at the right age, and buy a half. The same with lamb. Or he might go to wholesale markets. But anyway he is going to wind up buying less frequently but in much bigger quantities. That produces a storage problem at home. I bought a firstclass half a saddleback the other day and it weighed over 60 pounds.

Certainly some should go in the deep freeze, but some should be salted. Of course the process can work the other way round: the fact that one has started a brine tub might send one off on the hunt to find large lumps of pig or lamb or beef to butcher. All the better. There is no pleasanter way to spend a wet winter afternoon than in cutting up a carcass. Women’s magazines talk about comfort eating. There is such a thing as comfort cooking too. And the best remedy of all when you are down and the world seems, as it surely is, going to pot, is to settle down with a couple of knives, a cleaver and a block. You can cut the pig to your needs too, unlike the English butcher. So you will bag up and freeze different sorts of fat, back, flare etc., for pate and sausage-making at some later date. Head meat can be mixed with bits of belly and hock for sausage filling. Bones can be taken out, stock made and frozen, and pork put in the crock.

If you are going to cure meat from different animals, have a crock or tub each. I use Boots’ beer-fermenting bins, which hold just over five gallons. They have a lid which keeps the muck out. But you will need another smaller plastic lid. The meat is placed in the brine in the bin and the smaller lid put on top of it and weighted down to keep the meat submerged. You need salt, saltpetre, sugar and a few herbs and spices and that’s about it. Look up the details in any reputable book. Jane Grigson in Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery gives one recipe for 5 pints water, 3/4 lb salt, the same of sugar and 2 oz saltpetre. I would cut down on the sugar. It is needed to soften the meat but I don’t like that much. Then she puts in juniper berries, nutmeg, bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns and cloves. I would replace the nutmeg with cinnamon and throw in some coriander seeds, but do what you like. Frank Ashbrook in Butchering, Processing and the Preservation of Meat gives a recipe for a rather bigger crock. For each 100 lbs of meat, use 8 lbs salt, 2 lbs sugar (that’s a better proportion of salt to sugar), 2 oz saltpetre and 41/2 to 6 gallons water. The important points are to make sure the meat is all surrounded by brine, to keep the brine clean and cool, maintain the salt level when you withdraw meats and get the timing right. If you want to liven up a joint of fresh pork, then soak it a day or two. If you want a ham properly cured, then allow four days per pound. Ashbrook mentions that fowl can be cured too. I’d be interested to hear how geese and duck come out.

Properly cured pork will want some desalting before final cooking. Soak it in water for a day and bring to the boil in fresh water until the salt scum ceases. Once cured the meat can, if you wish, be smoked. But there are plenty of good recipes for simple cured meats. Look both in English and French books. Your first joy will be to have proper green bacon again. Then there are great dishes such as boiled salted hand of pork and pease pudding, or ox tongue and caper sauce. But you can also use salted meat in sausages, salted hocks to add to stews. It used to be standard practice to serve salt belly of pork boiled with roasted game birds such as pheasant and partridge. It goes extremely well with good high birds. And try minced salted belly as the basis of a stuffing for wild duck. When you have mastered the basic brine there is meat-pickling to do, in wine vinegar.

There you are: several enjoyable days out for the family identifying good butchers, markets, farms and sources of supply. The big day fetching the pig or sheep or beef. All the comforting fun of cutting it up. The day-to-day interest of checking the brine salinity and removing scum. And, finally, the cooking of the salted meats and the eating of them. I’m sure if only more families could base their lives around their crocks, we would see some happier households. Perhaps Mr Blair’s Family Policy Unit should give every family a Boots’ fermenting bin for Christmas.

There are to be changes at The Spectator. These mean that this will be the last of these columns. May I thank all those who have written in with their kind comments over the last 15 years.

Copyright Spectator Nov 28, 1998

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