It looks like just about everyone is into training this time of year. The Euro Cup (what happened to Italy?), State of Origin footy, the Olympics and of course the great race: Le Tour. This event always unleashes a tsunami of colour on to the streets so it gets almost impossible to find a free cafe seat on the weekend with all the a-little-too-heavy-on-the-lycra cyclists moving in great herds. You feel left out if you're not hitting the pavement at dawn perched precariously on a piece of $5000 carbon fibre.
I thought I was way ahead of the peloton this year having bought, a few months back, the brilliant Proform Tour de France training bike. I've been puffing away each morning completing stage after gruelling stage, convinced the phone will ring any moment with someone from Cycling Australia saying, ''Cadel's come a cropper, you're up!'' But no phone call and after watching the first few stages I realised that my course might be on a different scale. Sure, I've finished the Liege to Theux stage, but it only took me an hour or so and I couldn't see my name on the winners' list.
So, anyway, I am in training for a marathon of sorts. You might remember my project for 2012: buy a baby pig, raise it on acorns and then a mid-winter's slaughter for jamon production. Well, the time has come, and unfortunately what you don't realise with these blind ambitions is that you might get attached to your quarry. Kevin, as he is called due to the timing of his arrival, which coincided with the exit of another Kevin, is quite personable, with loads of character, a bit of a lad who can't be kept behind any sort of fence, and now weighs in at a tidy 80 kilograms. Not bad for his sprightly seven months; at this rate he would be 150 kilograms before he reached his second birthday. I've run out of acorns and patience, so it's off to the abattoir this weekend if I can find a way of getting him on to a trailer.
Sorry to anyone who finds this an ordeal. It's life, I guess, if you happen to be a farm animal, so I hope to do him proud and make some really good ham and stuff out of him.
With so much bacon and pork fat around the corner, I thought that like any athlete before the big game, I should catch up with my medico to see whether I'm up to the task ahead. Which also coincides with the government encouraging blokes of my age to see their doctor for a check-up. Two birds, one stone. After the consultation and various tests, I'm happy to report that all is OK. Magnificent, I think Dr Voon scribbled on his little pad. I picture this grand old ship, sailing gracefully towards the horizon, in absolute peak form. All the gauges of health that can be gleaned by little more than a sphygmomanometer and a blood test pointed towards a healthy individual.
One part of the pig that gains unusually consistent and loving centimetres in cookbooks is the belly. I have no doubt mentioned this delicious part many times so you probably don't need another. But what the hell, it's a new fiscal year and - so far at least - we haven't become this post-carbon-tax tribe roaming the streets like some Stephen King-esque vision, raiding the solar-panel-clad homes of carbon-neutral dwellers in a society gone mad as Tony would have us believe.
One thing most food scribes agree on is that you need to have the belly skinned - so you can cook the cracking separately - and also the meat should spend some time in a salt/sugar cure. After which it is slowcooked and then set in the fridge before use.
My most recent stash of books includes Heston Blumenthal at Home - the kind of book that every cook seems required to do these days, like the winner of The Voice will have to spend time in a mall. I tend not to get much out of this genre, but this book is pretty good. He weaves some kitchen trickery into the recipes, although nothing like the Fat Duck book. It's all do-able and gets you thinking about different ways of coming at home favourites. Blumenthal's belly recipe has no sugar and a fairly strong brine so needs a soaking afterwards to tone down the salt. The belly is also braised rather than baked, with the braising liquid then reduced to a sauce. I've played around with it a bit, but the idea remains true. And it makes a particularly fine pork belly.
HESTON'S PORK BELLY
1.5kg pork belly, skin removed (get the butcher to do this), as lean as possible
1 quantity brine (see below)
1kg chicken wings, chopped and roasted to a nice colour
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots diced
1 leek chopped
1 cup dry white wine
olive oil, salt and pepper
Submerge the pork in brine and chill for 24 hours, remove and soak in a few changes of clean water.
Cook the vegetables in oil until caramelised, deglaze with wine, reduce a little and place in the bottom of a baking pan that the belly will snugly fit. Add the chicken wings, lay the brined belly on top and cover with water. Cover and bake at 70C for 18 hours.
Remove and at this point you can chill the belly until needed. Strain and defat the stock. Keep 200ml and reduce the rest to a thickish sauce, season.
If using the skin as crackling - and you've come this far so what the hey - cover its scored surface with salt for a day or two if possible. Wash off and cook covered in duck fat for five hours, remove and cut into serving pieces. Chill. To cook have the oven set to flat our and bake until crispy, it should puff up and be extremely satisfying. The crackling is a little input from Fergus Henderson.
To serve, while the sauce is warming, lay the belly section cut for service in a deep pan and enough reserved stock to almost cover keeping the top, as in the bit that would have had skin on, dry. Use extra water if needed. Heat through on a very gentle heat. Remove and heat an oiled pan to smoking, and put in the belly, dry side down, to caramelise. Serve with the sauce, crackling and mash.
1 star anise
15 coriander seeds
12 black peppercorns
zest of an orange and a lemon
2 sprigs rosemary
½ bunch thyme
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic
1 litre water
Dry roast the coriander and anise, and once fragrant grind with pepper and juniper. Add everything else beside salt and water and tie up in some muslin. Bring half the water to a simmer and add the bag of spices. Turn off the heat and let it steep for 20 minutes. Add the rest of the water and cool completely.
Bryan Martin is a winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, www.bryanmartin.com.au