True porchetta may just be the holy grail of all pork-loving foodies (a term which is probably redundant), and for years, I’ve dreamed of making it at home. Traditionally, porchetta refers to a gutted and boned whole pig that’s boldly seasoned with wild fennel, herbs and garlic, tied up, and spit-roasted over an open fire. In Italy, porchetta is festival food, but you can also find porchetta sandwiches (slices of this insanely delicious pork tucked into crusty rolls) sold by street vendors and market stalls.
Here, the best porchetta I’ve ever tasted comes from Sara Jenkins’s amazing New York City restaurant/lunch counter called, quite appropriately, Porchettta. Up until my pilgrimage to Porchetta last fall, I had always imagined the homemade porchetta of my dreams would involve a whole pig and an outdoor fire, but that’s not the way Jenkins does it. Waiting in line for my sandwich at this always-busy little place, I watched the woman behind the counter slice meat from a single roast, not a whole pig. But it was a pork roast like none I’d ever seen. There was a large eye of juicy meat in the center, surrounded by layers of melting fat, and all encased in a crackling skin. Brilliant!
Back at home, I researched and found a New York magazine article explaining the method. “She [Jenkins] uses boned-out pork loins from contented, free-rooting Hampshire hogs, wraps them in pork bellies, and seasons them with a heady paste of wild-fennel pollen, thyme, sage, rosemary, garlic, and an aggressive dose of salt and pepper. These substantial specimens are tied up with string and oven-roasted until the meat is remarkably tender and the skin has turned to something like the color and consistency of a delicate peanut brittle.” I also found a similar recipe in Bruce Aidells’s wonderful Complete Book of Pork (he calls his David’s Porchetta: Belly-Wrapped Pork Loin).
For my porchetta, I decided I didn’t want to buy a separate belly and pork loin, but I wanted to use a loin that was butchered in such a way that the belly flap remained in tact. Without going into a full exposition on pork butchery here, picture that the loin comes from the back of the piggy – it’s that big thick muscle running along either side of the spine – and the belly comes from the other side. So if the butcher bones out the loin without separating the belly flap from the back top loin, you’ll have a pork loin with a long flap of streaky belly (fresh bacon) that you can warp around. (I’ve heard that the British refer to this cut as a “long middle”, which makes certain sense as it comes from the middle of the pig, and, well, it’s long.)
Chances are you won’t find this cut of pork at a standard supermarket. I’m lucky enough to know Cole Ward, the butcher at Sweet Clover Market in Essex, Vermont. I explained to Cole what I was looking for, and just like that, he cut it for me (from a pig raised on North Hollow Farm in Rochester, Vermont). Two days before roasting, I unrolled the roast, rubbed it with ground fennel seed, garlic, rosemary, sage, and plenty of salt and pepper, and rolled it back up. To roast, I cranked the oven up to 475 for the first 25 minutes to get the skin crackling, and then turned it down to 325 so the meat would gently cook, bathed in all that luscious fat, for a full 3 hours. Then, as the meat rested (that’s what it’s doing in the photo), I tossed some potatoes in the all the glorious drippings and returned them to the oven to roast up.
In the end, my porchetta was everything I’d ever dreamed it would be – and best of all, it won’t be a once in a lifetime experience. I will be making this again – and when I do, I’ll write up a recipe for it. I promise.