It seems that pork just isn't what it used to be.
Twice in the past month or so I've had conversations with family members from older generations who have lamented the decline in the taste of pork from how they remember it. As I understand it, the old adage that you are what you eat applies to livestock as well. I've commented before on the way free range meat tastes so much more real than bulk-produced stuff. We're lucky in NZ that our beef, lamb and mutton are pretty much free range by default, and it's only our chickens and pigs that are raised in confinement and fed grain.
Much as I take issue with pen-bred meat, I've also discussed on this blog the dilemmas of trying to eat well, and trying to retain some sort of ethical compass while keeping ourselves nutritionally healthy on a budget that we can afford. I imagine that I'll draw some criticism just by raising the issue of animal rights, but that's OK. Debate is healthy.
Like I've said before, if we could afford to eat all organic free range meat and produce we would, just like if I could grow all the fruit and veges I needed to feed my family I would. No doubt if we were forced into the situation of having to keep animals as a food source we would find ourselves eating a whole lot less meat overall. But the social and economic realities are that I only have so much time in a day, and while I make an effort to do what I can to support humane and sustainable food production, there comes a point when we have to look at what's on the shelf and what's in the wallet, and take what we can for what we can afford.
We all find different ways to manage the minefield of existing as an omnivore in a social order where our eating habits are largely driven by profit-geared corporations, their market placement and their advertising machines. I'm aware that we don't co-exist with our food sources, but exploit them and the land (or sea) that they live and grow on, not simply to survive but to fully enjoy the bounty that agribusiness can supply us with. However, for all my good intentions, I can't provide my family with protein and nutrients simply out of goodwill. And I've listened to all the arguments in favour of vegetarianism, and while I agree with a lot of it, particularly the stuff that relates to how we treat animals, I'm still an omnivore. I feel guilty only when I think about it too much, but never when I'm eating.
As a rule, we only buy free range eggs, and that's a win all round, since good FR eggs have more taste and thicker contents than cage eggs. I also get them from the market, where they're cheaper than similar products at the supermarket. I also buy lamb from the Wai-Ora stall at the market every week, as I've posted several times. I've been pleased to see these guys are bringing more product to the market now than they had been previously, which hopefully means that word-of-mouth advertising like mine in support of suppliers like them is working. And that in itself is a step in the right direction.
I've also made the point before, and I'll make it again: We all (and I mean all of us, not just the Kiwis reading this) need to learn how much is enough when it comes to eating meat in particular, and cut down. There are so many good reasons to do this that it would make a post all of its own, but suffice to say that it's better for the land, the animals, our wallets and our bowels to eat less meat. (I don't shy away from that image - after all, we're all animals made of meat and offal too, remember).
So far this summer, we've only had leftover meat after one barbeque, rather than after every one like we used to have, and those leftovers were eaten up the next day. Reduce the excess, reduce the waste, cook what you need, and enjoy it. And your finances will appreciate it too.
Which brings me back to my original point: If our pork is raised in pens now and is accordingly of a much lower quality and inferior taste to what it used to be, then that might go some way towards explaining why the old methods of cooking pork were fairly simple, letting the meat speak for itself (apologies for the bad imagery), while nowadays there seems to be a fixation with dressing pork up with chilli, herbs, spices, nuts, fruits, and other bits and pieces to give it flavour. Instead of being a taste explosion all its own, pork has become a blank canvas for a good chef to demonstrate his skills on.
It seems a shame. But until free range pork becomes affordable, I'll still eat what they stock in the supermarket (we have a butcher across the road from where I work who stocks organic, free range meats, but at $16.00 for 2 pork steaks, you can see why I'd prefer to pay $6.00 at the supermarket for unethically raised, bland, but affordable meat).
There's always wild pork, of course, but that's just as expensive, and a completely different flavour that Dessert Chef can't abide, so we won't be going down that road anytime soon.
And on that note, here's one of my most recent entries in the Dollying up the Pork stakes.
Pork Chops with Sage and Apple Crust
(Serves 2, with a bit sliced off for the little fella)
In a small pan, heat some olive oil and fry the following:
2 Cloves of Garlic, minced;
1 Onion, finely chopped;
1 small Apple, finely diced;
Once the apple and onion have started to soften, add a splash of worcester sauce and 3T of brown sugar. As this reduces, add the leaves stripped from 3 stalks of fresh sage and 3 stems of fresh mint, roughly chopped. Once this has heated through and is a bit saucy, remove to a bowl and heat fresh oil in the pan.
Season two large pork chops with freshly ground pepper and salt, and place in the hot oil. Allow the chops to brown a little, then add a splash of white wine. Shake, and allow the wine to be absorbed. When the underside of the chops is nice and brown, turn over and repeat. Cook until there is no pink in the juices.
Spoon the apple mixture over one side of the chops, grate some parmesan cheese over top, and place under the grill to brown.
Serve with couscous cooked in chicken stock, fried mushrooms, and fresh veges.