Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Favourite meat cuts #1: Pork Belly

I don't know about you, but I've been spending a lot of time worrying about pork belly recently. What a beautiful cut of meat it is – inexpensive and massively forgiving for the cook, while tasty, luscious and multi-textural for the eater. You get a bit of crackling, a bit of flesh and a bit of melting fat all in one mouthful, and it has so much flavour that a lash of apple sauce provides a fair fight, rather than dominating as it can with a piece of fillet. Easy to cook, quick to please and good for everyone's budget, so why is it always so hit and miss when I order it in a restaurant?
Pork belly was the slightly disappointing final course at Merediths [sic] recently, a restaurant of such astounding reputation that you arrive almost daring them to get things wrong. Well the service was faultless, the wine matches thoughtful and exciting and the food very, very good too. And then it all finished up with a little rectangle of quite unlovable pork belly. A bit dry and without the hot, glistening surface I love so much, it still tasted good. But it can be so much better.

They'd only listed it as 'pork' on the menu too, which is a quite tricky way of getting women and womenly men to order something which if given its full title might as well be called 'blubber injection'. I approve of this faint deception, because I think people should taste pork belly before they hear about it. But if you're going to be coy, then it had better be very good.

Don't let this put you off Merediths [sic], which is otherwise spectacular. But order the beef instead.

This was only the latest and most high profile of my average pork belly experiences, but let me tell you how good it can be. Last night at Coco's Cantina (pictured), in an effort to fall back in love, I bravely ordered the belly, and it was perfect.

Hot, melty, crunchy, slow cooked pork meat, shining with its own juice and rendered fat, arrives on a bed of red cabbage that looks to have been given a nice long session on the hob itself. On top is a smear of pesto which was so lifting but subtle I couldn't place the herb at the time but which I've just now read online is rocket. Yum. And then all round the plate are these little chunks of fresh sausage as well as lots of apple segments, were they roasted? And man oh man, as it came together on the fork and in my mouth it was all so perfect and reminded me that maybe you don't have to stay at home to get good pork belly, but maybe you should just aim to get it from places where simplicity and rusticity (rusticness?) are high priorities.

If you've never cooked it yourself before, please try it. It needs to be roasted: a quick blast up front, then a longer session with reduced temp, then if it's not crunchy on top yet you might need to remove the crackling with a long knife and blast just that bit under a high heat until you've got it how you like it.

It's a great way to feed a lot of people, even when you pay a free range premium which I insist that you do. I forgot to check at Coco's last night but I would have if I'd remembered – asking a restaurant about the ethical origin of their meat is a quick way to sound like a prick, but the pigs will lick lovingly at your bare feet in heaven for it.