I am not a great pork fan. It used to work itself into my diet on only three occasions. A twice a year or so roast for Sunday lunch (where for me the crackling was always the main attraction), weekend bacon butties, and sausages – proper British sausages, 40% or so of minced pork and a fair amount of fat, mixed with bread or rusk, herbs and seasoning. I find it difficult to like their meatier denser European cousins, French saucisson or German bratwurst, encased as they are in a thicker skin that sometimes require boiling. This rules out completely Frankfurters or Hot Dogs whatever the sporting occasion. Going by Bee Wilson’s long read in the Guardian, bacon may well have to come off the menu because of the potassium nitrate (also known as saltpetre) and sodium nitrite used in its processing. My pork consumption will therefore be dropping to an all time low.
The German people have a different view. As much as I enjoyed living in our spacious apartment perched above a stream in Leipzig, eastern Germany, it came as a shock to realise how difficult it was to buy any other meat there apart from pork or pork products. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised as Germany is the top pork producer in Europe and comes third after the US and China on the world market. But it is also the second largest producer of beef, so what I couldn’t understand is why it was so difficult to source a good steak. Even the local restaurants that served steak rarely had a homebred variety on the menu, but with great éclat offered Argentinian or Brazilian instead.
Lamb on the other hand could only be found in Halal butchers. Here it was my lack of language and knowledge about the different cuts of meat used by these butchers that deterred me from trying to buy. I, therefore, found myself doing what I hate other expatriates doing, importing beef and lamb from the UK. When I travelled back and forth to London with Dog as my travel companion, I would pack an ice box in the boot of the car. This butcher’s delivery was 700 miles door to door, which if Euroshuttle worked on time, could be achieved in just under eleven hours.
Any meat I did buy in the Leipzig supermarkets was either pork or chicken with an occasional farmed rabbit or hare. I did buy pork filet for stir fries, and a pork steak or two to fry with apple slices, but even if I had wanted to be more adventurous the variety of cuts was very limited.
Returning to London five years later, I also realised that so many cheap cuts of meat and offal have disappeared from British supermarkets. Silverside, flank, brisket, chuck (now known as braising steak), shin, and oxtail, were all cuts of meat I grew up with. They all were prepared in different ways and were a regular part of our diet.
I am lucky that I can afford to buy online from London’s smattering of old-fashioned butchers, which means cheaper cuts are being bought by those with higher incomes. Daft really and it plays into the UK obesity crisis with those on lower incomes being driven to buy cheap, unhealthier food.
Having tried the ox cheeks from Turner & George, I was determined to give pork cheeks a go. Pork can be a dry meat, but it needs to be cooked thoroughly. As the cheeks have a natural marbling, the meat will stay moist during slow cooking. There is a myriad of recipes for pork cheeks online, but I reckoned it couldn’t be more difficult than sticking to the basics of a stew – brown the meat, sauté onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thicken with flour, add stock, and cook for a long time.
Allowances needed to be made for a delicately flavoured meat by using a lighter stock than one you would use for beef, and though I am not a great fan of fruit in savoury dishes, I added some apricots soaked in ginger wine for a touch of sweetness – ginger wine is a store cupboard staple in the winter months for my must have whisky Macs.
Spicy slow cooked Pork cheeks, with apricots.
Preparation time – 30 mins. Cooking time – 3 hrs. Serves 4
500-600g pork cheeks, cut into 4-5cm chunks or left whole
2 medium onions, peeled, halved and finely chopped
3 carrots finely chopped
2 sticks of celery
4 garlic cloves
4/5 strips of orange peel
3 sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
300ml white wine
500ml good vegetable stock
150g piece of streaky bacon or pancetta, cut into 1cm cubes
1 can of butter beans – the really large Spanish beans if possible
Dried apricots soaked in ginger wine.
Season the pork cheeks. Heat a frying pan with a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil and fry the cheeks on a high heat for a few minutes, browning them on all sides, then drain on some kitchen paper.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan and brown the bacon bits for 2-3 minutes, add the onion, carrots, celery, flour and spices and cook for 2-3 minutes until soft, then add garlic and cook for another minute, tuck in the pork cheeks, the bay leaves, thyme and orange zest and then add the orange juice and wine. Bring to the boil, season and simmer gently for about 2.5 hrs.
Then add the drained apricots and butter beans. Simmer for another half an hour. The cheeks should be tender enough to break into mouth-size bits in the pan. Remove the orange peel, thyme sprigs and bay leaves.
The butter beans make this quite a mighty stew, so I serve it with a side of al dente Brussels or broccoli and soup spoons to lap up the juice, but crisp slices of baguette or sour dough would work just as well.