Make the most of the season’s produce with the help of chef and food writer, Gill Meller. This month, he shares his roast pork belly recipe. Paired with apples and black pudding, it’s the perfect, slow-cooked Sunday supper.
Photography: Gill Meller
Pigs like to be in their natural environment. That means outside, in the fields with the grass under their feet and the sun on their backs. They are sociable, intelligent animals and natural foragers, and enjoy nothing more than snuffling around in the earth and chomping on the roots and shoots they find. Pigs that are kept in conditions that allow them to express their natural behaviour live healthier, happier lives. Too often, industrially farmed pigs have known only the inside of a cramped, indoor pen for the entirety of their short lives.
I remember the day the first bunch of Saddleback piglets (a traditional breed) were delivered to River Cottage HQ many years ago. They all went tearing around the paddock and whenever I came out of the kitchen they’d all trot up to the gate and say hello. For me as a young chef, this experience changed the way I thought about food completely.
Some people might think that watching a family of mischievous little piglets going about their day hasn’t the faintest thing to do with good food or cooking. But they’d be wrong. It has everything to do with it. It’s so important that we connect with the food we’re eating, which means knowing as much as we can about its provenance. The more we know, the easier it is to make considered decisions about what we should really be eating. I think this is one of the most important lessons I have learnt during my time in the kitchen.
Native breed Saddleback free-range piglets
Buying proper free-range pork means you are supporting high-welfare farms, as well as a community that is working towards a better future for agriculture and wildlife in general. You can nearly always guarantee the pigs have led the best possible life and that, more often than not, the farmer has reared interesting, traditional breeds. The Saddleback pork belly I’m using in this recipe is from Herons Green Farm in the Chew Valley, Somerset. It’s a popular cut and rightly so. I find it has the perfect balance of dark, rich meat to firm, flavoursome fat. What’s more, it produces the most moreish crunchy crackling you could hope for.
When it comes to the pig, we really ought to be using everything but the oink, so I’m including some wonderful Fruit Pig black pudding in here too. Black pudding is, for me, one of the most delicious products a pig can provide. Fruit Pig make theirs using fresh blood as opposed to most black pudding sold in supermarkets and high street butchers’ shops which is made with dried, powdered blood. Not only does this make an inferior pudding but it’s also untraceable. You often have absolutely no idea where that blood has come from. In 99% of cases, I’d be willing to bet it’s from pigs that have been reared intensively. Fruit Pig are qualified slaughtermen and, uniquely, are able to source fresh blood directly from two small, local village abattoirs in East Anglia.
I like to think of this recipe as a celebration of the pig and a fitting example of how delicious great pork can be. It’s a feast, but it’s a rich one, so I’m cutting it with some sharp fruity apples. The perfect accompaniment, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
Roast Pork Belly with Apples & Black Pudding
– 2.5kg pork belly, on the bone (I used Saddleback)
– fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
– 6 large shallots, halved
– 150ml cider or water
– 6 dessert apples
– 400g quality black pudding, sliced thickly
– 1 bunch of fresh sage
– 1 small bunch of thyme
– 4-6 bay leaves
1. Remove the pork belly from the fridge about 1 to 2 hours before you intend to cook it. Preheat the oven to 220ºC (fan).
2. Make sure the skin is lovely and dry. Use a sharp knife to score the skin and fat of the pork (don’t cut into the meat). Place the pork into a large roasting tray and season generously with fine sea salt. Place the pork in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes.
3. Remove it, tuck the halved shallots under the meat and add the cider or water. Reduce the heat to 160°C (fan) and roast for 2 hours, until crunchy and golden on the outside and tender and giving in the middle. Add a splash more cider or water if the pan looks dry at any point.
4. Spoon off any excess pork fat, but reserve it for another use. Place the whole apples around the pork belly along with the sliced black pudding, sage, thyme and bay leaves. I don’t bother chopping the herbs, I just tear and bruise them and chuck them in.
5. Spoon some of the lovely juices over these new additions and season everything with a little salt and black pepper. Return the pork and apples to the oven and cook for a further 35 minutes, or until the apples are soft but not collapsing. It’s worth noting that if the apples look like they are going to collapse, you can take them out of the oven, as the black pudding and pork belly are already cooked!
6. Remove the pork dish from the oven and allow the meat to rest in a nice, warm place for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve everyone a few thick slices of pork, some generous strips of crackling, an apple, some black pudding and some soft shallots.
To make a quick gravy, spoon off the excess fat from the surface of the roasting juices in the tin, then set the roasting tin over a medium heat. Add 1 heaped tablespoon of plain flour and work this into the remaining fat and juices. Cook gently for a moment then add some stock and a splash of cider or wine and bring to a simmer. Stir well and season to taste with salt and pepper. When you’ve got a nice consistency (and it tastes delicious) pass the gravy through a fine sieve and keep warm. Remember to add all the resting juices to the gravy.
For Saddleback pork belly, fresh blood black pudding and all other ingredients featured in this recipe, go to farmdrop.com.
Stay tuned for more of Gill’s exclusive monthly recipes, including this perfectly autumnal Lamb, Squash & Pearl Barley Stew.