I used to have a gall bladder, but it’s long gone.
Five or six years ago I started getting the most terrible stomach ache, most often at night, and most often after a meal that was a bit fatty. I remember the first bout of really acute pain was a Christmas night after roast potatoes cooked in goose fat. I suffered with it for a few months but it was real wake-you-up-and-send-you-downstairs sort of an ache. Real wake-up-your-partner-to-let-them-know-you’re-suffering sort of pain. Something that seemed to set it off more than anything else was pork belly. And I love pork belly. So I went to the doctor and he told me I had gall stones and that the best thing to do to deal with them would be to whip the gall bladder out. I was presented with a choice. I could either remain ‘complete’ (the term used for an un-spayed male cat that’s still got all the bits it came with) and wave goodbye to one of my favourite vices, or I could have a little operation.
As I awoke from the anaesthetic a nurse smiled at me and rattled a little plastic lidded pot, ‘”Here they are”
My gall stones. “And the gall bladder?”, I asked.
“Oh, that’s gone to the incinerator”, she replied, and still smiling she handed me the pot, “but you can keep these”.
I’ve still got the pot somewhere, and occasionally, just out of a morbid and perverse sense of inquisitiveness I unscrew the lid and sniff the contents. It’s horrible. But it’s fascinating too. I know you know what I mean.
I don’t get the excruciating pain that I used to get after eating anything a bit rich any more, but still I’ve often found myself suffering after pork. It’s nothing to do with the gall bladder or lack of it though I don’t think. I suspect it’s just because it’s rather difficult not to have too much when the opportunity is there. My advice – cut modest portions before wrapping up the rest and putting it away somewhere where at least a degree of effort is required to get back at it. Don’t just leave it out on the side where the temptation to return and ‘pick’ at it is far to easy.
Perfect Pork Belly (ample for 4 portions)
1kg pork belly
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
white wine, or sherry (about a glass full)
some stock (I’m favouring the Knoor stock pots presently – chicken in this instance)
3 desert spoons honey
1 teaspoon english mustard
Dry the pork well in advance. Ideally put it in the fridge unwrapped for half a day or if you’ve not got time just dry it with a tea towel. And get the oven hot. Really hot and quite in advance so it really IS hot. About 230ºC.
Crush the garlic together with some salt and the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar. Do the garlic and salt first and then add the fennel giving the seeds just a bit of a bash as they don’t want to be ground to a powder, and then rub really well into the fleshy side of the pork, getting it into all the cracks. Place the pork skin side up on a lightly oiled baking tray. Cover the skin with a good generous handful of salt and leave it for about 25 mins after which it’ll be all wet as the salt will have drawn out lots of moisture. Rub off the salt and dry it again before putting it into the oven.
After 30 minutes the skin should be deep orange and blistered and looking great. Take it out and transfer it to a clean (but still oiled) roasting tray (one which is deep enough to make the gravy in) and reduce the heat to 180ºC before putting it back in for about 2 hours. Check it after 100 minutes or so and if the skin is going too dark gently drape a piece of foil over it.
When the time is up and it’s done take the tray it out and lift the pork onto a board. Again drape it with the foil and leave it somewhere reasonably warm for 20 minutes or so to rest. It’ll stay hot and the sauce will heat it further. Besides, food’s better not too hot and that’s true despite what some people who say it isn’t say.
To make the gravy, pour away most but not all of the fat, put the pan back on the heat and add the wine or sherry (I used some homemade elderflower ‘champagne’ so beat that), and as it starts to bubble, work away at the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to lift off all the semi-burnt semi-caramelised fennel, garlic and meat ‘bits’. At this point I tasted it and I was worried that it was too bitter due to burnt bits being lifted off, but here’s what I did next and please believe me when I tell you that it ended up being some of the most delicious gravy/sauce/jus I’d ever created.
I added the stock ‘pot’ and a generous splash of water from the kettle, continued to work away at the bottom of the pan, added the honey and the mustard and some black pepper, and maybe some salt if it tasted like it needed it. And then I let it bubble away gently for about 15 minutes. That’s all.
The crackling on the pork was perfect. It was crisp without feeling like it might take a tooth. It was also light, as the fat layer underneath had rendered down completely and as such it had lifted itself off the meat like a dome. I turned the belly over with the fleshy side upmost and ‘sawed’ through with a bread knife so you got a neat portion with a lid of crackling. The fleshy side had it’s own ‘crackling’/crust from sitting on the bottom of the pan and between that and the skin on the other side was the most soft, tearable, delicate white sweet pork. And alone with the sauce it would make a outstanding and unforgettable plateful, but we had it with mashed potato (cut large, boiled in salted water, drained and left to steam so they’re not too water-logged, pushed through a potato-ricer, and then beaten into butter with a ration of 4 parts potato to 1 part butter)*. We also had some courgettes, cut into penne-sized spears and stir-fried with a bit of onion, garlic and olive oil.
We had this as a mid-week roast. Mid-week folks, how about that?
*I understand from what I’ve read that to make ‘Michelin-star’ mashed potato you do a ratio of one to one butter to potato. I’m sure it’s nice but I’ve never had the guts. I certainly don’t have the gall bladder.