The supper was a pig's head, stuffed at the ears - a favourite of mine, and got in my honour... An ear apiece, for Mr Ibbs and Gentleman; the snout for John and Dainty; and the cheeks, that were the tenderest parts, for herself and for me.
Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
In 2015, I catered my first wedding. We served over 200 guests, in a marquee erected in the middle of a field, out of a kitchen built on a 15-degree angle. We had no running water, had to navigate sheep, horses, and farm gates whenever we left our tent, and battled oppressive heat on the day of the wedding itself. I also had to roast a whole pig - a feat I had not undertaken before, and one which it was not possible to practice in the months leading up to the wedding. I read everything I could in preparation, but still spent the day of the wedding certain it wouldn't cook in time. It did, of course, and the roast pork was some of the best I've ever had. The wedding itself was tremendous fun, and left us with stories we still laugh about. In fact, my only major regret, 18 months on, is that we didn't have time to spend on the pig's head - leaving it instead for the owners of the farm. Pig cheeks, in particular, are truly something special.
These pig cheeks, cooked low and slow, nestled in amongst sharp cider and softened vegetables, are unctuous, meltingly tender, and completely delicious. They are also affordable, and something we should be eating more of. Though a treat in the Bermondsey house we find ourselves in in Fingersmith, they're rarely put to use in modern kitchens. As such, they're tricky to find at your local Sainsburys; even a butcher may need a couple of days' notice to organise some for you. This, then, is no post-work supper - the cheeks will need to be ordered in advance, and will then require at least three hours in the oven. It's a dish that demands forethought, and planning. I can also assure you that it is well worth the time you put into it.
I have spoken before of my deep and abiding love for stories set in Victorian London. Whenever I do, someone mentions Fingersmith, certain I must have read and loved it. I hadn't, until last month, and so was forever scrambling to stop people from giving away too much of the plot. It meant that when I finally came to it, I did so with very little knowledge of what would happen. I'd love for you to be able to approach it in the same way, and so am loath to ruin any of it here for you. Suffice to say, it is wonderful, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. I flew through it and, as I approached the final pages, longed for more time with the characters. Their world is so rich, and detailed, and fully realised, that the image of London it paints is not one I'll forget in a hurry.
1tbsp olive oil
4 pig cheeks
1 brown onion, sliced
1 leek, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
10 sprigs thyme
Small saucepan, with a tight-fitting lid
1. Preheat the oven to 150C. Warm the oil in the pan, and brown the pig cheeks, then set them aside. Over a low heat, fry the onion, leek, and garlic in the oil until soft. Tip 100ml of the cider in, and use it to deglaze the pan.
2. Nestle the browned pig cheeks in amongst the leek, garlic, and onion. Add the leaves from the sprigs of thyme, and the rest of the cider. Bring to the boil.
3. Put the lid on the pan, and transfer it into the oven. Leave it there for three hours, checking halfway through and topping it up with more cider if the pan is drying out. After three hours, test the cheeks with a fork; the meat should fall apart.
4. Serve the pig cheeks, and some of the vegetables and cooking liquor, with cabbage and mashed potatoes.