In our lamentably metrosexual world the opportunity for us blokes to express our masculinity is diminishing. Take food. I haven’t seen a gobstopper for years, Flame-Grilled Whoppers are in reality miserably thin, and Red Bull has been largely stolen from us by scary, go-getting women. Thank God, then, for pork scratchings. I asked a succession of our regular female panellists to take part this week but it was too much for them. So we were left with three virile, mono-sex tasters: the Epicure Publisher (EP), the Gluttonous Pig (GP) and the Pie Snaffler (PS). The last, a City tyro, had to be distracted away from a week of shorting the euro and lambasting the critics of City bonuses.
We settled down to 10 packets of pork scratchings, the enormity of the task being ameliorated by bottles of Wandle, the lovely beer from south London that won our English pale ale tasting last year. The brands fell into two broad categories – products from the Black Country, where pork scratchings are rumoured to have originated, and interlopers from the likes of Lincolnshire, Bradford and Sheffield. South Yorkshire’s entry was called Uncle Albert’s Scratchings, which we thought sounded unpleasantly medical. There was also Mr Trotter’s Pork Crackling, a relatively new offering launched by two food writers, Matthew Fort and Tom Parker-Bowles. (I note that they’re both Old Etonians, which means they now not only run the country and act in all the films but also have designs on our food.) Would the snacks with the authentic Brummie accent triumph over the new pretenders? It was our job to find out. Somewhat alarmingly many of the packets warned us we needed healthy teeth even to attempt to eat the morsels. Several were indeed too hard, others too salty, a few had rather more hog’s hairs than we fancied and one tasted mysteriously of urine.
Here are three that we found less convincing, the first of which does come from the Black Country. Big Bag Pork Scratchings had no fewer than four flavour enhancers that made its taste unappealingly complex and aggressive: “too salty” (GP); “too many hairs” (PS). Uncle Albert’s Scratchings contained onion powder for some reason, an element that one of our panel picked up blind: “ooh, cheese and onion ... and not in a good way” (GP); “the bits are too big” (EP).
Then there was Mr Trotter’s Pork Crackling which has made a noble attempt to cut down on the additives and puff the pieces up with a new process. But we found this renders them a trifle bland: “too mild” (GP); “popcorn without enough porkiness” (PS). Such a level of refinement is an admirable aspiration but perhaps sits uneasily in a down-and-dirty pub snack.
Our three preferred products all came from the West Midlands, presenting a clean sweep for the aboriginal scratchings. So look out for the “Black Country” boast on the packet. Third was Traditional Pork Scratchings from Midland Snacks: “authentic roast flavour” (GP); “crispy, OK fat” (PS). Second came Pork Scratchings from the Walsall company, G Simmons & Sons: “crunchy, tangy if a little oversize” (EP); “this little piggy did not die in vain” (GP). And our winner was Shakey’s Traditional Black Country Pork Scratchings: “mild, crisp, not too fatty” (PS); “the perfect porker” (GP); “if compelled to eat scratchings, try these” (EP).
I was once taken on a pig killing adventure in the Hungarian countryside where all the traditional bits were prepared overnight from an animal freshly slaughtered by its smallholder owner. Sausages, smoked speck, black pudding, bacon and so on were rolled out through a pig brekker, lunch and dinner. Splendid, and a reminder that the domestic pig represented a sizeable part of the family’s wealth, as it did in Britain at one time. But the one thing our generous Hungarian hosts did not come up with was scratchings.
So, there’s one thing the Black Country leads the world in. They should get the Queen’s Award for Industry.
Shakey’s Traditional Black Country Pork Scratchings
From £1 for 70g, www.shakeys-scratchings.co.uk