You think you know a little bit about food production and then someone like Alastair Butler puts you right. This second generation pig farmer, part of the family behind acclaimed Blythburgh Free Range Pork, tells me less than 1% of the pork we eat in the UK is free range. So all that bacon, pulled pork, belly, gammon and ham hock we’ve been scoffing? Chances are it’s from animals whose lives haven’t been great, unless you make it your business to seek out the highest welfare free range porky stuff.
We all do it. We spot “outdoor reared” or “outdoor bred” on a package of supermarket pork and toss it in the trolley, happy (and possibly smug) to pay a bit more for meat supposedly reared in higher welfare conditions. The truth is that “outdoor reared” or “outdoor bred” are terms used to describe pork from animals that are born in fields but moved into sheds after weaning, so much of their lives is actually spent indoors. It’s misleading, confusing and should have been addressed by regulators years ago. When it comes to imported pork, just avoid: it’s all produced from animals who never see the light of day.
It’s not surprising that Blythburgh Free Range Pork is favoured by leading UK chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Mark Hix. During a recent food writers’ visit to Suffolk, I was lucky enough to see how the animals contentedly snuffle in the dirt, race round their fields and snooze on fresh straw in large airy tented barns. This pork really is different. The extra space and freedom to behave instinctively and roam free allows the animals to lead active lives, which burns more calories and results in slower growth than sedentary pigs fattened quickly indoors.
The Butlers turned their conventional pig farm into a free-range venture in the 1990s after Waitrose persuaded them to give it a try. Alastair’s father Jimmy was initially unconvinced – he had never eaten free-range pork and doubted it would taste much different to the meat he had producing for years – but the experiment was hugely successful. By 2000, the family had reverted completely to free range production and moved away from supplying supermarkets to work with specialist butchers and caterers under their own Blythburgh Free Range Pork brand.
“Supermarkets believe you can’t have fat in pork products, that it will put customers off,” Jimmy says. “But fat is where the flavour is – it tastes horrible with no fat. Intramuscular fat especially is vital for flavour.”
No longer hampered by supermarket demand for lean pork from animals bred and fattened quickly, the family was free to focus on animals that produced flavourful, high quality, slow-grown meat. They changed the genetic design of the pigs, and altered the feeding and breeding regimes to give the animals 6 months rather than 18 weeks to fatten. The result is amazing flavour that’s now sought after by specialty butchers (click here for online suppliers) and restaurants.
The recipe below was inspired by third generation butcher Gerard King, from craft butcher Salter and King, who gave us a butchery demonstration during our trip to Suffolk. This would obviously be wonderful as a hearty winter feast, but I’m very partial to roast meat in summer, when I serve it with a couple of salads – including one made with grains, with the pan juices (skimmed of fat) drizzled through as a kind of dressing.
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- leaves from 2 thyme sprigs
- 1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
- 2 garlic cloves
- olive oil
- 1.5-2kg Blythburgh pork belly, skin on and scored
- 140g chorizo cooking sausages, skins removed and meat chopped
- 2 onions, peeled and quartered
- 2 carrots, chopped
- Preheat the oven to its hottest temperature. While this is happening, pop the fennel seeds, herbs and salt into a mortar and pound until crushed and well combined. Scoop out half this mixture and set to one side, then add the garlic cloves and a splash of olive oil and pound to a paste.
- Place the pork belly skin-side down on a chopping board and spread the garlicky, herby paste all over. Scatter over the chorizo and gently press it into the meat with your palms. Roll up the belly into a tight cylinder and tie with the kitchen string in 3 places. You can neaten off the ends with a sharp knife if you like, although I don't bother. Rub the reserved herbs and salt into the top of the scored skin.
- Put the ribs in a large baking tray and add the onions and carrots. Place the rolled pork belly on top and drizzle with a little olive oil. Roast for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 140C and cook for a further 3.5 hours, or until meltingly tender. Perfect served with garlicky mash in winter, or a grain salad for a summer roast.
I hated asparagus as a child because I only ever knew it from a tin. Sludge-coloured, stringy, pappy and limp, my grandparents in Australia regularly served it as an accompaniment to salad. Vile. I didn’t taste proper fresh asparagus until I moved to the UK – and what an eye-opener that was. Maybe it’s the climate or the TLC that goes into growing it here – asparagus takes years of nurturing before it offers up the first emerald spears, which are said to be able to grown 6 inches in a day – but very fresh British asparagus is pretty hard to beat.
Sweet and slightly grassy in taste, the best way to cook asparagus is gently steam it, then drown it in butter, add lots of salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. That’s it. But there are other delicious ways too. Steamed asparagus served with a foaming hollandaise and a poached egg is a magnificent breakfast, as is a boiled egg with asparagus soldiers for dunking. Toss asparagus in a a risotto with freshly podded peas, beans and lots of freshly grated lemon zest for the perfect risotto primavera. Or don’t bother cooking it all: make asparagus shavings with a vegetable peeler and sprinkle raw in salad, or dunk uncooked spears in aioli and gobble raw as a crudites.
Asparagus is fantastic cooked on the BBQ or griddle as it takes on a lovely smokey flavour – I don’t bother steaming the spears first if they are very young and tender, although it might be wise with the fatter, tougher specimens. Just brush the spears with oil, place directly on the hot bars of the grill and allow them to char before turning. You could easily cook the recipe below on a BBQ but as we speak the weather holds no promise for outside cooking, so I’ve done it in griddle pan. You could use a simple vinaigrette instead of the miso dressing, but it’s lovely for something different.
- 1 tablespoon red miso paste
- 30ml (1¼fl oz) rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon dashi or stock
- ½ teaspoon wasabe paste
- ½ small garlic clove, grated on a Microplane
- ½ teaspoon very finely grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, ground in a mortar
- 60ml (2fl oz) vegetable oil, plus extra for frying
- 20 fresh asparagus spears
- Combine the miso, vinegar, soy sauce and dashi in a bowl and mix well to amalgamate, pressing down on the miso paste with the back of a spoon to break it down.
- Stir in the wasabe, garlic, ginger and ground sesame seeds until smooth. Very gradually add the oil, whisking as you go, until emulsified.
- Heat a non-stick griddle pan until very hot, brush with a little oil, and cook the asparagus, turning frequently, until tender and lightly charred, about 5 minutes.
- Transfer the asparagus to a serving plate and spoon over some of the dressing, according to taste.
Whoop whoop! My cookbook, Easy Vegan, has just been published in the UK and it looks beautiful.
Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m not actually vegan – which is why I was approached to write the book in the first place. The publishers wanted to create a vegan cook book that appealed to everyone – not just people committed to eating plant-based foods exclusively all of the time.
I loved the idea. We all need to eat less meat for a host of health, environmental and animal welfare reasons. So there are loads of recipes in here that I hope non-vegans will enjoy. The project also gave me a chance to explore plant-based ingredients in a way I had never done before. I learned a huge amount in the process – including how to get the very best out of fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, pulses and grains.
If you are thinking of becoming vegan, or would like to eat plant-based some of the time, there’s a useful section at the front of the book to explain how to go about it. It’s important to make sure you eat a balanced diet, so I’ve covered some of the key health and nutrition issues. I’ve also provided a handy store cupboard guide so that you can stock up on ingredients that will make vegan cooking easy. It also has some tips on how to veganize non-vegan recipes.
Here’s just one of the recipes in the book. Although French toast often contains eggs and dairy, you don’t notice the absence of these ingredients here at all. And I thought that since it’s Mothering Sunday in the UK on March 15 it would make a lovely breakfast in bed for someone special.
If you’re interested in ordering Easy Vegan, just click here!
- 4 slices thick white bread
- 250ml coconut milk
- 90ml unsweetened almond milk
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup, plus extra for drizzling
- 1 tablespoon plain flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- a pinch of salt
- coconut oil, for frying
- mixed berries, to serve
- icing sugar, for dusting
- Lightly toast the bread. Meanwhile, whisk together the milks, the syrup, flour, cinnamon and salt. Arrange the bread in a single layer in a wide shallow dish and pour over the milk mixture. Turn to coat and set aside for a few minutes.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the soaked bread slices and cook for a couple of minutes each side, or until golden. Serve immediately with berries, a drizzle of syrup and a dusting of icing sugar
- Make sure you use lovely thick slices of bread here. If the bread is a little bit stale, all the better, as this will save you toasting it before frying.
Winter food is mainly about warmth and comfort, and rightly so. But I often yearn for crunch and punchy flavours to add some sparkle to a winter filled with rich, soft food. Step forward chicory (confusingly, also known as endive, escarole and witlof).
The bitterness of these beautiful, silky leaves can be an acquired taste, but there’s nothing better to perk up a jaded winter palate. In fact, depending on how you prepare them, chicory can actually be quite mild. The outer leaves taste more earthy than bitter when wilted in a frying pan with butter, lots of salt and pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar.
In salads, chicory works brilliantly with other robust flavours like a mustard-spiked dressing or a vinaigrette made with anchovies and lemon. Strong cheeses like blue and goats’ also hold their own with chicory in the salad bowl. Alternatively, try foiling the bitterness with a dressing slicked with honey, or add chunks of pear, apple, dried figs or crisp fried lardons. And most nuts seem to love being parked with chicory, especially almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts.
The other benefit is that chicory provides its own serving bowls – the gently curved leaves are perfect for cradling goodies like dips or, as in this recipe, a finely chopped salad. My children love these little scoops – I think it’s the tasty mix of nuts, seeds and dried fruit that helps them forget they’re actually scoffing a highly nutritious vegetable.
Don’t worry if the presentation seems a little chichi – I thought so too at first. But actually, these little cups makes perfect finger food and saves on washing up. And there’s nothing pretentious about that.
Chicory Cups with Almond and Sesame Tabbouleh
- 45g flaked almonds
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds
- 30ml red wine vinegar
- 60ml olive oil
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp ras el hanout
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- A generous handful of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 40g red onion, finely chopped
- 15g dried cranberries,finely chopped
- 1/2 red apple
- about 12 chicory leaves
1. Briefly toast the almonds and sesame seeds in a dry frying pan, shaking frequently, until they take on a little colour and smell lovely. Be careful: if you turn your back the nuts and seeds could burn. Set aside.
2. To make the dressing, whisk together the vinegar, oil, honey, ras el hanout and a pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside.
3. Pop the parsley, onion and cranberries in a salad bowl and toss.
4. Chop the cooled nuts and seeds to make a nutty rubble and add to the salad bowl.
5. Dice the apple very small – leave the skin on as it adds lovely colour – and toss into the salad bowl too. (Don’t chop it any earlier it will go brown).
6. Add the dressing a spoonful at a time, tossing well between each addition. Stop adding when everything is coated – you might not need all the dressing. Add more salt and pepper to taste.
7. Scoop a couple of teaspoonfuls of the mixture into each chicory leaf and arrange artfully on a platter if you like. Serve immediately.