ArchiveNovember 5, 2005

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall at Ballymaloe

Within hours of posting Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s course on the Ballymaloe Cookery School website last year, the phone started to ring and email bookings flooded in. The course was enticingly called ‘Cutting up a Pig in a Day’ 

Within a couple of weeks the course was totally booked out with a lengthy waiting list, such is the appeal of this irrepressible chap who gave up his frenetic city life to live in a small holding in Dorset. Hugh and his friends had been spending weekends at River Cottage for a number of years and eventually he and his wife decided to take the plunge and move out of London. With masses of energy and the enthusiasm of one who has no concept of the obstacles that lie ahead, he set out on his new adventure with a TV crew in tow – week by week the viewers could share his triumphs and frustrations as he embarked on the steep learning curve of attempting to be self sufficient. So many city gents longed for the courage to fling off the suit and don a pair of wellies, and those who resisted the call of the wild enjoyed watching as he laboriously cleared the ground, sowed the seeds and coped with the reality of slugs and squirrels. Next came the pigs, followed by hens, sheep, cattle. When the free ranging pigs grew fat he and his pals brought them along to the butcher, then they had a pig party to cut and deal with the pig in a day, sometimes two, using everything but the squeal. They made hams, salami, pickled pork, brawn, chorizo, devilled kidneys, crispy pig ears…

Hugh says that total self-sufficiency was not a real ambition of his. There are simply too many things, from oranges and bananas to chocolate and good claret, that he will always need to dip into his wallet to acquire. But true happiness and contentment around food and in the kitchen is a personal goal. He plans, before long to move full time to the country to help achieve this. Hugh says “I make my living not as a ‘real’ smallholder, genuinely dependent on my acres, but as a writer and television presenter. I can afford a few luxuries. But since I moved to River Cottage my idea of what true luxury is has changed: picking blackberries in the hedgerow in high summer, and trampling the wild garlic in early spring; buying a huge cod from Jack’s boat in West Bay for just a few quid; netting eels in the River Brit; committing infanticide on my own baby broad beans; picking elderflowers; bartering eggs for cider; these are my new luxuries. They are luxuries that just about anyone can afford.”

Hugh and his butcher Ray bounced into the school the other day ready for action. We had one of our own free-range pigs ready to be butchered and transformed into a variety of delicious cured meat. The 6 month old organic pig was a mixture of rare breeds - Saddleback Black Berkshire/Red Duroc cross, with a nice covering of juicy fat – essential for sausages and salami. 

As soon as the students arrived, Hugh and Ray tucked up their sleeves and amidst an air of anticipation embarked on a mission to use every scrap of the pig from the nose to the tail in the time-honoured tradition that so many of us remember since childhood. 

Ray and Hugh met while they were filming the River Cottage series. Hugh told us that he had become addicted to Ray’s help. Ray who has been a butcher since he was thirteen set about cutting up the pig with the ease of an expert, making it all look so easy and logical. 

The head was salted and cut into quarters and put into a large pot with a couple of the trotters and the tongue. Some spices, herbs and onions were added to make a fine brawn. While that all simmered gently, the carcase was carefully trimmed, Ray meticulously saved all the little scraps of fat, as he reminded us that the profit is in the trimmings. 

The shoulder was minced for salami and chorizo, a proportion of finely diced back fat was added with salt and spices. All this was filled into well-washed natural casings which we learned how to expertly seal and tie with cotton string.

The skin on the loin was scored with a Stanley knife for crispy crackling. Lots of sea salt and coriander rubbed were rubbed into the cuts and then it went into the oven to roast for lunch. Meanwhile we learned how to make bacon from the belly and a terrine from the liver and trimmings. Ray saved some of the terrine mixture to stuff the pork fillet. The kidneys were used to make the most delectable mustardy devilled kidneys which were polished off in minutes as they were passed around the class.

After a delectable lunch of roast pork with crackling and lots of Bramley apple sauce we settled down again. We learned about dry and wet cures. The streaky belly of pork was rubbed with salt, pepper, sugar and coriander and left to cure. We opted to put one ham into a brine to have ready for Christmas, the other was packed in sea salt in an old timber wine box to start the curing of what will eventually be a dry cured ham ready to eat in 12-18 months.

Ray added dried breadcrumbs, salt, freshly ground pepper, mace, sage, thyme, and sugar to the minced pork to make a huge batch of juicy sausages. He gilded the lily by adding his favourite spicing – a garam masala,(you could use ground cumin or coriander if you prefer), the meat was filled into natural sausage casings and then expertly knotted in butchers’ links. Hugh rolled some into a coil of Cumberland sausage, which we ate also for lunch. Along the way, the class tasted brains and tucked into crispy pigs’ ears with gusto.

It was amazing and thrilling to see the extraordinary level of interest in learning new skills. This is the third of these classes we have offered this year, Fingal Ferguson and Frank Krawczyk from Schull in West Cork each taught classes earlier this year in their own inimitable style to an audience of enthusiastic amateurs who are anxious to relearn forgotten skills. The response has been so positive we have decided so to offer a whole series of ‘Forgotten Skills’ courses next year to build on the very successful ‘How to keep a few hens in your Garden’ earlier this year. See Course Index  

Here are a few of Hugh’s recipes, for more look out for his River Cottage Cookbooks

- A Cook on the Wild Side, The River Cottage Year, The River Cottage Cookbook, The River Cottage Meat Coobook, or link into his website  


1 pig’s head, quartered
1 or 2 pig’s trotters
1 knuckle, tongue and tail
2 onions, peeled and quartered
A large bundle of fresh herbs – parsley, bay leaves, thyme, marjoram
A muslin bag of spices (about 1 dessertspoon each allspice berries, coriander and mixed peppercorns)
A handful of chopped parsley
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the quartered head, trotter, onions, bundle of herbs and bag of spices in a large stockpot. Cover with water and bring slowly to a gentle simmer. For the first 30 minutes of cooking, skim off any bubbly scum that rises to the surface. Cook, uncovered, at a very gentle simmer for about 4 hours altogether, until all the meat is completely tender and coming away from the bones. Top up the pan occasionally as the water level drops.

When cooked, lift out the meat and leave until cool enough to handle. Pick all the meat, skin and fat off the head bones (it should fall off quite easily). Remove any bristly hairs with tweezers. Peel the coarse skin off the tongue and discard. Roughly chop all the bits of meat, including the fat and skin and the tongue, and toss together with the chopped parsley and the lemon juice. (Everything except the bone and bristles can go into a brawn, but if you want to make it less fatty, just discard some of the really fatty pieces at this stage.) Season to taste with a little salt and pepper.

Remove the herbs, onions and spices from the cooking liquor and strain it through a fine sieve or, better still, muslin. Boil until reduced by about two-thirds. Stir a few tablespoons of this gelatine-rich liquid into the chopped meat – it will help the brawn set as it cools. Pile the mixture into terrine dishes (one large or 2 or 3 small ones) or a pudding basin. Place a weighted plate or board on top and put in the refrigerator to set.

A brawn can be turned out of its mould on to a plate before serving. Serve cold, in slices, with pickles and gherkins. Or make a delicious salade de tête: cut the brawn into 2cm dice and toss with cold cooked Puy lentils and a mustardy vinaigrette. The finished brawn will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks. It also freezes well.

Devilled Kidneys

4 lamb’s kidneys, cut into quarters
A little fat or oil
1 small glass of sherry
1 tbs white wine vinegar or cider vinegar
1 tsp redcurrant jelly
A few good shakes of Worcestershire sauce
A good pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tbs English mustard
1 tbs double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A little chopped parsley to garnish

Heat a little fat or oil in a small frying pan, add the kidneys and sizzle for just a minute to brown them, tossing them occasionally in the pan. Then add a generous slosh of sherry, let it bubble for a moment, and follow up with a more modest splash of wine or cider vinegar. Add the redcurrant jelly and stir to dissolve. Then add the Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, mustard and plenty of black pepper. Season with a pinch of salt, take the edge off the fire with an enriching spoon of double cream and bubble for another minute or two, shaking the pan occasionally, until the sauce is reduced and nicely glossy. Taste for piquancy, and add more cayenne and black pepper if you like.

Serve with fried bread to give a bit of crunch and mop up the sauce. Alternatively, to make a more substantial supper dish, serve with plain boiled rice and a crisp green salad. Garnish with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.


5 kilo coarse minced pork

100g rusk or dried breadcrumbs
50g salt
15g ground white pepper
10g ground mace
10g fresh chopped sage
5g fresh chopped thyme
500ml cold water
2 tsp sugar

Your personal choice of herbs and spices. This could include some of the following:

Garam masala

Ground cumin
Ground coriander

Making fresh sausages (as opposed to salami) is one of the central activities of a River Cottage ‘pig weekend’, and one of the most sociable, as everybody gets to have a go. The results offer instant gratification, as sample batches of the various seasoning combinations are fried up and their various merits hotly debated.

To make my sausages, I use the same old-fashioned crank-handle machine that I use to make salami, but with a smaller nozzle attachment. Less cumbersome modern alternatives are available from good cookshops, including electric-powered machines that will also mince your pork for you.

I don’t usually bother with chipolatas, so I choose the larger size of natural sausage casings, called ‘hog casings’ that makes good old butcher’s bangers (as opposed to the extra large ox-runners, which I use for salami). These casings come packed in salt and need to be soaked, rinsed, and flushed through with fresh water before use. See the 

Sausage meat
Before you can make any sausages, you have to make sausage meat. If you are using home-reared pork and you have employed a butcher to sort out the carcass for you, you may want him to make up your sausage meat as well: his big industrial mincing machines will make light work of it. You will need to specify which parts of the pig you want your sausage meat made from. My preference is for a 50:50 combination of belly and leaner meat, usually taken from the boned-out shoulder. Any trimmings arising from the general cutting up of the beast can also be added.

Another important decision is how finely you want your meat minced. Most modern butchers’ sausage meat is minced on the finest setting. I find the resulting sausages too fine and pâté-like in consistency, so I prefer the next setting up. This gives a more old-fashioned ‘butcher’s banger’ consistency.

Of course you don’t have to keep your own pigs to make your own sausages. But if you want really good home-made sausages, don’t just buy the standard ready-made sausage meat. Choose fresh, quality belly and lean shoulder and either mince it yourself or ask your butcher to do it according to your requirements.

You can make good sausages from 100 per cent minced pork, plus your chosen seasonings, but there is no shame in adding a little cereal to the mix. This tradition is not merely a matter of bulking out the mixture with a cheap additive. A little ‘rusk’, as it is called, improves the texture, as it helps to retain a little more fat in the sausage. I like to add about 5 per cent by weight – so 50g per kilo of sausage meat. You can use various cereal-based products for rusk, including rice flour, fine oatmeal or fine white breadcrumbs. I actually use a multigrain organic baby cereal from the Baby Organix range, with excellent results.

When planning a sausage-making session, bear in mind that 1kg of sausage meat will give you about 15–20 large sausages, depending on their length and how tightly you stuff them.

There are unlimited ways to season your sausages, and inventing new and original spice and/or herb combinations is all part of the fun. The best way to try out new ideas is to take a small amount of sausage meat, add your experimental seasonings and mix well. Then fry up a bit of the mixture in a little patty and taste the result. When you get something you like, make up a big quantity and do another taste test and a final seasoning adjustment before you commit to the casings.

One thing that all your sausages will need is salt. About 5–10g (1–2 teaspoons) per kilo of meat is a good rough guide but you can make any final adjustments after your taste test.

Making the sausages
For a beginner, the only real difficulty in making sausages is getting to grips with the sausage-making machine and avoiding too many air pockets. This is largely a matter of trial and error. Electric sausage-making machines will come with their own set of instructions. A crank-handled machine like mine can be a bit temperamental, and it is sometimes easier to have two people operating it – one turning the handle, the other controlling the casing as it fills.

The basic idea is to fill a long length of casing – as long as you like, really – then twist it into individual sausages of your chosen length. It is important not to overfill the sausages or they will burst when you twist them. There are various clever twisting techniques devised by butchers over the years, where the sausages are twisted together to make long strings of twos and threes. These techniques are impossible to describe in words.

If wrapped or boxed immediately after being made, sausages will leach a considerable amount of liquid. To avoid this, the finished sausages should be hung in a cool place for a few hours or overnight. They can then be wrapped in greaseproof paper or clingfilm, or placed in Tupperware boxes, and stored in a refrigerator. Freshly made sausages kept in the fridge should be used within five days. If you want to keep them longer either vac-pack them or bag them up in freezer bags, in small batches. Defrost completely at room temperature before cooking.

Foolproof Food

Bramley Apple Sauce

An essential accompaniment to roast pork and homemade sausages.
The trick with Apple Sauce is to cook it covered on a low heat with very little water.
Serves 10 approx.

1 lb (450g) cooking apples, e.g. Bramley Seedling or Grenadier
1-2 dessertsp. water
2 ozs (55g) sugar, depending on how tart the apples are

Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut the pieces into two and put in a stainless steel or cast iron saucepan with sugar and water. Cover and put over a low heat. As soon as the apple has broken down, beat into a puree, stir and taste for sweetness. Serve warm.

Note: Apple Sauce freezes perfectly, so make more than you need and freeze in tiny, plastic cartons. It is also a good way to use up windfalls
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