We’re All Meatheads Now

Pork & Sons
By Stéphane Reynaud
Phaidon Press, 2007; $39.95

There has been a lardy avalanche of pig prose of late—celebrations of all the edible glories of pig: its snout, ears, and tail; its blood, belly, and liver; and I suppose, if you have to be boring, its plain old meat (I wrote about the phenomenon in Slate). New York magazine food critic Adam Platt has recently dubbed carniphilic chefs of the Mario Batali/David Chang/Paul Bertolli variety “meatheads,” and emphasized that it is pig they worship above all other animals. Add one more to that list: Stéphane Reynaud, chef-owner of Villa 9 Trois outside of Paris, is without a doubt a meathead of the highest order.

Padded and pink, his cookbook, Pork & Sons, looks like a girl’s baby album on the outside. Inside is a scrapbook of sorts, but a very different kind: It’s a loony and amusing and utterly French homage to the pig and its parts. Oh, and there are some recipes—I’ll get to them later, but first there is so much else going on.

Reynaud’s grandfather and uncle were butchers in the Ardèche region, and the book gets rolling with a semisociological tribute to the hale and hearty men who help off a pig on a bitter-cold winter morning. Interspersed with pictures of the event—the crackling fire, the barn, the blood sausage–making—photographer Marie-Pierre Morel takes rakish portraits of Eric the pig farmer swaddled in a woolly sweater, Aime the pig butcher, with rivulets of blood on his apron, and two old-timers, Pierre and Charlou, who come for the camaraderie. These guys are tough, professional, and proud of their work. The pigs themselves are kept from sight—out of respect, I suppose—we see an inset shot of two hooves bound to the slaughter bench; another shot of the bench post facto, with steam rising into the air; and a cow in the background, counting its blessings perhaps.

If there aren’t many photos of pigs, there are plenty of illustrations of them, by Jose Reis de Matos. His piggies look a good bit like Eloise (if Eloise were a pig), and they are dropped in throughout the whole book: on chapter dividers, in margins, even embroidered into some of the napkins in the photographs. The little porkers are the twisted heart of the book—the chapter on blood sausage shows a series of drawings of a pig jauntily crawling into its own sausage casing, and another chapter is littered with pictures of pigs schtupping. The book’s strange blend of photojournalism, gallows humor, and cutesiness might put some people off, but Pork & Sons is so much more dynamic than most cookbooks that I think there’s something to be said for being a little unhinged.

Added to this kooky mix are a whole bunch of pork recipes. There are plenty of pâtés, natch, but also more elegant fare. Reynaud specializes in groovy half-peasant recipes like pig ears stuffed with sweetbreads and foie gras, fresh ham steamed in hay, blood sausage roasted with a veritable still life of winter fruit, and pig liver parfait with muscatel. He throws in the necessary classics as well, jambon persillé, say, or his “super maxi royale” choucroute.

Don’t expect much, however, in terms of precision with the recipes. You should cook from them with a strong dose of your own judgment. Between Reynaud’s gestural writing style and the difference in size, for example, between an average French pig foot and an American one, you might find that some of the recipes seem a little out of whack. I made a rack of pork braised in hard cider with apples and onion, and ended up with a month’s worth of applesauce long after the meat was gone. The timing on the sauce was off, no doubt because of my outsized American apples, but in the end the recipe tasted just fine—a pinch of ground ginger and lots of butter took the dish beyond the standard pork chops and applesauce.

Ingredients for the recipes can be hard to track down, too, through no fault of Reynaud’s. Several dishes call for French sausages that need to be special ordered, and when I set out to make Bibi’s Head to Toe Terrine (essentially a head cheese) I drove first to the best Asian butcher in town, and then to the best Mexican one, in search of fresh pig ears; both told me to come back another day. I made up for it with a couple of extra snouts and tongues, and managed to make a very tasty terrine indeed, the meatiness made sweeter with the long-cooked essence of carrot, celery root, and fennel. Pork & Sons might not be a foundation book, but it’s got plenty of great ideas for how to use all those pig parts. And should you get bored waiting for your terrine to set, there’s always another naughty little picture to discover.

Blood Sausage, Apple, Potato, and Fennel Tart

{The book’s photo of this tart is amazing (the one shown is my tart). The dish is sort of a hyped-up Alsatian tart in concept. The blood sausage is black as night, the potatoes brownly blistered, the bacon glistening. I’ve never wanted to eat a picture more.}

Preparation time: 50 minutes {About right.}

Cooking time: 20 minutes {I needed five more minutes to brown everything up.}

Serves 6 {A hungry six.}

3 shallots, thinly sliced

4 tablespoons crème fraîche {I’d do more next time.}

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

4 waxy potatoes

2 eating apples

Generous 1/2 cup chopped smoked bacon

14 ounces blood sausage

12 ounces puff pastry dough, thawed if frozen

All-purpose flour, for dusting

1/4 fennel bulb, thinly sliced

1 bunch of arugula, optional, torn into pieces

Salt and pepper

1. Combine the shallots and crème fraîche in a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

2. Cook the potatoes in lightly salted boiling water for 15–20 minutes, until tender. Drain well, then cut into thin rounds. Preheat the broiler. {I didn’t score on my potatoes this time—they were a little bitter, not sweet and buttery as they should have been. Next time I’d be inclined to use a little less potato, but that might not be true if they were perfect potatoes.}

3. Peel, core, and slice the apples. Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet, add the apple slices, and cook until they are just beginning to color. {Single layer of apples only—you’ll probably need to do a couple of batches.}

4. Spread out the bacon on a cookie sheet and cook under the broiler, turning once, for 5–8 minutes, until tender. Meanwhile, remove the skin from the blood sausage and cut the sausage into thin slices.

5. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

6. Roll out the puff pastry dough on a lightly floured surface to a 10-inch round and place on a cookie sheet. Spread 2 tablespoons of the shallot cream evenly over the dough round. Sprinkle with the fennel and lardons {He means the bacon.}, then arrange alternate layers of blood sausage, potato, and apple slices on top. {Don’t forget to season with salt and pepper!} Cover with the remaining shallot cream. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. {Or until golden brown on the potatoes and the crust.}

7. Sprinkle the tart with the arugula, if using, drizzle with olive oil, and serve immediately.

{I love savory tarts, and I love blood sausage, but when I make this recipe again, I’d tweak it a bit. I just came back from Lyon where I had stellar French boudin noir, and I was sorry I couldn’t use it for this recipe. I had to go Spanish for my blood sausage this time—not quite ideal, as morcilla is a little drier than French-style boudin noir, and has a dose of smoked pimentón in it that was a little distracting here. Reynaud actually does provide a recipe to make your own boudin noir, but you’ll have to decide whether you’re ready to inflate the pig intestine with your mouth to check it for leaks like Aime the butcher does. Me, I think I’ll order from an online store. Maybe it was just my boudin, but I wanted this recipe to be juicier and lusher; next time I’d up the apples and the crème fraîche and either forgo or cut back on the potatoes. My enthusiasm for the general concept—the sheer exuberance of ingredients—is undeterred.}