Beauty is only crackling-deep: facing the slings and arrows of adversity

Food and Drink

Image credit: Louis Thomas. Description: pork crackling, fresh out of the oven.

“As a youth, I used to weep in butchers’ shops”, as Uncle Monty remarks in Withnail and I, is a statement which strangely resonates with me. I’m clearly not particularly sensitive when it comes to seeing an animal being sliced up on a marble slab, as some of the atrocities I have cooked, consumed and written about this term attest to. However, there is something rather saddening about seeing a pig’s severed head looking out of a butcher’s window, perhaps because it reminds me of myself, or perhaps because I know that it will likely go to waste.

It strikes me as bizarre that the “Meat is Murder” campaign would use a pig’s head as a symbol to encourage people to stop eating meat, seemingly failing to have considered that the head contains one of the most succulent cuts of the whole animal: the cheeks. Best prepared by braising for a few hours, they are truly wonderful, though not exactly offal – I had planned to do a recipe involving the eyes, ears, nose and (if they were included) the brain of the animal – the brain which once contained the thoughts of a living creature. But what a piece of work is a pig! How noble in flavour, how infinite in ways can it be cooked.

“…there is something rather saddening about seeing a pig’s severed head looking out of a butcher’s window…”

There are numerous ways of dealing with a pig’s head. Not all of them are orthodox. I was considering boning the head and putting sausage meat inside – but I wouldn’t be the first Oxford student to do that (and yes, I am ashamed of myself for that joke). I had hoped to pose with the skull like the attention seeker I am to complement the Hamletian theme, perhaps with the title “Alas pork Yorick…” (you can blame/praise my Cornish flatmate for that one), but when I realised that the constraints of time (apparently I’m here to do a degree) meant that I had the shattering revelation that I could not play the Dane, or at least not for an occasionally sarcastic and often disturbing series of offal articles. I would have had difficulties getting hold of a pig’s head anyway, as apparently rugby teams like to do shots out of the severed head, which seems fairly kosher, or at least as kosher as pork can be. But, alas, there was not a skull in sight. 

However, from the ashes, an offal phoenix rose. Beckoning to me, in a plastic tray outside the butchers, was a plastic bag. This was no ordinary plastic bag though, this was a bag o’ skin. It cost me the grand sum of a pound. I got home and eagerly unwrapped it to find several flaps of bristley, thick, pink skin. It was difficult to work out which part of the animal it belonged to, but there were two holes which seemed to correspond to the positions of the eyes: I had clutched a pig’s face from the jaws of defeat – I think. Whether or not it was a pig’s face is not the point (though I will claim that it absolutely was in order to create the illusion that this piece has a theme), because what those floppy pieces of skin represented was hope: the Bullingdon Club and time may have deprived me of the gastronomic pleasure of cooking a pig’s head (I have no evidence that the former is to blame, but they get blamed for most of Oxford’s problems anyway), but I had acquired a neglected bit of skin, but one which had culinary potential – though was it worth the price of the animal’s life? God hath given it one face, and yet I had purchased it for a quid. 

I could have sewn the pieces together and made a piece of satirical clothing commenting on the abattoir that is the fashion industry, or I could have used the fatty flaps to insulate my flat – but I personally think that the best use of the skin off a pig’s face is crackling. The reason why I have waffled on for almost seven hundred words (and will continue to do so for a further seven hundred or so) is because this recipe is wonderfully/annoyingly simple. I am haunted by the ghosts of bad crackling, when it’s either been cooked until it is a carbonised shard of skin, or cooked insufficiently, so that it is like chewing a shoe. I wanted to do this roast dinner staple justice, and, for the first time this term, I think I did the recipe properly.

The first step I boldly undertook was to slice up the skin into fairly large pieces, about the size of my hand, and it has to be my hand. I made sure to cut off any large lumps of fat or meat left on, as this will compromise the texture. I then used a sharp knife and scored the top layer of the skin in a criss-cross fashion, as doing this will mean that the fat renders properly, and that will avoid the menace that is chewy crackling. I suppose that the next stop is optional, much like the entire recipe, and indeed, all of my recipes (which begs the question: why are you still reading this?), but I gave the skin a nice rub with flaky sea salt. This is for two reasons: firstly, the salt helps to draw out the moisture from the skin, which means that it becomes crispier and secondly, the large flakes of salt contribute to the overall crunchiness of the final product. I then left the massaged skin in the fridge for an hour, though you could probably leave it in there for a few.

“Normally, I might serve this with the accompanying roasted pork and some seasonal vegetables – but I decided to just eat the crackling straight from a trough like the pig I am.”

I returned, whipped my skin out of the fridge and found that it had shrivelled in the cold. I then proceeded to drizzle a little bit of vegetable oil over the skin – this will just help the skin to brown more evenly. With the oven preheated to one hundred and ninety degrees Celsius, I placed the pieces skin-side up onto the grill rack of a large oven tray, this will allow the fat to drip down from the skin, meaning that you can use it again, if you so desire, at a later date. My tray was slightly too large for my poky little student oven, but I kicked it in and that seemed to do the trick. I roasted the skin for about fifty minutes, checking a couple of times to make sure that it wasn’t scorching. A good way to tell whether your crackling has crackled enough is to prod it with a kitchen utensil of your choosing – if still feels flexible, then it isn’t ready. Once it was ready I got that little frisson of pleasure which only the smell of roasted pig skin can provide.

Normally, I might serve this with the accompanying roasted pork and some seasonal vegetables – but I decided to just eat the crackling straight from a trough like the pig I am. Such a thick skinned beast naturally produces hefty crackling, but it was fairly light, with numerous bubbles on the surface contributing to that. Admittedly, the fact that there were still hairs on it, as there are on any pork scratching worth its salt, was a bit disturbing, but the smell was sensational. In a bid to elevate the dish, and to make a simple recipe slightly pretentious, I flavoured my crispy skin flaps three different ways: firstly with thyme leaves and a squeeze of lemon juice – providing freshness from the lemon and herbal notes, surprisingly, from the herbs, I also seasoned one just with smoked paprika to give it an Iberian twist, a move which is probably an insult to Spanish gastronomy, but was very nice – like a big porky crisp, and finally, as an unnecessary nod to Italy, some grated parmesan and pepper, which was my favourite of the three, the numbing heat of the pepper and salty tang of the cheese working well with the glass-like crackling.

Though a simple recipe, I’ve still managed to extract the traits of an article out of it, and it turned out to be a dish much greater than the sum of its parts. I am still disappointed that I was not able to play the Dane and prepare a pig’s head, but the porcine visage provided me with a recipe, and for that I am grateful. It’s an unsettling feeling to be (probably) cooking the face of a once living creature, a creature with hopes and dreams, a creature killed so that I can gorge myself on the skin which once identified it as an individual, a living being with as much a right to life as your or I – but it was delicious. The rest is silence. 

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