FREE-RANGE EAST ANGLIAN PORK –A GREAT LOCAL SPECIALITY
Norfolk and Suffolk is the home of very tasty pigs, a prized ingredient for Stephen David, chef-patron of The Crown At Woodbridge
In food terms and perhaps in life, few things beat the crunch of perfect salty crackling, burning your lips as you nibble on it, surreptitiously snaffled off the burnished crispy gold of a wondrous joint of pork straight from the oven, ahhh… the pleasure of chefs’ perks on a Sunday lunchtime…
Blessed seems to crop up far too often in my monthly epicurean ramblings but this month it is definitely deserved (not in any way undermining all the other occasions I’ve indulged in superlatives). We really are privileged to live in the heart of pig-farming country, our rich light soils and a great arable tradition result in free-draining (all relative in the recent deluges!) and fertile land, perfect for happy piggies to root and wallow around in, with a ready source of high quality feed rations of grain and sugar beet as well as copious amounts of straw bedding after harvest.
Now a bit of a rant on my foodie soapbox, as a country we have all got behind Jamie and Hugh with their campaigns to get us converted to free-range eggs and chickens amongst their admirable struggles to change the way we buy our food. But with the fear of going all anthropomorphic on you, if pigs are supposedly of all farmed animals the most like us, being trainable intelligent sentient creatures, then surely of all these wee critters we consume, we should worry about porcine welfare the most? So here is a shocking statistic, only 1 – 2% of the finished pork on our plates is produced free-range, one or two percent, that is such a poor show. So few able to exhibit their natural behaviour, lying down freely with the sun and wind on their backs, the freedom to dig holes and to gambol around in open paddocks. Talking to Jimmy Butler, whose family owns Blythburgh Free Range Pork near Halesworth on the eastern Suffolk-Norfolk borders, he explained how converting to free range techniques in the late Nineties, it was a steep learning curve, part of a pioneering momentum to develop modern commercial free-ranging husbandry. In fact, the quality of their pork and Jimmy’s passion and personality have made him somewhat of a national icon for the pig industry and he was named Farmers Weekly ‘Pig Farmer of the Year’ in 2005.
We can’t get away from the simple fact we are farming creatures for human consumption, but as Jimmy continued, given better welfare and care, free range pigs will eat better on the plate – their slow growth and added diet from grazing on flora and fauna in paddocks results in more maturity and depth in flavour whilst better muscle formation from exercise gives better texture and marbling in the flesh; but most importantly they endure less stress with lots of space to move around in and a more contented existence.
But what about all those open air pig farms we see as we drive around our beautiful East Anglian countryside, surely they are rearing free-range pork? Jimmy explained about the differences between outdoor-bred, outdoor-reared and free-range pork. If it isn’t labelled as free-range (despite idyllic rustic brand names or marketing slogans and posh packaging), then at some point, the pigs will have endured long periods of cheek-by-jowl confinement penned up indoors or even outside in mucky compounds, unable to run around, root or wallow. There is always a price with food and especially intensive meat production, if it seems too good a deal for us as consumers, then something has paid the price, poor pigs in the case of cheap pork. Despite its name, even the RSPCA Freedom Food labelling doesn’t guarantee free range so I urge you to look at the label, if it doesn’t say free-range, it isn’t and look for some that is. You may pay a little extra but aren’t good food and animal welfare worth it? Good butchers will sell free-range pork, if your local one doesn’t, just ask them to start stocking it. Failing that, you can visit the Blythburgh free-range pork website at www.freerangepork.co.uk and click on the ‘Who Uses Us’ page to find your nearest retailer.
One such keen supporter of Blythburgh free-range pork is Jeremy Thickitt, a grazier-farmer whose wholesale butchery supplies leading independent butchers shops all over East Anglia and is also our main meat supplier at The Crown, here in Woodbridge. Jeremy enthuses about “its great crackling, more flavour in the meat” and enjoys it at home on his Darsham farm “a favourite pork dish we often cook is tenderloin sliced wafer-thin and flash-fried, finished with cream, mustard and brandy, served up with rice. Sunday roast loin of pork is another favourite, making sure we get that crackling just right”. Discerning customers at the Thickitt family’s own butchery counters at Clarke’s of Bramfield, Creasey’s of Peasenhall and Emmerdale Farm Shop near Yoxford clearly also relish the quality of Blythburgh pork cuts.
Now we’ve established what good pork means for us, what to do with it… So many options, such a choice, pork is a really versatile staple to have in the fridge. It is a great foil for lots of wordly tastes, working well with other ingredients and garnishes, whether spicy from foreign cuisines or our simpler British cooking-styles. Being a milder ‘white’ meat, I do like to give it some ‘oomph’ in the flavour department and traditionally it has been spiced up in cuisines around the globe. Obviously it has been restricted by religious (non-)consumption in history, with the Jewish and Islamic faiths abstaining from it. But elsewhere it has been a mainstay of many exotic national diets, a big part in many Far Eastern and Southern Hemisphere countries as well as in mainland Europe and the Americas.
For this month’s recipes, I’ve purposefully avoided the loin and leg joints of pork, our most popular choices for the aforementioned Sunday roast and instead gone for the shoulder of pork for our favourite deep south USA recipe of pulled pork, spiced and slow roasted so it literally falls apart when shredded between two forks whilst we’ve used the prime cut of tenderloin, the piggy equivalent of fillet steak, for an Italian-style pork Wellington, the tenderest meat in a savoury puff pastry parcel, which helps to make the meat go further.
If you’re not already a convert, please do try local East Anglian free-range pork, I hope you will agree it is worth the extra or choose one of the lesser cheaper cuts?
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First Week | Food Week with The Crown At Woodbridge
From 1 – 7 March, it’s Blythburgh Pork Week!
For the first week of every month, we choose a particular local ingredient and theme our specials around it, celebrating the seasonal joy of fresh East Anglian produce, supporting our hard-working food producers and farmers. Come and join us from 1 – 7 March for a celebration of tasty free-range Blythburgh pork with lots of lovely specials as starters and main courses for a great value meal.
Pulled pork with peperonata, bruschetta, greens and poached egg
This lunchtime dish is lovely and comforting, also could be an interesting dinner party starter. The so-called ‘Cotton States’ in the south of the USA around the Gulf of Mexico are the heart of barbecue, a social cooking affair on a grand scale, using a dug-out pit to create awesome slow-roasted smoky meats, when compared to the searing grilling we call barbecuing in the summer. Pulled pork is perhaps their most famous export, a recipe we can do a passable impression of in the kitchen. If you are an eager surfer, look online for pulled pork BBQ sauce recipes to serve up the leftovers as it also goes well in lunchtime baps with tangy pickles. Serve up with a simple dressed salad.
(this will make much more than you need for four portions)
1.5 – 2kg pork shoulder on bone
2 tbsp soft brown sugar
2 tbsp salt
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika
The day before needed, pre-heat the oven to 220c. Line a baking tin with enough foil to cover over pork. Lay pork in but do not cover. Bake for 45 minutes. Turn down oven to 130c. Remove pork and fold foil into a sealed loose tent around pork. Cook for another 6 – 8 hours until soft enough to yield to the back of a fork. Remove and open foil out. Carefully drain off juices into a container and reserve. Turn oven up to 220c and cook for 10 – 15 minutes until well-browned. Cover again with foil and leave for an hour to rest. Remove pork and shred well, pulling apart with two forks whilst warm. Return juices to shredded meat and fold in. Refrigerate overnight.
1 whole bulb of garlic
Good rapeseed or olive oil
I large red onion, peeled, halved and finely sliced
Sea salt and black peppermill
1 each of red, yellow and green peppers, topped and deseeded
1 tin of good cherry tomatoes
Small handful of basil leaves
Pre-heat oven to 190c. Carefully cut a little off the bulb of garlic cloves with a serrated knife, ensuring all cloves have been trimmed. Take a square of foil, large enough to wrap bulb in, bring up around bulb and before covering loosely, sprinkle with a little oil. Place into a small baking tin and bake for 45 – 60 minutes until soft. Leave to cool before squeezing out flesh from cloves.
Warm a large lidded sauté pan with a splash of oil, add the onions, season them, and then cook, covered, stirring regularly, over a low-medium heat until softened without colouring. Meanwhile cut peppers into 2 cm pieces. Add to softened onions and cook similarly until tender. Add in tomatoes and garlic flesh to taste (generously, it is much milder than raw), stir, back to a simmer, taste and adjust seasoning. Before serving, fold in shredded basil leaves. Keep warm.
4 diagonal slices of granary baguette
Good rapeseed or olive oil
Halved garlic clove or slow-baked garlic flesh
Sea salt and black peppermill
4 cavalo nero or kale leaves, ripped into pieces
4 hens or duck eggs
1 pt jug of pulled pork
Peperonata recipe as above
Put a full kettle on for egg water and warm four medium plates. Take the bread, rub or smear with garlic, brush with oil and season to taste. Place onto a hot chargrill pan until well-marked with bar marks and browned. Set aside and keep warm.
Place peperonata into a deep saucepan, fold in pulled pork and place on a low heat, stirring gently and often until hot. Meanwhile in a large saucepan, add a knob or two of butter, toss in leaves, stir around, add a splash of boiling water and cover, cooking for a few minutes until wilted. Meanwhile also poach the eggs in a large pan of swirling simmering water until cooked, about 3 minutes. Drain with a slotted spoon and dry on a clean tea towel. Drain leaves and keep warm.
Place the bruschetta on to hot plates. Divide up the pork and peperonata mixture to taste, top with the leaves and poached eggs. Season to taste and serve.