My mother in-law is French, and what’s more than that, she’s a French cook. So when they come to stay I feel duty-bound to prove to them I’m not making my husband subsist on a diet of boiled lamb and microwaved pizza, the staple diet of the Brit, apparently.
The problem is, that when they come, the man and I often take advantage of the babysitting on offer, and get a little, tipsy. The galantine of duck I had planned to impress them with gets shelved for another day, and I find myself digging blearily through the freezer in search of an old curry to defrost. Or a microwave pizza.
That’s where the potted meats are so useful. I can produce them with a flourish even after a trip to the pub, and generally give the impression of being a responsible young lady Who Can Cook. Pair them with some good bread, and, for extra brownie points, chutney made by the mother-in-law and you have a top class meal in seconds. Also wonderful for picnics, and the kind of train journeys where you bring a bottle of wine and pretend it is 1923. In Austria, where I live, the trains still have compartments, so one time, before the baby, I produced a jar of potted meat and a tablecloth, my husband brought the beer, and we sped through the Alps like Elizabeth David.
The question of whether or not you can preserve meat in this way is a controversial one. The American FDA says no, absolutely not, far too dangerous, so if you are of a nervous or litigious disposition, I suggest you follow their advice, and find a recipe for a nice low-risk chutney or jam. If, however, you are of a more relaxed nature, the kind of person who swims naked and drinks red wine not just for their health, read on.
The problem here is the botulism spores, that can live and reproduce in hermetically sealed environments, if the PH of the product is low enough, which is why high PH jams and chutneys are safe. Heat will kill them, but only a high heat can guarantee that you kill all the beasties. The FDA recommends a pressure canner. If you have one, this is the way to go.
If you don’t have a pressure canner, well, it’s up to you. This recipe was translated and adapted from a German recipe book, from the well known GU publishing house, they think it’s perfectly safe, as does my mother-in-law. In France, no one has heard of the FDA, and everyone pots their own meat. In the last twenty years one person in the whole of France has died of Botulism, although a few dozen more got pretty sick from it, and the culprit was usually homemade goods. It’s up to you. If you don’t fancy your chances, store it in the fridge and use it quickly. It will still look very attractive on the table in a pretty jar, even if it’s just for show.
So here is the recipe. I am in love with preserving foods in this way, and especially with my brand new, sleek Weck preserving jars. It is very easy to tell if a seal has formed with these jars, as the lid will fall off it hasn’t. I can’t stop lifting them up by the lids, marvelling at the force that keeps them tightly attached to the base, with no screw or clips. It feels like magic.
Half a kilo / one pound Pork belly
4 bay leaves
25g/ 1oz chopped pistachios
Finely grated peel of one lemon
Chopped fresh herbs, Thyme or Sage would be great, but parsley or marjoram would do in a pinch
Salt and pepper
Note: this is the basic recipe to illustrate the method of oven preserving, you can add whatever extra flavouring ingredients you have to hand instead of or in addition to the pistachios. Some smoked bacon would be great, or for a fruity twist, some chopped dried cranberries or finely chopped apple.
- Put your pork belly whole in a pan and cover with water. Add the onion, peeled but not chopped, the bay, the pepper corns, the allspice and a heaped teaspoon of salt
- Bring to the boil and simmer for one hour. I do this on the back of the stove while I’m making dinner. Then turn off the heat and allow to cool completely in the stock. Leave it overnight and came back to it in the morning.
- Preheat your oven to 160°C / 320°F. Next, chop up your meat really small, then chop it some more, and then a bit more. Alternatively, put it in the food processor, but I don’t have one, so I just chopped and chopped until my arm ached. Fry gently for fifteen minutes until the fat has melted.
- Add the onion that you boiled with the pork, the lemon peel, the pistachios and any other flavouring ingredients. You might also want to toast the pistachios, like the original recipe suggested, but I felt it was a refinement too far and just threw them in. They were a little disappointing. Next time, I would toast. Fry everything gently for another five minutes and season generously with salt and pepper.
- Now get your jars ready. They can be teeny tiny Mason jars, Kilner jars, those pretty French “Parfait” jars or my favourite Weck jars. You cannot use ordinary jam jars, because you need to be able to adjust them so air can get out but not in. This is possible with the Bell/Kerr type jars, and the Weck or Parfait do this naturally, but ordinary jam jars tend to be either open or closed, with nothing in between. Fill them with the meat, stamp it down (I used a lime muddler from a cocktail set)and fill again until you have a finger width’s headroom on the jar. Clean the rim of the jar and attach the lid, leaving a quarter turn if you are using a Ball/Kerr type jar
- Get a lasagne dish or something similar. Put a tea towel in the bottom and put your jars on the tea towel. Fill the dish with water. The jars do not have to be completely submerged, but it won’t hurt if they are. Put the whole lot in the oven for 1 ½ hours, and please try not to open the door while they are in. After the time is up, switch off the oven and allow them to cool down in there. Check the seal.
- The original German recipe said they could be kept for a year, but I personally wouldn’t fancy them after hanging about in the cupboard so long. Eat them up in a month or two, I say.