There’s been a bit of a fuss about crisps recently, and it’s true that we lead the world in crisp technology and sophistication. But as far as I’m concerned, the crisp is yesterday’s nibble of choice. The jaded crisp-eater reaches for the nearest packet of pork scratchings.
I arrived at this state a few years back, and now find it virtually impossible to down a pint without those curiously addictive chunks of crisped-up pork rind with a ruff – bark, as it’s known in the trade – of fat attached to it. Or might that be a fine layer of fat with the rind riding on its back. There seems such a natural synergy between the malted bitterness and flowery notes of hop in the beer, and the sweet harmony of pig fat and pig skin. The beer refreshes the mouth, cleans away the slick of grease. The yielding density of the fat and salty crunch of the rind create the imperative for the next mouthful of clear, cool beer.
Now, the same sequence of sensations might be said of crisps, and that’s true. However, where the porky scratching is infinitely superior is in its purity. Or impurity, if you like. In crisps, the potato completely loses its identity. The thin slices are merely vehicles for other flavours. It is the canvas on which the food industry can reveal its mastery of deception. Beyond its textural crunchiness and convenient size, the potato contributes nothing to the pleasure of the crisp. It might as well as be reconstituted anything. In fact, in many cases, potato snacks are just that – the Pringle, for instance, is made from dried potato slurry formed into something like a crisp.
That is never an accusation that could be made against the porky scratching. It is what it is. Its qualities of taste, texture and pleasure derive specifically and only from that divine combination of porcine fat and skin (drawn out by salt and other seasonings). There is an inherent honesty about pork scratchings. They do not posture under layers of industrial balsamic vinegar, ersatz cheese or substitute Worcestershire sauce, nor are they decked out with sea salt crystals or gritty black pepper or fake ox gravy. Scratchings depends on the inherent qualities of pig skin.
The Black Country is the spiritual home of the pork screeching. According to Nigel Moore of Midland Snacks, they grew out of the butchery trade. There had always been a tradition of butchers supplying baps or sarnies of roasted pork. Why waste the crackling, the best part? Why indeed, Although they almost certainly put in an appearance much earlier, probably in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that butchers in the West Midlands started bagging them up and selling them commercially.
For those who haven’t investigated the life and times of the pork scratching in detail, its story goes like this – you take the skin, or rind, as they call it in the trade, of a pig, almost invariably from Denmark. It usually comes from a small area of the shank. This skin is cut into pieces of the desired size (different producers have different specifications), then dropped – or flashed – into a vat of boiling pig fat at 180C and left for around an hour and a half. That is your basic pork scratching, a batch-cooked, artisanal source of joy.
However, there are refinements. For example, the scratching may go through this process just the once – that’s is the traditional Black Country amuse bouche. You can tell by the explosive crunchiness of the rind and the fuller porky flavour. Or it may be double flashed – that is, allowed to cool down after the first stage of cooking, before being plunged back into the seething oil at 200C for a quick burst, in which case the rind will be slightly fluffier and the taste just a little more sotto voce. Whether once- or twice-fried, the scratchings are then ready to be treated with the seasonings produced to each manufacturer’s specification, before being bagged
There are two other refinements in the world of porky scratchings. The pork crunch, a “blown” product, light and fluffy and almost tasteless, the prawn crackers of pork rinds, made by double frying just the pig skin at 220C, so it fluffs up as if extruded. And then there’s leaf. Leaf is the Beluga caviar of pork scratchings, fat in its purest form, fat in excelcis. It costs £4.25 a kilo, if you can track it down. It’s a regional refinement to be found only in certain dark alleyways around Wolverhampton, or so says Graham Simmons of Simmons & Sons. The Italians of Emilia-Romagna call it ciccioli, and treasure it. It’s a kind of fat eco-skeleton that’s left when you render down straight pork flare fat. It takes something like 25kg of back fat to make 1kg of leaf. Leaf is only for the hard-core pork scratching addict.
Not much has changed in the pork scratching universe since they first hit the market. There are big players – Mr Porky is the obvious example, the market leader, which is produced by a highly industrialised, continuous process, and tastes like it in that it is a scratching of little or no character, a lowest common factor scratching. And there are the small players such as Midland Snacks and Simmons & Sons and The Rugeley Snack Co. But as yet pork scratchings haven’t gone down the cheese’n’onioncurryworcestershiresaucebalsamicinegarandjalapenopepper route that crisps have, although that might be about to change. The Rugeley Snack Co is something of an iconoclast in the world of the pork scratching, having ave already produced a scratching with a little container of apple sauce to dip it into, and is currently looking into even more recherché developments.
I remain to be convinced. For me, pork scratchings, impure and simple, remain the acme of beer snacks.