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.


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.


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.

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26 thoughts on “Luminous but not clear…

  1. I’ve long been con­fused by ‘pulled’ and ‘jerk’ related to pork and chicken. The lat­ter seems to relate to a spicy sauce and the former to cook­ing so slow that you can pull it off the bone. Whatever the explan­a­tion your Oxford ver­sion sounds deli­cious and the Vir­ginian ori­gin delight­ful judging by the lovely photographs.

    • That’s pretty much it. Jerk spice is a very hot spice mix­ture that can be used to dry rub or mar­in­ate meat. Pulled pork is usu­ally shoulder meat that has been cooked so slow and long that you can ‘pull’ the meat apart. Glad you like the look of my Oxford ver­sion — thank you, Jakey.

    • How very frus­trat­ing. I have a lamb shoulder recipe that I always cook for my children’s birth­days. I’ll post that one soon in your hon­our, as an altern­at­ive to pork.

  2. You take me away with you to the hot and sul­try Vir­ginia dock. I got lost in the words and rejoiced in these images .. now I wish I had some of that pulled pork! Lovely Charlie!

  3. Your writ­ing is what is lumin­ous, Charlie. I par­tic­u­larly love “I wore the weather like a set of heavy, unfa­mil­iar clothes”. Just per­fect. I have not yet been lucky enough to visit the South, but I am a sucker for good South­ern food, like your heav­enly sandwiches.

  4. Charlie, your words always send shivers up my spine and leave me breath­less. And “sham­bolic shreds and shards” I have even learned a new word today. Beau­ti­ful pho­tos and beau­ti­ful words for stun­ning, gen­er­ous sen­ti­ments. And the pulled pork and car­a­mel­ized onions sounds heavenly.

    • Jamie, thank you so much for your empathy and praise — as ever, gen­er­ous in spirit and appre­ci­ated a huge amount

  5. This looks like just what I need for my Sunday lunch! Yeah! How long do you cook the roast after you make the mat­tress (won­der­ful phras­ing as always) — I read this through a few times and didn’t understand.

    Hope you are well! You are cer­tainly in a beau­ti­ful place at a won­der­ful time of the year!

    • Thanks so much for alert­ing me to that — for some bizarre reason the all-important phrase van­ished! Yes, everything is mud­dling along just fine, thank you.

  6. That’s just beau­ti­ful Charlie. Makes me wish i was there too. And well pulled pork is some­thing I’ve been want­ing to make for a long time but never got around to!

  7. I so love A River Runs Through It — thank you for remind­ing me it is a good one to put on the list for my son to read some day!
    It was nice to catch up on your posts — even if they were writ­ten a while back!

    • I love the book too, Karin. I hope your son enjoys it — it’s such a pleas­ure to plan books to give to our children.

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