It is not every pig that is destined to make a decent chop. There is not much point, for example, in buying a chop from your average supermarket. It is the fat that is the problem: there isn’t any. I am afraid if you are the sort of person who doesn’t eat their chicken skin, only eats the central lean part of a lamb chop and thinks low-fat pork is a good idea, you might as well stop reading now. “Low-fat pork” is an oxymoron that describes a mean-spirited meat that lacks succulence and flavour.
That is not the only problem. You can have too much fat. A good pork chop needs a large eye muscle and a moderate covering of fat, about a centimetre at most.
My friend Richard Vaughan produces the best pigs I have eaten in this country, raised from an obscure old breed, the Middle White, on his farm in the Wye Valley. The breed almost died out because its high fat content (a good two centimetres of fat on the loin and that is when Richard has it under control) placed the pig out of favour with buyers. When roasted, much of the fat is rendered out but also bastes the meat and produces sublime crackling: the meat itself is full of flavour and the potatoes roasted in its fat almost as good. It is tremendous meat but the small carcass produces a very small loin muscle and, combined with the high fat content, it is a lousy meat to choose for a chop.
What is required is a bigger pig with a more equitable distribution of fat and muscle. My butcher uses a cross between the Duroc and Hampshire breeds that produce a medium-to- large pig and an excellent chop. Things become easier when one has a butcher who knows and cares about these things.
It need hardly be said that care and vigilance is required in the cooking as well as the sourcing. Whereas no one wants a bloody pork chop, the overly cautious who cook it for a little longer “to be absolutely sure” are in grave danger of producing a dry and unpalatable piece of meat.
When it is properly cooked, the chop does not need a lot of help. If grilled, a wedge of lemon, perhaps, or a few shredded sage leaves stewed in butter and lemon juice. If sautéed, it can be finished in a little tomato sauce, pizzaiola fashion, an old classic from the Italian trattoria of 40 years ago.
A few years later I started reading Jane Grigson: she and her poet husband had a house in the Touraine and she wrote evocatively of the food of that region. The combination of pork and prunes was a dish as redolent of the terroir as any and became popular in Britain for a while.
The idea of prunes, pork with a bit of fat on it and double cream might be a little overwhelming for some ... but the nights are drawing in.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Pork chops with prunes
Apart from the need to soak the prunes this dish is quick to prepare. Serves four.
250ml dry white wine
4 pork chops
25g unsalted butter
A few sprigs of thyme
100ml chicken stock
50ml double cream
● Wash the prunes and place them in a small bowl. Bring the wine to a boil and pour over the prunes. Leave them to infuse and swell in the wine for two hours.
● Remove the rinds from the chops and lay the rinds fat side-down in a heavy frying pan. On a low heat, let them sweat gently and render their fat for five minutes and then turn up the heat. Season the chops on one side with salt and pepper and place this side down in the fat. Slip the butter into the pan between the chops and let them cook fast enough to colour nicely without burning the butter. Season the second side and turn the chops over. Sprinkle the thyme over the chops and finish the cooking process – 6-7 minutes a side – so that the chops feel firm to the touch but are still moist inside. Stand the chops on their fat and give them an extra couple of minutes so that the fat is crisp and then remove the chops to another dish and hold in a warming oven.
● Pour off any fat from the pan and return it to the heat. Deglaze with the juice from the lemon and reduce this until almost evaporated. Pour in the wine, the prunes and the chicken stock. Simmer for a couple of minutes to heat the prunes through. Lift out the prunes and distribute over the chops.
● Bring the sauce back to the boil and reduce by two-thirds so that you have just less than 100ml remaining. Pour in the cream; whisk it into the mixture before bringing it back to the boil and reducing again to achieve a good sauce consistency. Season the sauce with salt and a squeeze of lemon. Pour in any juice from the chops and coat the chops with the sauce.