ROAST PORK

If you’ve been to a food fair recently, you may well have scented the luscious aroma of hog roast on the air. Here, The Taster presents two paeans to pork, written almost 200 years apart. In his sensuous modern novel, The Food of Love, Anthony Capella describes a turning-point in the life of a lovelorn Italian chef. Further on, Charles Lamb gives a poetical view of the ‘child-pig’.

2004

The Food of Love, Anthony Capella 

Food of loveBruno rounded the corner of the piazza — which was hardly a piazza at all, but an open space around which the houses and a church were grouped. Outside a tiny bar, someone had set up a makeshift spit over a fire. A few people were milling around it, tending to the golden-brown piglet that was slowly rotating above the hot embers. Chairs and tables had been dragged out into the evening sun, someone was fingering an accordion, and one or two elderly people were dancing.

The piglet was a deep honey colour, its back blistered and split open where salt had been rubbed into it for crackling, and the ears, nose and tail were covered with individual caps of tinfoil to prevent these delicacies from burning in the intense heat. Even now several people were fussing over it: one turning it, another basting it with a lump of lard on a skewer, while a slim figure in an apron and a headscarf was opening the meat up with a sharp knife to see if the middle was done.

Stuffed whole suckling pig is a feast-day speciality everywhere in Italy, although each region cooks it slightly differently. In Rome the piglet would be stuffed with its own fried organs; in Sardinia, with a mixture of lemons and minced meat. Here, evidently, the stuffing was made with breadcrumbs and herbs…

He could make out each individual component of the mixture: finocchio selvatico — wild fennel — garlic, rosemary and olives, mingling with the smell of burning pork fat from the fire, which spat green flame briefly wherever the juices from the little pig, running down its trotters, dropped into it.

‘Hello,’ Bruno said politely to the person nearest to him. ‘My van has broken down and I’m looking for somewhere to stay the night.’

. . . Someone put a glass of wine in front of him, and a plate containing a few squares of crispy pork skin. He ate them gratefully, by now very hungry indeed. Eventually, after much discussion, the porchetta was lifted away from the heat to rest. But first, of course, there was pasta — great bowls of fresh green tagliatelle, made with spinach and just a hint of nutmeg, served with fagiole — fresh beans — and a little goose broth. No, not spinach after all, Bruno decided after a second taste: the green was from young stinging nettles. Rather to his surprise, it was excellent.

He was by now squashed between two large women, their accents so thick he could barely understand what they were saying. The gist seemed to be that someone had borrowed a tractor from someone else, but the brakes didn’t work properly, and then it had hit this poor three-legged piglet and killed it, so of course it had to be eaten straight away.  Trying to make a joke of it, Bruno remarked that in Rome all pigs had three legs, only for his comment to be passed up and down the table as seriously as if he had said that he was personally acquainted with the Pope. After that he tried to keep his mouth shut, except when he was eating.

This wasn’t difficult, since the porchetta was delicious. It was handed round not on plates, but wrapped in myrtle leaves, so that the bitter flavour permeated the meat. Everyone else had fallen silent too, and the only sounds were the satisfied sighs of the diners and the crunch of bones being chewed. The only light came from a couple of tiny candles and the deep red embers of the fire. Finally the bones were removed, or thrown to the small army of waiting dogs, and bowls of fresh peaches were brought out, served sliced and covered in sweet wine. Then the accordion struck up again.

. . . Someone sat down in the large lady’s place, and he turned to find that it was Gusta’s daughter. She had changed out of her cooking clothes and was now wearing a long, dark dress; a patchwork of silks and other shimmering materials. There was something almost Romany about it . . . Her hair was dark; as dark as the night behind it.

Lobster roast pork double
Anthony Capella is a food enthusiast and writer. This abridged extract is from The Food of Love paperback published by Time Warner Books  in 2004; the book has been translated into 19 languages and optioned for the screen www.anthonycapella.com

1825

A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, Charles Lamb

. . . Of all the delicacies in the whole mundus edibilis, I will maintain it to be the most delicate. I speak not of your grown porkers — things between pig and pork — those hobbydehoys — but a young and tender suckling — under a moon old — guiltless as yet of the sty — with no original speck of the amor immunditiae [impure desires] yet manifest — his voice as yet not broken, but something between a childish treble, and a grumble — the mild forerunner of a grunt.

He must be roasted. I am not ignorant that our ancestors ate them seethed, or boiled — but what a sacrifice of the exterior tegument!

There is no flavour comparable, I will contend, to that of the crisp, tawny, well-watched, not over-roasted, crackling, as it is well called. The very teeth are invited to their share of the pleasure at this banquet in overcoming the coy, brittle resistance — with the adhesive oleaginous — O, call it not fat! — but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it — the tender blossoming of fat — fat cropped in the bud — taken in the shoot, in the first innocence — the cream and quintessence of the child-pig’s yet pure food — the lean, no lean, but a kind of animal manna — or, rather, fat and lean (if it must be so) so blended and running into each other, that both together make but one ambrosian result, or common substance.

Behold him, while he is doing — it seemeth rather a refreshing warmth, than a scorching heat, that he is so passive to. How equably he twirleth round the string! — Now he is just done. To see the extreme sensibility of that tender age, he hath wept out his pretty eyes — radiant jellies — shooting stars —

See him in the dish, his second cradle, how meek he lieth. Wouldst thou have had this innocent grow up to the grossness and indocility which too often accompany maturer swinehood? Ten to one he would have proved a glutton, a sloven, an obstinate, disagreeable animal — wallowing in all manner of filthy conversation. From these sins he is happily snatched away,

Ere sin could blight, or sorrow fade
Death came with timely care

He is the best of Savors. Pine-apple is great. She is indeed almost too transcendent . . .  too ravishing for mortal taste, she woundeth and excoriateth the lips that approach her. She is a pleasure bordering on pain — but she stoppeth at the palate — she meddleth not with the appetite — and the coarsest hunger might barter her consistently for a mutton chop.
Pig — let me speak his praise — is no less provocative of the appetite, than he is satisfactory to the criticalness of the palate. The strong man may batten on him, and the weakling refuseth not his mild juices.

Unlike to mankind’s mixed characters, a bundle of virtues and vices, inexplicably intertwisted, he is good throughout. No part of him is better or worse than another. He helpeth, as far as his little means extend, all around. He is the least envious of banquets. He is all neighbours’ fare.

His sauce should be considered. Decidedly, a few bread crumbs, done up with his liver and brains, and a dash of mild sage. But, banish, dear Mrs. Cook, I beseech you, the whole onion tribe. Barbecue your whole hogs to your palate, steep them in shalots, stuff them out with plantations of the rank and guilty garlic — but consider, he is a weakling — a flower.

A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig is one of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, which began appearing in The London Magazine in 1820. Lamb (1775-1834) had a distinctive quirky style which has always ensured him a cult following. As well as the Essays, he and his sister Mary are best known for their Tales From Shakespeare. The Charles Lamb Society is still going strong (charleslambsociety.com), as is the Bulletin, its long-running journal devoted to ‘all things Elian’.

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