Saving the bacon

WITHIN hours of posting Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s course on the Ballymaloe Cookery School website last year, bookings flooded in. The course was enticingly called ‘Cutting up a Pig in a Day’.

It was quickly booked out with a lengthy waiting list, such is the appeal of this irrepressible chap who gave up his frenetic city life to live in a small holding in Dorset, England.

With masses of energy and the enthusiasm of one who has no concept of the obstacles that lie ahead, he set out on his new adventure at River Cottage with a TV crew in tow week by week the viewers could share his triumphs and frustrations as he embarked on the steep learning curve of attempting to be self-sufficient.

The cameras followed as he laboriously cleared the ground, sowed the seeds and coped with the reality of slugs and squirrels. Next came the pigs, followed by hens, sheep, cattle. When the free ranging pigs grew fat, he and his pals brought them along to the butcher, then they had a pig party to cut and deal with the pig in a day, sometimes two, using everything but the squeal. They made hams, salami, pickled pork, brawn, chorizo, devilled kidneys, crispy pig ears

Hugh and his butcher Ray bounced into the school the other day ready for action. We had one of our own free-range pigs ready to be butchered and transformed into a variety of delicious cured meat. The six-month-old organic pig was a mixture of rare breeds Saddleback Black Berkshire/Red Duroc cross, with a nice covering of juicy fat, essential for sausages and salami.

Ray, who has been a butcher since he was 13 years old, set about cutting up the pig with the ease of an expert.

The head was salted and cut into quarters and put into a large pot with a couple of the trotters and the tongue. Some spices, herbs and onions were added to make a fine brawn. While that all simmered gently, the carcass was carefully trimmed, and Ray meticulously saved all the little scraps of fat.

The shoulder was minced for salami and chorizo, a proportion of finely diced back fat was added with salt and spices. All this was filled into well-washed natural casings which we learned how to expertly seal and tie with cotton string. The skin on the loin was scored with a Stanley knife for crispy crackling.

Sea salt and coriander were rubbed into the cuts and then it went into the oven to roast for lunch. Meanwhile, we learned how to make bacon from the belly and a terrine from the liver and trimmings.

Ray saved some of the terrine mixture to stuff the pork fillet. The kidneys were used to make the most delectable mustardy devilled kidneys which were polished off in minutes.

After a delectable lunch of roast pork with crackling and lots of Bramley apple sauce we settled down again and learned about dry and wet cures.

The streaky belly of pork was rubbed with salt, pepper, sugar and coriander and left to cure. We put one ham into a brine to have ready for Christmas, the other was packed in sea salt in an old timber wine box to start the curing of what will eventually be a dry cured ham ready to eat in 12-18 months.

Ray added dried breadcrumbs, salt, freshly ground pepper, mace, sage, thyme, and sugar to the minced pork to make a huge batch of juicy sausages.

Along the way, the class tasted brains and tucked into crispy pigs' ears with gusto. It was amazing and thrilling to see the extraordinary level of interest in learning such forgotten skills.

Here are a few of Hugh's recipes, for more look out for his River Cottage Cookbooks or log on to www.rivercottage.net.

Devilled Kidneys

4 lamb's kidneys, cut into quarters

A little fat or oil

1 small glass of sherry

1 tbsp white wine vinegar or cider vinegar

1 tsp redcurrant jelly

A few good shakes of Worcestershire sauce

A good pinch of cayenne pepper

1 tbsp English mustard

1 tbsp double cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

A little chopped parsley to garnish

Heat a little fat or oil in a small frying pan, add the kidneys and sizzle for just a minute to brown them, tossing them occasionally in the pan. Then add a generous slosh of sherry, let it bubble for a moment, and follow up with a more modest splash of wine or cider vinegar. Add the redcurrant jelly and stir to dissolve. Then add the Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, mustard and plenty of black pepper. Season with a pinch of salt, take the edge off the fire with an enriching spoon of double cream and bubble for another minute or two, shaking the pan occasionally, until the sauce is reduced and nicely glossy. Taste for piquancy, and add more cayenne and black pepper if you like.

Serve with fried bread to give a bit of crunch and mop up the sauce.

Alternatively, to make a more substantial supper dish, serve with plain boiled rice and a crisp green salad. Garnish with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.

Sausages

5 kilo coarse minced pork

100g rusk or dried breadcrumbs

50g salt

15g ground white pepper

10g ground mace

10g fresh chopped sage

5g fresh chopped thyme

500ml cold water

2 tsp sugar

Your personal choice of herbs and spices. This could include some of the following:

Garam masala

Ground cumin

Ground coriander

Making fresh sausages (as opposed to salami) is one of the central activities of a River Cottage 'pig weekend', and one of the most sociable, as everybody gets to have a go. The results offer instant gratification, as sample batches of the various seasoning combinations are fried up and their various merits hotly debated. To make my sausages, I use the same old-fashioned crank-handle machine that I use to make salami, but with a smaller nozzle attachment. Less cumbersome modern alternatives are available from good cookshops, including electric-powered machines that will also mince your pork for you.

I don't usually bother with chipolatas, so I choose the larger size of natural sausage casings, called 'hog casings' that makes good old butcher's bangers (as opposed to the extra large ox-runners, which I use for salami). These casings come packed in salt and need to be soaked, rinsed, and flushed through with fresh water before use.

Sausage meat

Before you can make any sausages, you have to make sausage meat. If you are using home-reared pork and you have employed a butcher to sort out the carcass for you, you may want him to make up your sausage meat as well: his big industrial mincing machines will make light work of it. You will need to specify which parts of the pig you want your sausage meat made from. My preference is for a 50:50 combination of belly and leaner meat, usually taken from the boned-out shoulder. Any trimmings arising from the general cutting up of the beast can also be added.

Another important decision is how finely you want your meat minced. Most modern butchers' sausage meat is minced on the finest setting. I find the resulting sausages too fine and pâté-like in consistency, so I prefer the next setting up. This gives a more old-fashioned 'butcher's banger' consistency. Of course you don't have to keep your own pigs to make your own sausages.

But if you want really good home-made sausages, don't just buy the standard ready-made sausage meat. Choose fresh, quality belly and lean shoulder, and either mince it yourself or ask your butcher to do it according to your requirements. You can make good sausages from 100% minced pork, plus your chosen seasonings, but there is no shame in adding a little cereal to the mix. This tradition is not merely a matter of bulking out the mixture with a cheap additive. A little 'rusk', as it is called, improves the texture, as it helps to retain a little more fat in the sausage. I like to add about 5% by weight so 50g per kilo of sausage meat. You can use various cereal-based products for rusk, including rice flour, fine oatmeal or fine white breadcrumbs. I actually use a multigrain organic baby cereal from the Baby Organix range, with excellent results.

When planning a sausage-making session, bear in mind that 1kg of sausage meat will give you about 1520 large sausages, depending on their length and how tightly you stuff them.

Seasonings

There are unlimited ways to season your sausages, and inventing new and original spice and/or herb combinations is all part of the fun. The best way to try out new ideas is to take a small amount of sausage meat, add your experimental seasonings and mix well. Then fry up a bit of the mixture in a little patty and taste the result. When you get something you like, make up a big quantity and do another taste test and a final seasoning adjustment before you commit to the casings. One thing that all your sausages will need is salt. About 510g (12 teaspoons) per kilo of meat is a good rough guide, but you can make any final adjustments after your taste test.

Making the sausages

For a beginner, the only real difficulty in making sausages is getting to grips with the sausage-making machine and avoiding too many air pockets.

This is largely a matter of trial and error. Electric sausage-making machines will come with their own set of instructions. A crank-handled machine like mine can be a bit temperamental, and it is sometimes easier to have two people operating it one turning the handle, the other controlling the casing as it fills. The basic idea is to fill a long length of casing as long as you like, really then twist it into individual sausages of your chosen length. It is important not to overfill the sausages or they will burst when you twist them. There are various clever twisting techniques devised by butchers over the years, where the sausages are twisted together to make long strings of twos and threes.

These techniques are impossible to describe in words. If wrapped or boxed immediately after being made sausages will leach a considerable amount of liquid. To avoid this, the finished sausages should be hung in a cool place for a few hours or overnight. They can then be wrapped in greaseproof paper or clingfilm, or placed in Tupperware boxes, and stored in a refrigerator. Freshly made sausages kept in the fridge should be used within five days. If you want to keep them longer either vac-pack them or bag them up in freezer bags, in small batches. Defrost completely at room temperature before cooking.

Hot tip

Java Republic Roasting Company is launching a new range of super-premium, authentic, hand-roasted coffees onto the UK and Irish markets, available at retail for the first time. These all contain either fairtrade co-op or farm direct speciality coffees. On the web at: www.javarepublic.com

Country Choice, Kenyon St, Nenagh, Co Tipperary, tel: 067-32596, have a wonderful stock of dried and glace fruits, Lexia raisins, Golden raisins, Agen prunes, Malaga muscatels, whole French walnuts, whole candied peel, Amarena cherries as well as some Italian delicacies and many other temptations. Check out: www.countrychoice.ie or email: peter@countrychoice.ie

Soup Kitchen the finest soup recipes from the top chefs of today Rick Stein, Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, Giorgio Locatelli, Gordon Ramsay, and supported by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is a collection of 100 recipes. 70% of the royalties will go to homelessness charities. Published by Harper Collins. www.soupkitchen.org.uk

Cocktails for pre-Christmas entertaining The Art of the Vodka Jelly: Bespoke Cocktails for a New Generation by Tom Tuke-Hastings. Published by CBN Books.

Foolproof food

Bramley Apple Sauce

An essential accompaniment to roast pork and homemade sausages. The trick with Apple Sauce is to cook it covered on a low heat with very little water.

Serves 10 approx

1 lb (450g) cooking apples, eg Bramley, Seedling or Grenadier

1-2 dessertsp. water

2 ozs (55g) sugar, depending on how tart the apples are

Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut the pieces into two and put in a stainless steel or cast iron saucepan with sugar and water. Cover and put over a low heat. As soon as the apple has broken down, beat into a puree, stir and taste for sweetness. Serve warm.

Note: Apple Sauce freezes perfectly, so make more than you need and freeze in tiny, plastic cartons. It is also a good way to use up windfalls.

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