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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.