Photo: Deirdre Rooney
I once had a French sister-in-law who, when we were eating spider crab or lobster toegther, would excavate the beast down to the last tiny, edible morsel before tasting ANYTHING. She would build a mound of meat and dominate the conversation while we were all eagerly sucking and picking at limb joints. I found this a little mean-spirited. She was opting out of the communal mess and joy of using fingers, tongues (and usually teeth as we could never find the damned nutcrackers) and would eat, triumphantly, her tidy pile of flesh long after we had made carnage of ours.
It’s socially acceptable to be a bit slurpy and dirty with shellfish, of course. And even if in England things get rather prissy with lemon-laced finger bowls (I was recently given a whisky tumbler filled with tepid water set on a paper doilie, on a saucer, which I then absent-mindedly grabbed when reaching for my water glass) provided for the merest oyster, you can enjoy the primitive pleasure generated by eschewing cutlery.
But still, there have been too few meals in my lifetime where the entire table gets to use their fingers and eat meat directly from its skeleton. So for Easter I ordered a suckling pig, fired by Momofuku Bo Ssam love and a grand fantasy of a grande table of folk greedily pulling bits of skin and confit meat from a carcass.
My butcher sorted out the ordering and butchering, and on Sunday I picked up 7kg of baby pig. I followed instructions from this great post, with pretty good results (see pic) – all very delicious , crispy outside, melting within. (I served it with apple compote and Noirmoutiers new potatoes. Pudding was Eton mess and a goats’ cheese platter from The Normandy Stall of Everything.)
And yet, devastatingly, my well-meaning caveman fantasy did not become reality. My daughter, (11) was disgusted, pointing out to me that the pig was the size of our dog and almost put herself up for adoption on the spot. And the French parents of the younger children present begged me to cut the meat , put it in a serving dish and hide the carcass. We all knew each other quite well but it was immediately obvious no-one shared my desire to have our fingers meet somewhere inside that piglet’s hot, collagen-sticky, little head.
So the next time I want to put anything edible, still connected to its face and hooves on the table – no matter how droolingly melting its meat may be, I shall be more selective in my guests. No children for a start. And probably only foodie people – a majority of whom, I suspect, would be Irish/British and who, like me, might have a delicious tendency to use food for sensation, not sustenance.
Roast suckling pig
A 7kg pig fed 14 + 5 the next day and fitted easily into my 90cm oven. It would be a squeeze in a 60cm oven, so a 4/5kg pig would be more practical. Reduce cooking time by about an hour. 30 minutes preparation, 5 hours cooking
1 suckling pig, 7kg, 1/2 head of celery, 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, 2 carrots, 2 handfuls fresh thyme, 10 bay leaves, sea salt, 100G butter, olive oil.
10 apples (Canada, Boskoop) 1 small jar Fauchon spiced mango chutney (or similar) 2kg new potatoes, fresh thyme, bay, 50g butter, salt, pepper.
Pre heat the oven to 200°C, cover the roasting tray of your oven in aluminium foil and lay the pig on its side, bending it at the hips to fit it on the tray. Drizzle and massage with olive oil, sprinkle generously with salt inside and out , then fill cavity (including throat) with the finely chopped aromates. Protect the tail and ears with aluminium foil (they’ll burn otherwise) and roast for about 30 minutes. Lower the temperature to 150°, cover with foil and cook for a further 4/5 hours.
About an hour before sitting down together, make a compote by steaming the peeled apples with a very little water for about 10 minutes in a saucepan with a lid on, and mix through the chutney you’re using. Stir and reserve. Boil the potatoes transfer them to a large pan or wok with some butter and thyme and bay – ready to heat and toss just as you serve the meal.
For the last 30 minutes before serving, you could turn the grill on in your oven or turn the heat right up to 220/230° to crisp up the pig’s skin. I didn’t do this, as I was going to cut the meat below, and preferred to keep the skin to make AMAZING crackling the next day.