Luminous but not clear…

The late sum­mer heat in Vir­ginia is densely, oppress­ively humid. I wore the weather like a set of heavy, unfa­mil­iar clothes and, unused to such bru­tal tem­per­at­ures, rose at dawn in search of a calm­ing, sooth­ing breeze. Walk­ing along the river bank before the sun appeared, Nor­man Maclean’s beau­ti­fully evoc­at­ive words in A River Runs Through It floated into my mind: ‘At sun­rise everything is lumin­ous but not clear.’

The con­stant, cool­ing pres­ence of the river in Vir­ginia tem­pers even the most bru­tal of days, and the heat of the sun is mod­i­fied by the warmth of the wel­come. Home-made dough­nuts, pan­cakes, iced tea, corn hush pup­pies, pulled pork bar­be­cue — I was over­whelmed by generosity.

Like som­breros, castanets and spor­rans, South­ern pulled pork isn’t as con­vin­cing in an Oxford­shire garden as it was at the end of a dock on a Vir­ginian river. So I’ve devised my Oxford ver­sion in trib­ute to the people I met and the food that I ate with my feet trail­ing in the river and the sun beat­ing down on my head.

OXFORD PULLED PORK WITH CARAMELISED ONIONS

This is a two-part recipe. Eat it first as roast pork with crispy roast pota­toes and then eat what’s left as a pulled pork sand­wich with car­a­mel­ised onions. This is not the kind of pork that you slice effi­ciently into neat pieces. Shoulder of pork, cooked slowly, will col­lapse into deli­cious, but sham­bolic shreds and shards.

Serves 4

  • 2kg pork shoulder, bone still in (I’ve tried it without the bone and it’s nowhere near so good)
  • 2 tea­spoons fen­nel seed
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 2 sticks celery
  • 2 leeks
  • 2 onions
  • Large hand­ful of fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 head garlic
  • season­ing
  • Half bottle white wine
  • Red­cur­rant jelly
  • Bal­samic vinegar
  • Half litre veget­able stock

Pre­heat the oven to 220 degrees C. Rub the skin of the pork shoulder with salt and place it in a metal bak­ing tray that’s only just a little lar­ger than the meat. If you use a tin that’s too large, the veget­ables you place in it later will burn.

Cook for 30 minutes, to allow the skin to start crisp­ing up. Remove from the oven, turn­ing the heat down to 150 degrees C at the same time. Allow the meat to cool for a couple of minutes and then remove tem­por­ar­ily from the tin. Build up a mat­tress of car­rots, cel­ery, leeks, fen­nel seeds, bay leaves, onions and gar­lic in the same tin, top­ping the pile with the fresh thyme. Place the meat on top of the mat­tress. Pour in the white wine and put the tin back in the cooler oven. Cook gently for around four hours, top­ping up the liquid with water, if the tin starts to dry out and the veget­ables to burn. You may need to cover it with tin foil dur­ing cook­ing, if there’s a risk of burning.

Remove the pork and make a jus with the juices in the pan. Care­fully spoon off any fat, but keep the veget­ables in the tin. With the tin on the hob, stir in a little more white wine to deglaze it. Add the veget­able stock, red­cur­rant jelly and bal­samic vin­egar and bubble up. Check the season­ing and strain the jus into a jug.

Serve with roast pota­toes, the crack­ling, spin­ach and steamed cour­gettes. Try to make sure you save enough pork for the fol­low­ing day.

NEXT-DAY PULLED PORK SANDWICH WITH CARAMELISED ONIONS.

Car­a­mel­ised Onions — makes 2 to 3 servings

  • 2 white onions
  • 1 tea­spoon fen­nel seeds
  • Half tea­spoon crushed cori­ander seeds
  • Half tea­spoon sugar
  • Olive oil
  • Season­ing
  • Black­berry vinegar

Finely slice the onions. Place in a small pan the olive oil, fen­nel seeds, crushed cori­ander seeds, sugar, salt and black pep­per. Cook as gently as you can man­age for around an hour. If the onions start to catch, add a little water. When the onions have col­lapsed and melted, remove from the heat and add two tea­spoons of black­berry vin­egar. The vin­egar, which adds a fruity sharp­ness, is also a ges­ture to South­ern pulled pork, which has vin­egar stirred into it.

Warm through some rus­tic rolls, pile in a heap of peashoots and salad leaves dressed with lemon vinai­grette, fol­lowed by a mound of warmed pulled pork and a spoon­ful of car­a­mel­ised onions.

Nor­man Maclean, whose writ­ing has a beau­ti­ful bal­ance and heft to it, had a mar­vel­lous sense of the moment. He under­stood that some frag­ment­ary shreds of time have more lumin­os­ity to them than oth­ers. Eat­ing pulled pork as the river trailed past me was one of those moments when ‘life… becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remem­ber, and often enough so that what we even­tu­ally come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going side­ways, back­wards, for­ward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable.’

That day, life did indeed become lit­er­at­ure. But the sun rises too soon by the river bank in Vir­ginia. The lilac light eases into pink and a blue heron rises into the sky. It’s time to renew the war of attri­tion with the sun once again.

Review: The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert

Pub­lished by Bloomsbury

Septem­ber 2012 — Price £35.00

When Paula Wolfert states unashamedly that her book is full of ‘pre­vi­ously uncol­lec­ted’ recipes rather than brand new ones, you know you’re in the hands of an expert. The Food of Morocco is the res­ult of Paula’s fifty years of research and, rather than fea­tur­ing showy twists and fancy trills on his­toric recipes or start­ling com­bin­a­tions of tra­di­tional ingredi­ents, it’s a glor­i­ous and exhaust­ive com­pen­dium of centuries-old Moroc­can cooking. To give you an idea of its heft, it was delivered to me, not in a pad­ded envel­ope, but in a large card­board box.

I doubt I’ll ever get through all her recipes — in fact, I fully intend to avoid some of them. Spiced Brain Salad with Pre­served Lem­ons or Liver and Olive Salad, sound ter­ri­fy­ing. I will how­ever, be try­ing the ingeni­ous recipe for warqa pastry, which comes with pen and ink draw­ings to explain the method.

As a long-time fan of the writ­ing of Paul Bowles, I can’t wait to make the recipe for Chicken Tagine with Prunes and Almonds in the Style of the Rif Moun­tains. Wolfert heard about the dish from mem­bers of the ‘Tangier lit­er­ary set’. The Moroc­can writer Mohammed Mra­bet had cooked it for them, but des­pite all their attempts to describe it to her, Wolfert couldn’t get the recipe right. ‘Finally Paul Bowles, who had dis­covered and trans­lated Mra­bet, recalled the meas­ure­ments for me from memory’. A recipe whose labyrinth­ine path took it from Tangier, via Mra­bet, trans­lated by the great Paul Bowles, is as appeal­ing to me as any­thing I’ve ever cooked in my life.

As the owner of three slightly unpre­dict­able quince trees, I’m delighted to find a book with so many quince recipes. Chicken with Car­a­mel­ised Quinces and Toasted Wal­nuts sounds and looks exquis­ite, as does Lamb Tagine with Quinces from Mar­rakech. Wolfert’s stun­ning col­lec­tion also includes an Avo­cado and Date Milk Shake, which is worth try­ing for its oddity alone. I intend to cook from this book for years.

The Food of Morocco radi­ates integ­rity, schol­ar­ship and expert­ise. It shim­mers with Wolfert’s pas­sion for her sub­ject. It’s so detailed that it should really be turned into a PhD thesis, but it also has a huge sense of romance and fun. When read­ing a book for the first time, I always look at the acknow­ledge­ments page. Authors often reveal their true char­ac­ters when they thank — or don’t thank — those that have helped them. Any writer who pays a spe­cial trib­ute to ‘the snail wran­glers of Sonoma and Napa’ — a group of Wolfert’s friends who attemp­ted to col­lect enough snails for her to make Mar­rakech Snail Soup — is ok by me. The soup may have been dis­astrous, but the exper­i­ence was a tri­umph — in other words, it demon­strates the per­fect atti­tude to life. Just because some­thing doesn’t work, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing.