Autumn Pork Pie – Handmade and Local

Pork Pie, Cheddar and Chutney

Many people recoil in terror at the site of a pork pie, but come back and sit down, there’s nothing to be afraid of.  In fact, if you’ve been put off by the greasy supermarket and petrol station excuses for pork pies, it’s really time you tried them again from a decent local supplier.  Yes, the best ones are supposedly made in Melton Mowbray (the PDO and PGI says so), but you’ll benefit from the freshness of a locally made pie much more if you don’t live in Leicestershire and the supermarket is your only other option.

The pie above was made by Bude Meat Supply (not the most romantic of names, I grant you), and is huddling between Denhay Farm mature cheddar and Ma’s Apple & Date chutney (not commercially available, but my mother makes so much of the stuff she’d probably send you a jar if you asked). Cue closed eyes and dreamy murmuring sounds.

So, give them another chance this autumn – crisp pastry yielding to rich pork that sits perfectly with chutney, cheese and a pickled onion if you’re feeling adventurous – it’s a food that represents traditional British cuisine at its best.

empty plate

 

Paella Valenciana – The Original Paella, Not a Prawn in Sight…

Paella Valenciana

Paella Valenciana, L'Establiment, El Palmar nr Valencia

Most of us are familiar with the seafood or mixed paella served at tourists spots across Spain, but the original Valencia Paella is a far cry from these modern interpretations.

The paella that most of us are familiar with (and is served in tourist spots across Spain) consists either of a seafood paella or a ‘mixed paella’; bright yellow rice with pink prawns and mussel shells strewn across the surface of the rice, and perhaps the odd lemon segment mysteriously nestling amongst its fishy neighbours.  But the original Paella can be found in and around El Palmar, a village hidden among the rice fields south of Valencia, where the shellfish don’t get a look in…

Traditionaly cooked over orange wood fires that imparts a smokey flavour to the dish, the dish uses ingredients that could be found in the paddy fields and the canals that feed them – specifically rabbit, little stripy snails and duck (though chicken is an acceptable substitute, shown in the dish above), together with various types of beans.  This is the true definition of local sourcing –  measured in food metres, not miles!

The photo above shows a huge wagon wheel sized Paella (the name for the pan as well as the dish) from the L’Establiment on the north end of Paella.  The restaurant somehow manages to be stylish and yet unpretentious and welcoming, and if the weather is good (it wasn’t) you can sit outside by the canal and paddy fields that have provided your meal.  A good Paella is a real treat – intense rich flavours with buttery rice and a range of textures that can make sharing with your dining partners somewhat precarious (tradition says you should never cross over the invisible line into your neighbours section – fork rapped knuckles ensue).  Paella is only ever eaten at lunch in Spain – restaurants will serve it to you in the evening, but expect to be eating it on your own.

I would recommend phoning and ordering ahead (ours took an hour to cook), and remember that the Spanish lunch runs later than most – we arrived at 3pm, and people were still ordering food at 4 and eating at 5. If you can’t get to El Palmar, then look for restaurants that serve Paella for a minimum of two people – then you know it is being cooked fresh each time.

Given that this is a dish that has evolved and changed to become different dishes within its own country, I also think that we should all worry less about using traditional recipes when cooking it at home.  Look to the original spirit of the dish, and use what is in your immediate vicinity; think local game and seasonal vegetables if you’re inland, or native shellfish like oysters, mussels and langoustine if you’re by the coast.  Just ensure that you’re putting plenty of flavour into the dish, and maybe serve it to your diners on their own plates – then fork blows to the knuckles can be avoided…

Jamón Ibérico – Fine Food with No Bitter After Taste

Jamón Ibérico, an artisan product that is not only renowned for its flavour, but also shows the benefits of good animal welfare.

On a trip to Barcelona a few years ago, a work colleague described with great enthusiasm a Spanish ham made from the meat of black pigs left to roam free in the mountains and eat acorns.  Beyond my surprise that pigs ate acorns (though of course Piglet was very keen on them), the idea seemed very romantic, and a far cry from the questionable animal welfare practices that plague most mass-produced meat products.

Jamón Ibérico is becoming well-known across the world, and is an artisan product of such a standard to be mentioned in the same breath as caviar and champagne.  The hams come from the black Ibérico pig or ‘pata negra’, a pig with layers of fat running through the muscle which allows the hams to be cured for much longer (two years or more).

Despite my delight at the image of all these pigs running through the mountains, gorging on acorns, this is not the case for all Jamón Ibérico – only the pigs designated for ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ status (literally, Acorn Ibérico Ham) enjoy this winter ‘montenara’ period of immense gluttony for 3-4 months.  And as gluttony goes, it’s impressive – each pig can gain up to 2 lbs per day, doubling their weight over the period.  It’s little wonder that the Spanish refer to the pigs as ‘olives on legs’.

In addition to the bellota PDO variety, the range of products produced under the moniker is as confusing as balsamic vinegar, and not always from free range animals.  Simon Majumdar wrote an excellent article in the guardian last year on the different types – look for the aforementioned Jamón Ibérico de bellota, Jamón Ibérico de recebo or Jamón Ibérico cebo de campo which are all outdoor reared.

As easy as that sounds, it may not always be possible.  I bought the ham in the photo above from the excellent Darts Farm in Topsham, Devon. At the time, I knew nothing of these variations, and it was described simply as ‘Iberico Ham’.  I called them to ask if there were any more details on the label for the ham, but it apparently simply says ‘Jamón Ibérico’.

The price was comparable to the bellota variety (compared to the online price from bellota.co.uk), and the taste was incredible, nutty and sweet, similar to a mature cheddar, but with a flavour that kept on changing and developing. It’s something that any meat-eater should taste at least once in their life – a true example of an artisan food with characteristics that elevate it far above mass-produced fair. It may have been the power of suggestion, but I’m sure I could detect a flavour reminiscent of acorns (now I just need to eat an acorn to make sure).

Crucially, despite the price this is not an elitist food. You don’t have to have a ‘sophisticated pallet’ to appreciate it, pure and simple it is just very, very tasty.  Open your mouth, pop it in, close your eyes and enjoy.

I bought about 50g for £5, and it was well worth it even for those few slices.  If I had one complaint, it was that the standard of carving was not up to much (see that chunky looking wad at the front of the plate), so I ended up with scraps and chunks rather than neat wafer thin slices. Next time I plan to glare at the carver throughout the slicing process, and maybe wail dramatically if the slices come out too thick.

I should probably apologise now for making reference to Piglet in a post about ham. Sorry about that.