I’m always surprised how many people ask if the belly pork will be fatty. Luckily they ask the smiley, diplomatic waitress and so get a smiley, diplomatic answer. To be fair though belly pork is a fatty cut of meat, but that’s why it’s cheap, and that’s why it needs long slow cooking, rendering the fat and self-basting as it goes, leaving behind meltingly soft meat that is full of proper piggy flavour.
This recipe requires an overnight marinade, and if you want to serve it pre-portioned and stress free you’ll need to start it in the morning. Alternatively start it off to coincide with dinner time and forgo the presentation, all the flavour will still be there, it’ll just be a little more rustic and a lot less faff.
My technique for the crackling is one that is not well documented, I’ll give you that, but I find it produces excellent results, without fail.
(Serves 8, generously)
350ml maple syrup – the real thing, not just ‘maple flavoured’
1 bunch of thyme
4 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of pink peppercorns
1 tablespoon of Maldon sea salt
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
3 bay leaves
2.5kg piece of belly pork
3 large onions
250ml white wine
Marinade the pork overnight; place the first 7 ingredients in a deep dish, one that’s large enough to accommodate the pork. Ideally only the meat should be in contact with the marinade and not the skin, as although it won’t come to any harm, it will discolour the crackling, turning it dark and giving it the appearance of being burnt.
Preheat the oven to 150⁰C.
The following day, remove the pork from the marinade and add the white wine.
Peel and halve the onions, place them cut side down in a large roasting tin and pour over the marinade. Rest the pork on top of the onions, and pop it in the oven.
After an hour have a look at the pork, we want to be able to remove the skin easily from the meat before the crackling starts to form, but need the fat beneath the skin to start to render first to make the removal of the skin easier. I find an hour/hour and a half is usually sufficient, it may need a little longer.
To remove the skin, take the pork out of the oven; use a sharp boning knife and start at a corner, slide the knife between the skin and the meat and peel it away, lifting the skin and drawing your knife across in a sweeping motion as you peel it back. Whatever fat does remain on the underside of the skin can be removed afterwards. But first, once the skin is off, baste the meat with the marinade.
Return the pork to the oven for a further 3 hours, basting occasionally. Keep an eye on the volume levels in the roasting tin, as the pork cooks and the fat melts the level will rise. If you need to, pour some off into a jug but don’t throw it away, this will make our sauce/glaze later.
Meanwhile, get on with the crackling. Whilst it’s still hot, remove any excess fat from the underside of the skin, then use decent kitchen scissors or a very sharp knife to cut the skin into strips. I do mine about a finger width, and then cut each length in half to make them also about a finger length.
Sprinkle them generously with salt, don’t be tight (we can remove excess salt later so don’t panic).
Now if you have two ovens, preheat the vacant one to 220⁰C. You can then start off the crackling in small batches, just 6 – 8 pieces at a time. Each batch should take somewhere in the region of 10 mins to crackle up nicely.
(If you don’t have two ovens you’ll just have to wait until the pork is done, but this does have the advantage of drying out the crackling a bit more which will make for a quicker, easier crackle.)
When the pork has had its time you have two options. This is the faffy one: lift the pork off the onions using a couple of robust fish slices and place it on a board. Place another board on top of the pork, and then place a good heavy weight, like a pile of plates, a bag of bricks or a small and well behaved child…something like that, on the top to weight it down.
Now, this is going to compress the pork and squeeze out any liquefied fat lurking in the meat, so it will ooze out all over your kitchen work surface, I’m just saying; do with that information what you will. Leave it like this for an hour, then remove all the paraphernalia and get it cooling as quick as you can before sticking it in the fridge. Proceed with making the sauce as per the non-faff version.
(Cooking pork in this way and then pressing it will give you a piece of belly pork bereft of most of its fat and one that is easy to slice and present. You could portion it in squares, or slices, personally I think a slice is more user friendly. Reheat individual portions wrapped in baking paper, at 200⁰C for 20 mins.)
If you want to skip the faff: lift the pork off the onions using a couple of robust fish slices and strain the marinade through a sieve into a saucepan. Let it settle for a few minutes so you can syphon off the excess fat, then set it over a high heat.
Boil the sauce to reduce and condense it, adding a good pinch of sea salt. Keep an eye on it, the high sugar content of the maple means it has the potential to overheat and caramelize – watch what the bubbles do, when the colour changes to a deep amber and starts to smell like caramel, take it off the heat and taste for seasoning, but be ever so, ever so careful, this is hot stuff.
Roast potatoes would be a good accompaniment, as would a dark green leafy number – purple sprouting for example. You could in theory also serve the onions that sat beneath the pork, they won’t look up to much, but they’ll be absolutely bursting with flavour.