Bonjour from snowy Alsace! After a 40-hour journey that brought us through four airports, a major winter storm and bone-chilling temperatures, we’re finally warm, fed and rested at my in-laws’.
Continuing with the main course for our virtual Christmas dinner (you didn’t think I’d forget would you?), here’s one that will make a dramatic entrance and centerpiece. Jamie Oliver’s Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder is at once hearty, filling and good for the soul. Especially if you have a host of meat-lovers gathering for dinner on a chilly evening.
The bone-in, skin-on cut is loaded with crushed fennel seeds that burst with flavor in the first 30 minutes of cooking, then fully infuse the meat with their anise-like aromas over an extended cooking process. In the meantime, a thick layer of pork fat slowly disintegrates and intensifies the “porkiness” of the meat before cooking the soffrito of vegetables on which the meat rests. Indeed, if you’re cooking for a party of 12 (as the original recipe is written for), you’ll have to start cooking the night before and wake up to the gorgeous aroma of slow-cooked meat making its way to meltingly tender goodness for dinner. Tough, huh?
We paired this with a 2006 Pinot Noir from Sonoma Cutrer, its balanced acidity and lush berries on the palate nicely complemented the meat’s anise notes.
In a dish like this, you’ll want your pork to be as porky as possible because apart from a fairly light seasoning of fennel, salt and pepper, most of the flavor depends on the pork itself, making it extremely important to ensure that your meat comes from a pig that led a happy, pasture-led life, like those at TLC Ranch.
We discovered their pork cuts at the Farmers’ Market shortly after arriving in California, and that dinner was epiphanic in teaching me what “Pork” was truly supposed to taste like. Juicy, sweet and utterly “porky” without being sickeningly so, one bite and we knew that this cut came from a happy pig that spent its life strolling and nosing around a large pasture, socializing with its pig mates and feasting on a nutritious, organic diet. I couldn’t wait to prepare this recipe with their pork shoulder because this is just as good as it gets. And, truly, it doesn’t get much better than this.
We had the chance to visit the farm on a recent Open Farm Day, and it was an energizing and reassuring experience. I cannot remember the last time I was on a “real” farm (i.e., one where people actually live and work on and wasn’t created for tourists), and as we drove towards the 20-acre establishment, I braced myself for a big stink, filthy slosh and an all-round muddy experience.
It couldn’t have been more different. It was muddy, yes, thanks to the rainy weekend, but instead of foul smells and slosh, we were greeted by Iris, the excited and friendly farm dog, along with a confident farmhand in Fiona, the five-year-old daughter of Jim and Rebecca Dunlop who own the ranch.
With Iris and Fiona in tow, Rebecca gave us a tour of the farm where about 250 pigs are raised on pasture and a diet of organic produce, like brewers grains from Uncommon Brewers in nearby Santa Cruz and waste organic vegetables from Happy Boy Farms. TLC has also started rearing steers on the same site with the pigs and have 4,000 chickens that are raised and housed at another location.
Our tour began with the lady Tamworths and Gloucester Old Spots that were working through a host of pumpkins in what looked like an 8,000 square feet pen. Since moving in a few months ago, the pigs have doubled up as ploughs, clearing the pasture of the junk hidden in the soil (like those pictured above) and in the process, loosening the earth with their regular grazing to prepare for new plantings of grasses and weeds to bloom in the spring.
We then looked in on a bunch of huge Tamworth boars that were hanging around the bottom of the hill that the farm’s cows grazed on. Jim and Rebecca slaughter their boars at five months, just before they mature sexually, so as to obtain meat that is still sweet and free of “boar taint” – that strong, musky smell typical of boar meat – and the ones we saw were being fattened for the farm’s slaughtering and butchering classes in January.
Our final stop was at a 12,000 square feet area that housed 46 weaner pigs – the farm’s newcomers. Raised in captivity, the pigs were still figuring out how to live and roam on a pasture, especially learning about the existence of the electric fence. It was hilarious to observe the tranquil scene, occasionally punctuated by a high-pitched squeal from an unfortunate pig that got too close to the fence and broke into a gallop towards the other direction before rejoining its compatriots in their nose-snuffling, earth-digging activity.
I’ll have to admit, it was strange to look in on these cute four-legged creatures, minding their own business in the pasture, knowing that their life would end in a couple of months at the abbatoir to be packaged and sold to people like us for dinner. But that’s the food chain isn’t it? We have become so far removed from the harvesting of our food, that we start to take an anthropo-centric view of the world, imbuing a human mind and characteristics to beings and objects that are inherently inhuman, to the point where looking at an animal in pasture evokes a sentimentality, a pity, even, for this poor, ignorant creature that doesn’t know what its headed for. Calling these animals “dinner” outright now borders on the politically incorrect (as it was for me not too long ago), when in fact it’s actually a recognition of where our food comes from, and glossing over it would be denying ourselves an understanding of our food’s origins in Nature. Instead of celebrating the bounty of the harvest from the land, we’ve been conditioned to empathize with our meat, to the extent where meat-eating has become a morally questionable activity for some.
Am I romanticizing meat-eating? I hope not. I’m not here to champion the values of a meat-based over a vegetarian diet because I’m no expert to begin with. At the end of the day, I’m of the view that the diet we choose to live by is, like religious beliefs, highly subjective and personal. I enjoy eating meat because it’s a big part of my cultural identity. With recent works highlighting the importance of knowing where your food comes from – be it seafood, livestock or vegetable – I suppose the discomfort that arises from looking at animals in pasture destined for the dinner table should be viewed as a healthy step towards a deeper understanding about what it is exactly that we’re consuming at every meal, instead of compelling us into a state of ignorance about its origins.
Slow-roasted Pork Shoulder (adapted from Cook With Jamie)
Here’s the original recipe which makes enough for a party of 12, but is easily scalable for bigger or smaller dinners. Just be sure to adjust the cooking time accordingly, depending on the size of your meat – 9 hours for a 5kg/ 11 pound cut and the full 12 hours for a 6kg/ 13 pound cut. Try to find a skin-on shoulder if you can as it helps to keep the meat moist and packed with pork flavor during the cooking process.
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 large fennel bulbs, trimmed and roughly chopped
4 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
3 medium red onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 garlic bulb, cloves peeled and smashed
A large handful of fresh thyme sprigs
One 11-13 pound/5-6kg pastured pork shoulder, skin-on and bone-in, skin scored
A bottle of white wine
Preheat the oven to maximum. Rub olive oil all over the pork shoulder, then pound the fennel seeds with the salt in a pestle and mortar and rub this mixture all over the pork, pushing the seeds into the scored skin or meat. Set aside.
Put the chopped vegetables into a large roasting tray, and place the prepared pork shoulder atop the vegetables. Put the pork into the preheated oven for 20 to 30 minutes, uncovered, until it starts to color, then turn the heat down to 250F/ 120C and cook the pork for 9 to 12 hours until the meat turns absolutely soft and comes apart with a fork. If you’re cooking a skinless shoulder cut, cover the tray with foil after you turn the heat down to prevent the meat from drying out during cooking.
When the meat is ready (i.e., meltingly soft), remove it from the oven and let it rest for 30 minutes before cutting. Transfer the vegetables into a saucepan large enough to fit, then pour in the bottle of wine and let the mixture bubble away on high heat until it thickens. This should take about 30 to 40 minutes, with the occasional stir.
While the sauce is being prepared, start on your vegetables; I served this with a side of baby spinach, wilted in the pan with some roasted garlic cloves, but you can use any leafy green or blanched beans, depending on your preference.
When ready, carve the meat and serve with sauce and vegetables.