There’s a lot more to our versatile pork than just pulling it!

Kenny Gracey from Forthill Farm
Kenny Gracey from Forthill Farm

This year I was delighted to be a judge for the BBC Radio Four Food and Farming Awards, alongside chef and restaurateur Giorgio Locatelli, in the street food and takeaway category.

We were both sent over 600 paper entries to wittle down to 10 and then finally pick a top three. The quality of entrants was very high, making it a challenging task. We actually, with the exception of one, picked the same top ten and we both agreed on the eventual winner, Hangfire Smokehouse in Wales. It’s run by two women, Samatha Evans and Shauna Gunn (originally from Northern Ireland) who run their business from an old butcher’s shop in the town of Major Llanwit, about 20 minutes from Cardiff. They imported a large smoker from America and slowly smoke whole joints of meat, ribs, chickens and turkey. These days many menus have a version of pulled pork. Quite frankly I’m over the whole trend and think overkill has set in.

The exception being, their version of spice, sugar and salt rubbed pork shoulder, slowly smoked for 12 hours and ripped apart so that the beautiful crust becomes interwoven with the soft, succulent meat, was one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever tasted.

It also got me thinking about the pork butt my mum used to cook. She would slather it in Dijon mustard and slowly cook in a trusty, seasoned Le Creuset pot until it was tender. Simple and delicious.

We tend to overlook pork generally in this country but it’s a versatile and relatively cheap meat that lends itself to a myriad of flavours and methods of cooking. We eat insipid mass produced chicken breasts by the boatload but overlook the wonder of a good pork chop.

I was at the fabulous Garden Show Ireland, in Antrim last weekend and two brilliant pork producers were there selling their products. Kenny Gracey from Forthill Farm outside Tandragee (his farm shop is sign posted as you enter the town) and Alan Bailey from Pheasant’s Hill Farm (he sells at his stall in St George’s Market, in Belfast, every weekend) couldn’t keep up with the demand for their fine sausage baps and I used both their pork butts in my cooking demos.

I braised the pork for hours in cider, dandelion sherry (recipe for that at a later date!) and ginger. The resulting sauce is delicious and I paired it with some fermented rhubarb. I got this recipe from chef Tom Hunt. We cooked together at a dinner in Bristol, the night after the Food and Farming awards dinner.

I cooked a starter of Lough Neagh eel with dulse and apples and Tom cooked a whole pig. He used every part from the snout to the tail and served it with fermented rhubarb, it’s zinginess the perfect foil for the rich meat. You just soak the rhubarb in a honey sweetened brine for about five days and chop really finely to scatter over the meat. It’s a genius way of preserving the prized crop (even my decidedly ungreen fingers have managed to encourage a magnificent batch this year!) and will only get better the longer you keep it. There’s a lovely fizziness too that’s a tasty change from the traditional apple sauce.

At the show I served it with some dandelion petals (my theme was cooking with weeds), a scattering of hazelnuts and a good splash of Hartnett’s orange and rosemary oil (it’s very nice with roast chicken or lamb too) but it would work equally well with some buttered potatoes.

There are excellent pork producers in Northern Ireland and apart from being a great product, by giving pork a go, you’d be supporting a vital part of our agri-food industry and that would never be a bad thing. There’s a lot more to it than just pulling it!