Part of the reason eating in Italy is so appealing to me is because they revel in eating pork. There is all manner of cured, smoked, rolled, roasted bits of every morsel of this animal. And it’s prepared beautifully – none of this German salami from Tesco crap that I fall prey to every once and a while. My first course the night we arrived, was a wild boar ragu over tagiatelle. Rich with wine and plump juniper berries that popped in the mouth, my husband said that he’d never seen me like that. After sitting at the table and strategically planning the next day (see picture to the left), I went to bed in our little farmhouse, very content, with visions of more goodness to come.
The next morning we set off for lunch in the little town of Pienza in Tuscany. It’s apparently famous for it’s Pecorino cheese and a little spot named Latte di Luna came highly recommended by our friends. To get there we drove through the wine country of Montepulciano, hilly and lush, the air fragrant with roses and lavender. Ancient stone fortressed towns loom over the valleys of grapes and olives, just begging to be explored. Truly magical. Pienze is one such town and we entered the massive stone walls (along with many fellow tourists), taking in a couple of churches full of frescoes and gasping at the views of the countryside surrounding this little idyl. The main route through town is filled with tiny shops selling the cheese that’s made this place tourist-worthy, salumi hangs from every other shop front, and so I made mental notes of where to come back to after our lunch.
Latte di Luna, at the end of the main thoroughfare, was brimming with natives. Always a good sign. There’s nothing fancy about this place, something quite practical feeling and barebones, but the staff was friendly and appreciative of my obvious delight with our meal. Trying to economize both financially and physically, we decided to share a simple handmade linguini with truffles as a starter. How we both rued that decision, even considered ordering another one, it was that delicious. Sanity prevailed and we waited for the main dishes. I had been told I must try the suckling pig. I’m so glad I did! The meat which just shredded as I cut into it, was slightly herby in it’s flavor and sweet. The crackling, a deep ombre color, was like biting into the best potato chip you’ve ever eaten. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d ordered as a side dish, but was pleasantly surprised when a zucchini sformato (a kind of dense souffle) with a thick, almost burnt pecorino crust on top, was delivered. My lovely husband had a steak (as he doesn’t eat pork) which he said was delicious, but I was too busy munching away on my rich, juicy pork, to pay much attention.
On a sunny, warm day the terrace out in front of the restaurant would accommodate many more diners, but as it was, group after group was turned away as they hadn’t booked a table. Note, if you’re going to Italy, you must really be a little organized and call ahead. This isn’t Babbo NYC territory where you have to book a month in advance, we called that morning (in embarrassingly bad Italian) and muddled through. We skipped dessert, correctly assuming that we’d have at least one gelato stop later in the day and quickly left to go look at all of the culinary delights this little town had to offer. To say that the shopkeepers are unfriendly, would almost be an understatement. I don’t understand why people who make their living off of tourists are openly hostile, but not one offered us a sample of the many different varieties of pecorino they sold. Were we to commit to a large round of cheese without any sense of the differences that apparently exist? Finally, we found one gentleman prepared to indulge us and we settled on an old cheese, similar to one we’d had on our cheese plate the night before. Anyway, we were hastily off to Siena, northwest another hour or so and we had to move along.
Our fridge at home is now stuffed with various cuts of cured Italian meats (I love that you’re able to travel home with whatever produce you’d like within the EU) and I’m inspired anew to cook with pork. My husband is out of town for work and I thought it the perfect time to try an Asian style pork belly dish that I’ve been toying with for some time. The inspiration comes from Chef Raymond Blanc, but I took his very cheffy recipe and dumbed it down for a home kitchen and all the constraints that entails. My goal was to have a juicy, soft pork flesh but with a crispy crackling crust, like the roast suckling pig I’d eaten in Pienza. However, I believe that if anyone does pork as well as the Italians, it’s the Chinese, so the flavors here lend themselves perfectly to the rich, fatty meat in pork belly. This was dinner for me last night and will be so again tonight – take note of the service notes at the end and you too can make this meal last you for days (probably tasting better the second day without sacrificing any of the crispy skin).
1 kg pork belly, no bones and skin scored
2 red chilies, seeded
1 stick lemongrass
knob of peeled ginger the size of your thumb
4 cloves of garlic
3 large pinches of sea salt
3 pinches of Chinese five spice powder
good grinding of black pepper
3/4 cup cold water
2 tablespoons canola oil
In a food processor blend together the chillies, lemongrass, ginger, garlic and seasonings. Rub this all over the flesh side of the pork and wrap the belly tightly in plastic wrap, place in the fridge for at least 2 hours and up to 12. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. When you take it out place it in a large heavy pot with a lid and add the cold water to the pot. Let this come to a boil, cover and place in the oven for 2.5 hours. Remove the pork from the pot and place on a cookie sheet, place another cookie sheet on top and weigh this down with something very heavy so the belly stays nice and flat for the next step – allow it to sit like this for at least an hour. Strain any cooking juices into a small saucepan and add another 3/4 cup of water and allow to come to a boil. Season with salt and pepper or even soy sauce and/or toasted sesame oil, as you’d like. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Now take your pressed, cooked belly and cut into 1 inch wide strips and season the skin with salt and pepper. Place them skin side down into a frying pan with the canola oil and allow to cook for 10-15 minutes, but moderate the flame so they don’t burn. Remove the pork from the skillet and place on a cookie sheet and put in the oven for 10 more minutes. NOTE: What I did last night was cut two strips of pork and crisped up the skin as I’ve written. The remainder went in the fridge once it had cooled. Tonight I’ll cut off a couple of more strips, cook the skin and reheat in the oven. I’m guessing it will taste even better.
To serve: Raymond suggests cabbage and I think it was fantastic, just chopped a bit and added to a saucepan with a couple tablespoons of water and big spoon full of butter, salt and pepper. I covered the pan and let this steam away for about 7 minutes. Place the cabbage in the center of the plate, place the pork belly (skin side up) on top and drizzle with a generous amount of the pork sauce.