It’s Carnevale, or at least it was yesterday, and I had to trial a Porchetta recipe for the Abruzzo retreat, so it seemed as good a moment as any to finally write a recipe for what it probably the next happiest thing to ever happen to any piece of pork apart from being hung as ham or packaged into scratchings.
It seems particularly fitting as the name Carnevale derives from the two Latin words ‘Carnis’ (meat) and ‘Levare’ (to relieve, remove or take away) and so is traditionally the last day on which meat is consumed (in celebratory quantity) before the beginning of Lent and 40 days of abstinence.
I cook and eat meat very rarely, and so when I do I want it to be really worth it, and I try to buy from the butcher and make sure it is local and outdoor-reared, because a pig’s life is precious. This is the first time I have cooked pork since New Year’s Day, and probably the third time we have eaten meat since then, and if we all ate meat as rarely as that I’m not sure there would be any need for industrial farming and pigs in pens at all. But that is a crusade for another day (and probably another person far more informed than I).
Porchetta is traditionally a boned and stuffed whole roast young pig, roasted over a spit and served in slices, often between bread. It is a speciality of central Italy, though sold all over at fairs and festivals; the Italian equivalent of a hog roast. The Sardinian Porcheddu or Maialetto is similar though usually specifically a suckling pig and especially loved here, forming the main course of most celebrations (Christmas, Sundays, Weddings etc). The Sardinian version is left plain but served on Myrtle leaves to perfume the meat, the central Italian recipe usually includes flavourings of fennel and garlic.
I wanted to incorporate the wild fennel which is sprouting up everywhere at this time of year, its feathery fronds fringing the verges. It goes so well with anything piggy, and adds a lovely light lemony-aniseed note which helps to temper the intensity. I use belly because a) it is cheaper and b) it is fattier and thus more forgiving, the meat more tender than a loin. If you ask for a nice meaty piece of belly it needn’t be overly fatty; it also depends on the breed.
The lemon is for me essential though not always traditional. Add a sharp salad to slice it all through, too.
1 section of pork belly, ribs removed (my piece was about 800g)
Finely grated zest of 1 Lemon
A pinch of dried chilli
About 3 tsp of salt
2 tsp fennel seeds or a handful of wild fennel
2 or 3 sprigs of rosemary, needled removed
4 or so leaves of sage
2 cloves of garlic
2 glasses of Vernaccia or dry white wine
Buy the belly from your local friendly butcher and ask him to remove the ribs for you and score the skin well (either eat the ribs roasted or give them to your dog).
The night before you want to cook it season the pork well with plenty of sea salt. You can be generous here as most of the salt will fall off. Rub it well with your hands, making sure the salt gets into all the cracks and crevices.
Make the herby paste to stuff it with. If you like you can throw everything in a processor and blitz it, but I don’t have a processor so I chopped it all and mixed by hand.
Take the pork out of the fridge (ideally an hour or two before you want to cook it) and then dust the excess salt off and discard. Pat it dry with kitchen towel.
Turn it skin-side down and rub over the herb paste. Preheat the oven to 130.
Roll the pork into a sausage as tightly as you can, skin side out, and tie it up with string (good vids to do this neatly on YouTube, but even scruffily is fine, just important that it maintains its sausage shape.)
Place in a baking tray with fairly deep sides (need these when you pour in liquid later) and place in the oven.
Cook for 3-4 hours, until tender when pierced with a knife.
Now turn the oven heat right up to maximum, and continue cooking until the skin of the pork crackles and blisters (you can also do this under a hot grill, but will have to keep a careful eye and rotate the pork with tongs to stop it burning).
Remove the meat from the tray and set aside, covered with tin foil to keep warm. Pour the wine into the tray and heat it over a medium heat, stirring well until you have a deep brown gravy. Cook for a good few minutes to boil off the alcohol and then taste and adjust for seasoning. You may like to add a little honey for sweetness, extra salt, water, or more wine, according to taste. I usually leave it as is. The meat is juicy enough to be good served alone, the juice is a bonus.
Slice and serve.
Essential Sharp Salad
I served this with some braised cannellini beans, cooked until creamy, which make a nice neutral foil for it but the essential side dish is really a salad to cut through all the fat. Pork belly is deliciously rich, but such obscenity needs to be sliced with a seriously sharp salad that slaps all that happy hot fat in the face. Choose a bitter leaf or a peppery one, rocket, chicory or watercress, or a mustard leaf, and dress it with plenty of lemon zest and juice, a drizzle of oil and a pinch of salt. I like a drop or two of my new favourite condiment too, White Balsamic, which has a slight sweetness due to the addition of grape juice.