The largely unknown city of Compiegne, France, has the distinction of being the site of one of Louis XV’s most extravagant homes away from home. Under him, the Chateau de Compiegne became one of three distinctly opulent seats of government alongside Versailles and Fontainbleau. The latter French monarchs were hardly known for their desire to live simply as visitors to either of those other palaces can attest, and Compiegne is no exception, taking more than 35 years to complete with Louis constantly tinkering at the design to aggrandize it to his tastes. When finished it made the perfect departure point for forays into the nearby Forest of Compiegne, ancestral hunting grounds of French royalty, for some bracing sport. However, Louis was not into taking chances on returning with his game bag empty, and it is said that the forest was so well-stocked that a blind marksman could still expect to feast on wild meats.
Of course, it’s well-known that the rest of the French population were not eating in quite such grand style at that time, and it wasn’t until after the revolution and the rise of the bourgeois class that the French institution with which many of us are most familiar came into being, namely, the restaurant. Happily for us, upon visiting Compiegne in early 2010, we found that these days the city is much more egalitarian in its approach and makes abundant gastronomic accommodation for a range of economic classes. Indeed, the night we arrived, we dined somewhat opulently on escargot ravioli and kir royal before joining the sans culottes at the other end of the social spectrum the following evening with a carafe of vin ordinaire to wash down a marvelously flavorful jarret de porc, poached pig’s hock, a humble dish that was almost certainly never prepared for residents of the Chateau. Served with some whipped potatoes together with its poaching broth that would have been almost as good without the hock itself, le jarret was juicy, incredibly rich and porky, and meltingly tender.
The porcine counterpart to the famed veal osso buco of Milan, the hock is the lower portion of the animal’s shin bone ending just above the trotter, and is consequently tough and full of connective tissues. As with all such parts of the beast, slow cooking is necessary to get the best out of it, and in the case of the hock, poaching tenderizes it perfectly, but ignores the magic of the skin and underlying fat, comparable with the cheeks in terms of porky flavor. To solve this problem, and improve upon the jarret of Compiegne, we roasted it in a hot oven that performed three special functions: 1) it rendered out some of the fat, 2) crisped the skin into some amazing crackling, and 3) transformed the connective tissue into sticky, almost sweet, gelatin. We then deglazed the roasting pan with some of the strained poaching liquid and reduced the mixture into an almost clear gravy, that combined with a squeeze or two of lemon juice to cut the richness, came together on its own with the pig gelatin.
Unfortunately, and this is why we took until the start of fall 2011 to make this dish, unsmoked pork hocks are rather difficult hard to obtain in America even from reputable butchers where their smoked counterparts are ever present, and it was only last week that we managed to get our hands on some, in, of all places, a regular suburban supermarket. Our freezer is now half-filled with pork hocks which will be dropped into Sunday gravy in the near future, and may well also feature in a special attempt at home-making aspic jelly should we run out of inspiration or suffer from pork overload in the interim. We would encourage you to seek out this humble cut of meat too, you won’t be dining royally but it might help you feel wealthy when you check your bank balance.
Jarret de Porc Poelee et Roti (Poached then Roasted Pork Hock) with Roasted Garlic Parsley Potatoes
- 2 large unsmoked pork hocks, around 1.5lbs/0.75 kilo total
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 1 head garlic, unpeeled, halved
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon + extra for seasoning potatoes kosher salt
- 2 quarts/ 2 liters cold water
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 2lbs / 1 kilo floury potatoes (Idaho/Maris Piper type)
- 1/2 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley
- 1/4 cup milk
- 3oz/3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- In a deep pot, bring water to the boil and season with 1 teaspoon salt, peppercorns, onion, half head of garlic and bay leaves.
- Insert pork hocks, bring back to a boil, and reduce to a simmer for 1 hour.
- After around 45 minutes, pre-heat oven to 400F/200C.
- After 1 hour, remove pork hocks from liquid and place on an oven safe ceramic pot with a lid. Do not discard poaching liquid.
- Place hocks in oven and roast, covered, for 30 minutes, before removing lid, turning hocks over, and returning to oven uncovered.
- At the same time, wrap other garlic half in foil and place in oven.
- Strain poaching liquid, draw off around a pint/2 cups/0.5 liter, and discard the rest. In a large saucepan, reduce poaching liquid by around two thirds.
- At the same time, boil potatoes until fork tender.
- When hocks are ready to come out of the oven (40 minutes from lid removal, 1hr 10mins total) also remove garlic in foil. Take hocks out of roasting pot and reserve on a plate to rest, pour off excess fat from roasting pot.
- Then putting roasting pot onto a medium burner briefly, deglaze it with some of the reduced poaching liquid before pouring this back into the rest of the reduced poaching liquid.
- Reduce this liquid by a half again and stir in lemon juice. Taste for seasoning and correct accordingly.
- In a blender of food processor, combine parsley with roasted garlic (squeezed out of skins, skins discarded.) with 1 tablespoon butter.
- Mash potatoes, add milk, remaining butter and parsley-roasted garlic butter mixture and combine until potatoes are bright green. Taste and correct seasoning.
- Plate hock with potatoes and gravy and feel rich with a good bottle of Pinot Noir or Burgundian gamay.