Adrian Richardson
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Dean Cambray

Although I don’t like to play favourites, I think I could be happy eating nothing but pork and pork products for the rest of my life. It’s not just about the crackling – although who doesn’t love its salty, tasty crunch? – it’s more that pork appeals directly to the butcher and chef in me.

There’s no doubting the pig’s versatility. It provides us with everything from a fantastic roast dinner to tasty chops and spare ribs for the barbecue. And with a bit of processing and preserving magic, we can transform it into all sorts of fresh and cured sausages, pâtés, terrines, hams and bacon. You really can eat every part of the animal – except for the squeal, of course.

Despite the fact that in some cultures, such as Judaism and Islam, there is a prohibition against eating pork, it is still the world’s most popular meat by a long way. It is the meat of choice in many European and Asian countries; in China, where it was first domesticated, they eat around a third of the world’s pork. Here in Australia we’ve been steadily eating more of it over the last few years; in fact we’ve nearly doubled our consumption since the turn of the current century and now eat around 23 kilograms of pork every year.

Unfortunately, it is this ever-increasing world demand for pork that has led to it being one of the most intensively farmed – and abused – of all domesticated animals. I’ve been to a pig factory-farm – and believe me, they are factories – and it was not pretty. More than any other industry, pig farming is a numbers game – it’s about getting as many big pigs to the marketplace as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. As a result, the average pig endures a tormented life in overcrowded pens with virtually no freedom of movement. They are pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones and fed a rigidly controlled diet. In these conditions pigs change from being naturally sociable and intelligent animals, to aggressive, miserable creatures.

Even worse, the meat from these massive porkers is so bland and flabby as to be barely worth bothering with. Our obsession with low-fat meat products means that pork in many First World countries has been bred to ultra-leanness, entirely at the expense of texture and flavour.

Australian pork

Compared with other countries, the Australian pork industry has invested considerable time, money and research into minimising the negative effects of intensive farming practices. In very recent years the industry has introduced more rigorous animal welfare requirements and I have to say that in my experience most modern pig farmers do seem to care about their animals, if only because it makes better commercial sense.

There’s no getting away from the fact, however, that most pig farming in Australia is big business, geared towards maximum cost efficiency. Some massive piggeries carry as many as 10,000 breeding sows, and nearly 5.5 million pigs are slaughtered every year. Sixty-five per cent of Australian pork production is sold as fresh meat, while the remainder is processed into bacon, hams and smallgoods.

The main breeds in large-scale Australian piggeries are the Large White and the Landrace, whose long loins are particularly prized in the bacon industry. They have been bred over the years to gain weight fast and to be more tolerant of intensive farming conditions.

Numbers of old-fashioned, ‘rare-breeds’, such as the Berkshire, Wessex Saddleback, Tamworth and Large Black are declining, and these days they are really only found in small free-range piggeries that cater to a growing niche market. And to be honest, this is probably a good thing, because this type of pig wouldn’t survive five minutes in a modern piggery. These old-fashioned breeds are only suited to natural living conditions, so it takes a dedicated farmer to make the commitment to raising them.

These small, free-range and rare-breed farmers are the true heroes of the Australian pork industry. This type of small-scale farming is inevitably more personal, with a far greater emphasis placed on the animal’s environment and diet. These happier animals live outdoors and are free to move around and explore their environment and (of course) roll around in the mud. They are fed a varied diet of grass, grains and vegetables and given time to develop marbled flesh and generous subcutaneous layers of flavoursome fat. As far as I’m concerned, this is the way pigs should live, and I do everything in my power to support these dedicated farmers.

Having said that, these small-scale farmers are definitely battling against the odds. It is a far costlier way of farming and the animals are more susceptible to the vagaries of our difficult climate. As a result, the supply of this specialist pork can be inconsistent and, for the home cook, much harder to source. Thankfully there are a few larger piggeries that are moving towards producing free-range pork on a larger scale, and this is becoming far more widely available.

Pork and nutrition

The first thing to bear in mind is that pork is actually a red meat, despite the marketing campaign that promoted it as ‘the other white meat’. Much is made of the fact that modern pork is lean, and indeed, when pork is trimmed of any visible fat it is lower in kilojoules and cholesterol than beef, lamb or even chicken. It is also a good source of protein, B vitamins, zinc, potassium and iron.

How and where to buy pork

Around 60 per cent of Australian pork is sold through the major supermarkets, Woolworths/Safeway and Coles, and only 25 per cent is sold through independent butchers. The most popular cuts are roasts, chops, spare ribs, sausages and mince and, sure enough, these are the cuts that you’ll see in the supermarket chill cabinets.

More pleasingly, though, a few of the more upmarket supermarkets are beginning to stock ‘free-range’ and ‘organic’ pork, and this delights me no end. If you are presented with such a choice in your own supermarket, then please try it. I promise you won’t be disappointed. But it is more likely that you will have to go to a butcher to find quality pork and pork products. But believe me, you will find it tastes so much better.

Because here’s a funny thing: I am told time and time again by my customers at La Luna Bistro, that the main reason they don’t cook more pork at home is because it is a bit dry and tasteless. They tell me that pork somehow doesn’t taste as ‘piggy’ as it used to, and that it is bland and boring. It astounds me that they don’t understand that this is the inevitable consequence of having all the fat bred out to meet the apparent consumer demand for leanness. Yes folks, in the world of meat, fat equals flavour and there’s no escaping it.

Another thing to bear in mind is that most decent pork butchers – and those customers in the know – prefer to buy meat that comes from female pigs (sows). This is generally considered to be sweeter, while meat from male pigs (boars) is stronger flavoured. Indeed meat from a true, mature boar often has a hard texture and an unpleasant urine ‘taint’. Castration is one way of avoiding this problem, although most farmers insist that pigs these days are slaughtered at such a young age, that there is no need for them to be castrated. Not everyone is convinced by this argument (which may well be largely to do with cost). Certainly most good pork butchers, especially Continental and Asian butchers, still insist on sow meat only, even if they have to pay more for it.

Pigs are slaughtered at a relatively young age: around three to five months for ‘porkers’ and four to five months for ‘baconers’, when they weigh 50–60 kg and 70–100 kg, respectively. Whether you’re buying your pork from a butcher or from a supermarket, fresh pork should look exactly that – fresh (it is never aged, like beef). So always choose meat that looks moist and has a bit of a shine to it. It should not look dry and shrivelled, and certainly not sticky or slimy. The fat on pork should be creamy and smooth, rather than yellow and the meat itself should be a rosy pink. Organic and free-range pork may even be a darker reddish-pink.

For very special occasions you might want to try cooking a suckling pig. These are the definitive cut for banquets and celebrations and are usually roasted whole. We have special suckling pig dinners at La Luna Bistro, and they are always sold-out within days. I buy my suckling pigs from a specialist pig farmer in the western part of Victoria. They usually weigh around four kilograms, which is tiny, but I know that they have been reared and slaughtered in impeccable conditions.

Which cut to buy

When choosing your pork cut, the same general rules apply as with other meat. Harder working muscles, or meat which is more substantially layered with fat, needs longer, slower cooking. Tender prime meat, such as the loin, medallions or cutlets, are ideal for quick cooking.

A: Trotter

Although pig’s trotters are the darling of trendy restaurant menus these days, (especially when boned out and stuffed), they are quite challenging for the home cook, as they contain very little meat. Trotters are generally considered as being offal.

B: Leg/ham

Most pork legs are cured to make hams, and there are few things as impressive as a baked glazed Christmas ham, prettily studded with cloves. Fresh pork legs also make brilliant roasts. Broken down, the leg gives us the knuckle, silverside, topside, girello and rump. The rump can be sold bone in or out for roasting. With a wonderful layer of crackling and a jug of apple sauce, this is one of our most familiar cuts.

C: Loin

On pigs the loin is very long, extending from the shoulder all the way back to the leg. It is the source of many wonderful cuts, and they are all fairly lean (especially when the fat is removed), tender and tasty. Meat from the loin is especially good at taking on flavour from marinades and herb or spice rubs.

Cuts from the loin include a rack of pork, chops, cutlets, fillet (tenderloin), medallions and butterfly steaks. The whole loin may be sold rolled up and tied for roasting. And then there are the spare ribs, often sold as American-style ribs. Finally, when cured, the loin gives us back bacon.

D: Belly

Belly is primarily used for making streaky bacon and pancetta, the Italian equivalent. It is thickly layered with fat and brilliantly versatile. It can be braised or roasted or cut into strips and grilled. Although it is fatty, it is a wonderfully tasty and succulent part of the animal, which is all too often overlooked.

Spare ribs are cut from inside the thick end of the belly. They are wonderful when slow-roasted in a tasty marinade, then finished on the barbecue.

E: Shoulder

The whole shoulder is huge, and it is generally broken down into the neck end spare ribs, the blade and down at the top of the leg, the hand. The neck end can also be cut off the bones to give a Scotch roast (also called the collar butt). When cured, it makes collar bacon. The boned-out blade gives a picnic shoulder roast. The hand is brilliant when pickled, or slow-cooked. Cured, it becomes picnic ham.

Cubed meat from the shoulder is fantastic for making pork casseroles or curries, which need long, slow cooking.

F: Head

An incredibly productive part of the pig, which again, is generally sold as offal.

G: Hock

The hock is the first joint of the leg after the hand. It is not very meaty, being made up mainly of connective tissue, skin and bone. But it yields wonderful gelatinous juices when slowly cooked, which are brilliant in stews. Smoked hocks are wonderful when braised with lentils or boiled up with split peas to make pea and ham soup.

Things that love pork

Apple sauce, bay leaves, cabbage, calvados, cider, curry powder, fennel, garlic, ginger, mustard, onions, paprika, pepper, pickled cherries, prunes, rosemary, sage, salt, sauerkraut, sour cream, star anise, tarragon, thyme, white wine.

Storing pork

Because it is lean, with minimal fat and connective tissues, pork is more perishable than other red meats; treat it like chicken or veal.

You won’t find ‘aged’ or ‘hung’ pork, so it will be very fresh when you buy it.

Unwrap and refrigerate all pork immediately.

Store it in a Tupperware container, or sit it on a rack on a plate and cover it with a tea towel.

Large cuts of pork will keep for up to four days.

Smaller cuts should be used within three days.

Cubed or minced pork should be used within one to two days.

How do you know when it’s cooked?

One of the reasons that people so often find pork a disappointment is because it is so often overcooked. The main reason for overcooking is because of lingering concerns about the trichonosis parasite, which was prevalent in the days that pigs were fed largely on table scraps and all sorts of other raw foods. The parasite is actually killed (and the meat safe to eat) at 59ºC, but to allow a margin of error for uneven cooking within a piece of pork, in those days, pork was always cooked to a minimum of 80–85ºC. In reality, the trichonosis has been eradicated from Australian pork, and these days you don’t have to cook the hell out of it to be safe.

My preference is to cook tender cuts of pork to medium, so that they are moist and juicy (there really is nothing worse than overcooked, dry, stringy pork). For really successful pork cookery I strongly believe that a digital meat thermometer is absolutely essential. It takes all the guesswork out of doneness, and you can be absolutely sure that the pork is cooked through, without it being overcooked. Most food authorities today recommend cooking pork to an internal temperature of 75ºC – and remember that the reading will rise by about 5ºC as the meat rests, so you can happily take it out of the oven at about 70ºC. Pork cooked to these temperatures may still have a rosy pink tinge about it – but that shouldn’t be cause for panic. It will be perfectly safe, but succulent and juicy.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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