You can’t, as Aristotle once said, shine a shite. If a piece of fruit is rotten, let it rot; if a piece of meat has gone off, throw it away; and if you are Prime Minister and not a naturally handsome or smiley sort, well then so be it – wearing make up and a grin that makes you look like a bipolar Shrek is only going to frighten the children. But we are a nation of turd polishers, locked in interminable attempts to rebuild that which should be knocked down, tippex that which should be erased, justify that which should be forgotten about. Betjeman was dead right.
Or was he? A particularly successful bit of poo polishing has happened only recently in my home town of Ripon. The area behind Philip Hall, “Ripon’s very own department store” (and somewhere that has to be seen to be believed), was, until a couple of years ago, the most desolate, depressing piece of land imaginable. Walking into that car park from the aforementioned retro (not in a good way) Philip Hall was like walking through the back of a wardrobe, but instead of walking into Narnia, you found you’d walked into Warsaw, c.1940. To say there were potholes would suggest that there were also areas of flat, solid concrete. Instead, the entire surface of this sump-cracking wilderness undulated with boulders and fractures, the aftermath of an earthquake so artfully recreated, if only it were intentional. Dead trees lined crumbling walls, cats scratched around the bins for last night’s pizza from the eternally moribund Italian restaurant, and the smell of smoke and nicotine drifted across the wasteland from the lung of William Hill in the south-east corner. It was an abject disgrace.
Fast forward to June 2009 and the years of closed roads, diversions and drilling seem worth it. The car park, for one, now has real bays and everything, and is flat and concreted and really rather smart. The seemingly recession-proof Philip Hall is somehow, impossibly, still there (though Ripon wouldn’t be Ripon without it), but across the concourse now stand our two newest imports – an Argos, that most surreal of shopping experiences, and the uber-fancy, up-yours-Waitrose northern supermarket, Booths. And it is super. Sure, it’s expensive, but it’s big and light, and the jars are all shiny and contain stuff you’d want to eat. Even the ready meals look good. And – AND – the basket check out actually says “10 items or fewer“. A grammatically accurate upmarket supermarket is exactly what we’ve been waiting for up here. I give it 6 months.
Perhaps a more elegant way of phrasing Aristotle’s somewhat crude version is the old adage “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. Well I disagree. I mean, you can’t literally do this, sure, but the implication that a sow’s ear is a lost cause is a foolish one, a proclamation by somebody who clearly had no interest in food. The only bit of a pig that you can’t eat is its oink. A pig’s head, in all its various permutations, is utterly delicious – ears, tongue, cheeks, brain, snout, they all play an important role in the gastronomic tapestry and history of the world. One of the better things I’ve eaten lately was fried pig’s head in the Albion in Bristol, a breaded and fried pig cake of the most tender meat, singing with gribiche, topped by a less apologetic manifestation of pig’s head (in that it was just the meat, unadorned, unfussy, unbelievable), and then finished with a poached duck egg. It was perfection, and anyone squeamish about the idea of eating pig’s head would do well to try that dish.
Yesterday it was the ears I was after. Two quivering, pink, waxy (I know), hairy (yep), ears that I had swiped from Martin and Rachel (who run a forest garden at home) before they embarked upon their day’s butchery.
I started by trimming the hair with a pair of kitchen scissors before singeing off the remaining stubble with a cigarette lighter (a blowtorch would have been considerably more effective). Next job was to get the ears clean. You’d be amazed at the nooks and crannies that wax finds its way into. The best method is to wrap a couple of pieces of kitchen roll around a sharpening steel and working it into all the gaps until you have two clean ears.
Pop the ears in a medium saucepan, cover with water and add some peppercorns, a bay leaf, and a handful of thyme. You might also add a few crushed juniper berries and a clove or two, though considering the end product I’m not sure there’s much point. Cover the saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer for 3 hours, maybe more. My final product was crisp, though still had a strip of cartilage running through the middle that had the look and texture of calamari. I’m not convinced it’s possible to get rid of this.
After three hours, remove the ears, shake dry and place on separate plates. Flatten them out as best you can, and pop one plate on top of the other, then a final plate on top of that with something to hold it down. The idea is to press the ears so that when you come to roasting/frying them they won’t curl up. Once thoroughly weighed down, refrigerate for a couple of hours.
Preheat the oven to 250C.
Remove the ears from the fridge and place on a roasting tray. Season generously on both sides with sea salt and olive oil, and pop in the oven for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile make the tartare sauce:
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons mustard
A pinch of salt
200ml olive oil
juice of half a lemon
2 tablespoons chopped gherkins
1 tablespoon chopped capers
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
Whisk the egg yolks with the salt and mustard, then slowly whisk in the olive oil. You want to start with the merest of trickles. Then as you see the mixture emulsifying (ie coming together) you can start being more bold, by which I mean a gentle, steady stream, never more forceful than a little cream being elegantly poured over a duchess’s dessert. When you have a lovely, thick, wobbly mayonnaise (for this is indeed what you have), whisk in the lemon juice, gherkins, capers and parsley. Taste and adjust the acidity of necessary. Ideally the tartare sauce needs to be, well, tart.
Now, when the half hour is up, turn the pig’s ears over and roast for a further 5 minutes, just to ensure the underside is crispy. Remove from the oven and rest for 5 minutes, before slicing and serving with the tartare sauce. It’s up to you whether or not you tell people what they’re eating. I like to see people’s faces when I tell them what it is, and silently judge them if they refuse to at least try a little. Though you might prefer the more cruel method if offering your guests ‘crackling’ before revealing the truth.
Either way, it’s silly for people to be squeamish about these things. The pig we ate was a happy little thing, free range and as good as organic (though Martin and Rachel, quite rightly, see no need to fart about jumping through hoops in order to be ‘certified’ – ‘organic’ means nothing these days). Compared to the kind of pork one finds in a supermarket (yes, even Booths) a nibble on this little piggie’s ear is far less abhorrent than a budget pork chop. And just tell me, what on earth is the difference between eating a pig’s ear and a pig’s arse?