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The English, their Food, and their Cooking Pt.2

I have found after much research and experimentation that there are two crucial factors in cooking a good chicken:

1. Buy a good chicken 

2. Do not ruin it 

This may sound horribly obvious. But so many times I have been served a chicken by people I know, or by restaurants where they have tried all sorts of tricks from Heston Blumenthal or Gordon Ramsey, and therefore presume their chicken is cordon bleu. But they ineluctably neglect one of these two foundations of roasting a good pullet. And the chicken is disappointing. They have put butter and crap under the skin, they have rubbed it with herbs or spice, they have slow cooked it, crisped it, inverted it, stuffed it with a smaller fowl, stuck a little top hat and monocle on it, or even used organic salt, would you believe, and all with the best of intentions. But the result is never as good as when you simply buy a genuinely good chicken (not necessarily an expensive one from a UK supermarket) and do not ruin it. If you follow these guidelines then the flesh will be delicate and moist, the skin will be crispy, and the gravy will virtually make itself. 

This last point, I should like to add, is the best way of measuring the quality of a good chicken, in my opinion. If there is enough good fat and good juice in the flesh, and the bird has been cooked at the right temperature for the right amount of time, the cooking juices will only need the slightest of hydration and seasoning to form a creamy and delicate gravy. This is why I like cooking chickens in Switzerland. An inexpertly or, more to the point, cheaply reared chicken will not have the right balance of fluid and fat to make a good gravy. However, Olympic athletes have been known to inject themselves with the gravy from Tesco’s economy chickens to promote muscle-growth and anabolic rates, so there is something to be said for these sorry animals. 

Another trick that supermarkets use is Known Value Item pricing bias. An item of known value is a product, such as a tin of Heinz beans, whose price can be objectively compared between rival stores. Supermarkets know that your average customer will be far more likely to assess and remember the price of a box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes than a tomato, for example, which would necessitate an assessment of quality and a price per weight. Each box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes is the same in each different supermarket. But every tomato is different: it could be from anywhere in the world that produces tomatoes, its flavour, texture, ripeness etc. are variable, and it is not easy to see how much each individual tomato costs, unless you weigh them all individually and work it out. Therefore, instead of competing with their competitors for low prices on fruit and veg, supermarkets find it more effective to drop the price on a KVI, such as the products of Heinz or Kellogg’s, and tactically increase the price on vegetables. Retailers know that more often than not, their customers will just scoop up a load of spuds into their trolly and off they go. They won’t even check the price of non-KVI’s till they get their receipt, if at all. 

Very clever. But what has this profit-honing tool got to do with the way we eat? Well if you think about it, KVI’s are going to be pre-packaged, homogeneous foods. Non KVI’s are going to be un-uniform, natural foods like fresh fruit and vegetables. Therefore generally the supermarkets are going to be pricing pre-packaged, pre-prepared foods more competitively than fresh produce. But is it simply the supermarket which is leading us away from the holy land of fresh food, cooking and reality? 

Again, an issue here is the word ‘Known’ in KVI. In England, knowledge of the true value of food is on short supply. If English consumers were better at discerning quality of fresh produce, and demanding it over pre-packaged food, we would be able to bring that to bear on supermarket purchasers. The ruthless buyers of today’s colossal English supermarkets have become the chimera of the general population’s woeful relationship with food. 

To summarise this point, I believe that we have become culturally divorced from food in the UK. We have lost any cultural sense of good produce and good taste. Supermarkets which spring up in the name of efficiency and convenience reinforce and extend this trend. They give it momentum. Supermarkets have for the last decade been retailing (supposedly) higher-quality higher-price product ranges, but this does more harm than good. Why? Because consumers now believe that the way top find better produce is look for better packaging, and a higher price tag. While the produce is often marginally better in these posher product ranges, we are not using our senses and instincts to discern good food. We are cheating ourselves not only of a great sensual experience which is our birthright as animals, but also of the refinement of our judgments and tastes which should be occurring every time we go shopping. 

The efforts of the English over the last 20 years to improve the way they eat and cook may have been well-intentioned but, in reality, self-defeating. I think that the impetus for finding out about better quality produce has led to the rising importance of packaging and the influence of the marketer, advertiser, and product designer in the way we buy from supermarkets. Similarly, we are desperate to learn how to cook, and who do we turn to? TV Chefs and food writers. Now of course this new breed of celebrity and cultural icon can confer some of their knowledge to their audiences. But do you think they learnt to cook by watching telly? We are convinced the food they make is good quality because they are on TV and because they say it is. But whether it is or not is irrelevant. We cannot tell, because we cannot taste or smell it, nor can we feel it or properly see it. 

Learning to cook off the telly is like learning to paint by listening to an audio-guide. 

Cooking is not about following a recipe. It is about following your instincts. To cook a pasta sauce correctly, you cannot follow a timer. You use all your senses to determine exactly when the consistency, concentration, and delicacy is right. You know what the end result should be, and you don’t stop until you get there. How do you know? Because you have grown up in a culture where you and everyone else has always eaten good pasta sauces and have done for generations. Like a knowing what a good cup of tea tastes like: not too watery, not too milky, not over-brewed, just the right colour, just the right temperature, in just the right mug. Imagine a French chef trying to teach a Frenchman how to brew a cup over the telly. Sacrilege. 

Sadly, the divorce from reality in TV cookery education is not an exception to the norm of televisual communication. It is an effective example of how the medium of television divorces the viewer from reality. TV is also highly addictive, which convinces us to allow it deeper and deeper into our lives and our systems of knowledge. However, this is one for another blog.             

How To Make Good Pork Crackling

Roast pork without good crackling is like a garden without any trees, a car without hub-caps, a jester without any bells, a farm without any dung, or a young vagabond without a twinkle in his rapscallious eye. It is missing its joy. There is something about the crisp, salty, melt-in-your mouth goodness of crackling that brings joy to the iciest of hearts.

People always seem to want to know how to get a good crackle, and there are a few common advices* offered by various chefs and food writers. They variously suggest rubbing with oil, rubbing with salt, with herbs, scalding with boiling water, scoring and so on. But I have never seen any writer offer an explanation of why pigskin crackles, and how any of the standard methods actually help. 

This post is my explanation of the processes involved in making crackling. As with the vast majority of culinary methods of which I know, if you just follow instructions and recipes without really thinking about what is actually happening to the ingredients then you will have little success. 

It is perfectly possible to employ all the methods mentioned above and not get a good crackling. If you have found yourself frequently frustrated, left with a tough leathery bit of football I would suggest that you try the following: run a blow torch over it. Voila! It will sizzle and puff up into light crisp balloons of crackling. It is not the best, mind you: it will be patchy and uneven. But the blowtorch just illustrates that there is no magic involved. It is heat that is the critical factor. 

Think of bacon turning crispy. When you fry or grill it for long enough, it will go as crunchy as a poppadum. Water is driven out, and fat soaks in, cooking the pork cells brittle. Blowtorching the skin is essentially doing the same thing as frying bacon. There is fat underneath which melts and cooks the skin, replacing the water which is driven out. 

When moisture is trapped in or under the skin, fat can not usurp its place. Scoring the rind allows the moisture to escape and the fat to melt out and all over the skin, just like bacon in a frying pan. As sharp a blade as possible, even a scalpel is good. But don’t cut all the way down through the fat to the flesh, because this can allow juices to bubble out, ruining the meat and the crackling. 

I have seen one well-known chef recommend pouring boiling water over the skin before oiling, salting, and cooking. This will not help. I imagine that the chef borrowed the step from traditional Peking duck preparation, where the skin is scalded first to tighten it and to remove any fat on the surface of the skin. This is important because the ducks are left to hang in a draughty window or doorway (Chinatown stylee) for a day to completely desiccate the skin, and residual oil would prevent the water leaving it. Chinese chefs take care not to pierce the skin so no fat can get through and spoil it. When Peking duck is done in authentic Beijing style, the skin is served first with pancakes – it is a fine delicacy. The rest of the duck meat is dished up in a subsequent course. 

Anyway, the scalding is pretty much useless in the above chef’s recipe because the pork joint is not left to dry for any length of time, and oil is poured straight back on to the skin! 

Salting- it seems like a good idea. Salting things dries them out, of course. Well, salting dries out food without having to cook it, more specifically. If the water is free to escape, then the heat from the cooking will be far more effective at drying the skin than salting. However, the mixture of excessive fat and salt is a combination you are genetically predisposed to adore. Great for your heart, too. 

Heat is everything. If you keep the oven low you will not get crackling. If you turn it up very hot then you run the risk of drying your perfectly juicy pork (and there is no greater sin than dried-out pork, not even usury). Pork does not like to be cooked roughly. It makes sense to remove the rind, fat and skin, when the joint has finished cooking and put it back in a very hot oven You can even use the grill. Incidentally, I always wrap roasted meat in foil to rest. If you merely cover it, it will lose a lot more juice and juiciness. If grilling the crackling, take care not to let it burn, all can be lost in a matter of seconds (this nearly happened to me the other day). 

Last but not least we come to the cut of meat itself. A good layer of fat really helps get the crackling sizzling, and also show that the pig has been fed well. You should only use good quality, free-range pork. Factory-farmed pork always has a terrible, unwholesome reek to it, and sweats all sorts of weird muck. I found out from a farmer that this curdled grey crap is actually milk: there are government regulations governing how much water may be pumped into standard non free-range meat, so the factory technicians use milk as well, which has not been regulated yet. 

So, if you want a vague recipe, score the skin shallowly (experiment with using a lot of scores) rub in some salt for flavouring. Use a high heat (above 220C) to crackle the pork, preferably off the joint after cooking. Oil may help to keep salt on, and make up for a lack of fat, but if there is enough blubber underneath the skin then that should do. 

But the only way to get reliably good crackling is to experiment, trying to get a feel for the cooking process. Every oven and every piece of pork is different, and your method will have to adapt accordingly. 

*Schwarzenegger says ‘advices’ so it must be right