Porchetta – An Italian Food Classic
One of the joys of cuisine in Italy is finding mobile food vans selling hot Porchetta, especially on weekends and national holidays. I recommend that wherever you stay in Italy, ask if there’s a van visiting nearby. This might be at a market or village celebration. Sometimes the regular vans are pitched on the side of the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Porchetta is pork belly, which is stuffed and rolled, then roasted and thinly sliced. It often comes as a panino or with focaccia. However, whole joints form the centrepiece of a family meal, a treat for high days and holidays.
In the meantime, Porchetta is a regular in this household. As well as its prodigious wine-matching capabilities, it’s also remarkably easy to make and so is ideal for those with limited culinary prowess (i.e. this author). It’s also a real crowd-pleaser. Moreover, complex wines show well with relatively simple food. But simple does not mean ordinary.
Inevitably, there are regional variations, for example from Umbria, Lazio, Tuscany, Veneto, Abruzzo and Sardinia. There are lots more variations online too. This version is by Gennaro Contaldo, served with Sautéed potatoes. It’s easy, and it works every time.
All you have to do is allow plenty of time and follow the recipe. It’s for 10-12 people. You can easily reduce that to half size, and reduce the roasting time accordingly. However, you do need it to be large enough to roll up properly. Anyway, leftover cold Porchetta is a fabulous treat in its own right. Or it freezes well.
Porchetta Recipe (serves 10-12)
5 kg piece of pork belly – ask the butcher to remove the ribs and trim off any excess fat, so it’s ready to roll up. Get the skin scored too; it’ll make carving much easier.
25 g coarse salt
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 tbsp fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
large bunch fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped
1 tbsp fennel seeds (if you are lucky enough to find wild fennel, use it instead, finely chopped) Do not omit the fennel!
8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
6 tbsp runny honey
freshly ground black pepper
String (or elastic ties) & Aluminium foil
Lay the pork belly skin-side down onto a clean flat surface. Sprinkle the salt and coarsely ground black pepper over it, rubbing them well into the meat with your fingers. Leave to rest for ten minutes, so the salt and pepper settle well into the meat. Then sprinkle the herbs, fennel seeds and garlic evenly over it and rub in.
Next, the most difficult part – tie up the meat. You will need ten pieces of string, each about 30 cm long, or ask your butcher for some elasticated ties; they make the job much easier. Carefully roll it up width-ways and tie it tightly in the middle of the joint. Then tie at either end about 1 cm from the edge and keep tying along the joint until you have used up all the string or the ties.
The filling should be well wrapped, if any excess filling escapes from the sides, push it back in. Now, with your hands, massage one tablespoon of the olive oil all over the rolled-up joint. Then rub the remaining salt and some more black pepper over it.
Preheat the oven to 230°C
Grease a large roasting tin with the remaining olive oil and place the pork in it. Roast for ten minutes, then turn it over. After fifteen minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 150°C and cover the meat with aluminium foil. If you like the crackling very crisp, don’t bother with the foil, but remember it will then be harder to slice thinly.
Now roast slowly for three hours. Then remove the joint from the oven and coat with honey, drizzling some of the juices from the roasting tin all over it too.
Lift it on to a board and let it stand for ten minutes. Meanwhile, place the roasting tin on the hob, skim off any fat and stir, scraping up all the caramelised bits from the base of the tin, until the juices from the meat reduce and thicken slightly. Slice the Porchetta thinly and serve with the gravy. Alternatively, leave the meat to cool and slice when needed. It will keep for up to a week in the fridge.
400 g small new potatoes, scrubbed and halved
6 tbsp olive oil
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled and squashed
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water or steam until tender, (8-10 minutes) then drain. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the garlic and rosemary, followed by the potatoes. Allow to colour on all sides over high heat, stirring now and again to prevent them from sticking to the pan. Finally, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Such is Porchetta’s central role in Italian life that The Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry lists it as a Prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale. It means that Porchetta is as a “traditional agricultural-food product with cultural relevance.” Just call it an Italian Food classic.
Make Porchetta next time you’re thinking of a celebratory meal, or want to drink Italian red wine. Preferably do both together!