Saturday, April 09, 2011

Making Pork Pies In Costa Del Cambodia

It all started in a drunken conversation in a bar in Sihanoukville, when I met this retired financier from New Zealand, who part owns a restaurant on the corner, and he convinced me that the next big thing in Cambodia would be the pork pie. He said expats and tourists were crying out for them, but he couldn’t get them anywhere, and he’d had no luck making them.

“It’s the pastry! I can’t do the pastry,” Josh said, rocking from side to side with a cigarette in his mouth. “I can do everything else. I’ve got this delicious jelly I’ve made in the freezer. Wonderful!” He smacked his lips. “There’s a mincer in the kitchen, but the pastry, no. I can’t make the pastry...”

We sat around for a few hours discussing the merits of pork pies and I thought that was pretty much the end of the matter. Then I saw him in the same bar the next night and he started going on about pork pies again. I may have mentioned that I’d worked as a chef. I may even have boasted a bit about my pie-making skills. But at some point, I must have agreed to help him. Josh introduced me to his business partner Tom, an English gent who’d retired to the tropics after he got tired of show jumping.

“So you’re the pork pie expert?” he said, shaking my hand.

I knew I was in trouble.

“I have to tell you, I’m quite a lover of pork pies,” he added.

There was only one thing for it. I’d go back to my windswept, Wild West-style guesthouse, and do some pork pie research on the internet and then practise the pastry in their kitchen until I perfected it.

I told Josh we’d need some lard. Luckily, he said you couldn’t get it anywhere in Cambodia.

“Butter no problem. But lard? No. No lard. Forget it.”

I got some recipes and tips from some helpful food writers, bakers, and chefs on Twitter - thanks particularly to @dan_lepard and @meemalee and @AoaFoodie and those purveyors of very fine pork pies @Brays_Cottage - and spent the next night making notes as I read everything I could on pork pies.

Some hot water crust pastry recipes use butter and even eggs as well as lard, but they all use lard to some extent. The only one I could find that used butter and no lard was Rick Stein’s pork pie recipe. But I was dubious about that. I knew what he’d done to the Cornish pasty, and how he’d upset the locals by using the ‘wrong’ pastry.

I was convinced Tom – who clearly was the senior partner in the business (and what’s that? Was I beginning to detect the notes of a long-faint Leicestershire accent?) – would be a stickler for a traditional pie crust. Stein’s version also used anchovy essence in the filling, like Jane Grigson’s famous recipe, and I had doubts about what Tom would think of that, even if it was said to be a traditional Melton Mowbray ingredient.

I told them it was impossible without the lard.

Then Josh had an idea. He could scoop off the fat that collected when he boiled down “bags of beef” for his dogs. I wasn’t keen. I didn’t like the sound of bags of beef in Cambodia, especially meat set aside for dogs. There were far too many people disappearing in the town.

I pompously told him the pork pie was all about a celebration of the pig, and involved pork done three ways - baking the fat-laden pastry, boiling the pork stock, and steaming the peppery filling.

I waffled on about how the filling – flavoured with salt, pepper, thyme, sage, nutmeg, and perhaps mace or allspice but probably no anchovy - is a tribute to cured and uncured pork, and its fattiness and texture, from the knife-chopped pork shoulder, to the coarsely minced pork belly, to the finely minced back bacon.

The succulent jelly (or gravy, as it is called in some areas) – with carrot, onion, bay leaf, thyme, pepper, and sea salt – is a nod to the satisfying gloop that pork bones and trotters bring to a stock. And the pastry is a celebration of how pig fat can produce rich, crisp, and yet moist pie crusts. In essence, I politely told him that the fat he’d get from his dodgy beef would be no good, and that we needed pig fat.

“Oh, pig fat! You didn’t say it had to be from pigs! Pig fat, no problem. Lard, no. Pig fat yes! We can get shit loads of pig fat. Leave that to me.”

By now, he’d shown me round his kitchen (above) and I was quickly going off the idea. It was tiny. It made the Fat Duck’s kitchen look like a cricket pitch. And the heat! It was 37C in the shade, but with no extraction unit and the oven on making pizzas, it was like an inferno in there.

There was a fan in the corner, but if you turned it on, it blew out the gas rings. But worst of all, there were two Cambodian cooks sharing a surface space (the most crucial dimension in any kitchen if you want to retain at least some sanity) scarcely more than 3ft wide. There was no room to roll out the pizzas they were making, let alone pie pastry as well. And the Cambodian oven! It definitely wasn’t the sort of kitchen to launch a pork pie empire.

There were a few more colourful characters sitting round the bar the next night. They’d all heard about the pork pie business. I was surprised how fast gossip travels in expat circles – it’s even faster than kitchens.

One of them, a retired boxer from Manchester, said he was hooked on TV cookery programmes. Then the rest were at it. They were all experts, and started swapping recipe tips and talking about the food they missed from home, and what celebrity chefs they did and didn’t like.

“I loved Keith Floyd!” mused the barman, wrinkling his Keith Richards face.

“Yeah he’s fucking ace,” said the boxer. “He’s one of the top, top chefs. Haven’t seen much of him on telly like...what’s he doing now?”

“He’s dead,” I said, holding up a sang som in Floyd’s memory. “He passed away almost two years ago.”

“No! Get on! Really?” said the boxer. “That’s the thing, you miss out on all that living out here...”

Josh turned up. He still hadn’t been able to get his hands on pig fat, much to my relief. I talked about how we could buy a whole pig from the market and render it down, and I could see he was going off the idea. Then I asked if you could get mace here.

“Mace, no. Nutmeg, yes. We can get shit loads of nutmeg, as much nutmeg as you fucking want, but no mace. No way! Why, do we need it?”

I told him the best pork pies had mace in them, and that we might as well do it properly.

“Well, you’ll have to get on with it! I’m going home in nine days,” said an old Aussie. “Why don’t you make a curry tomorrow night instead?”

It was brilliant. Everyone was in agreement. Curry! What could be even more British than a good old pork pie than curry! The fear and nerves vanished. A curry! If there was one thing I could make it was curry. I’d eaten at the only Indian restaurant in our side of town, and it’d been awful. I could corner the curry market. Become Mr Curry of Sihanoukville (small acorns). I had no qualms about curry – even in Josh’s tiny kitchen. Then it turned out the boxer was an expert on curries too.

“I haven’t had a good curry for years,” he said. “I lived on the Curry Mile in the Wilmslow Road, the best fucking curries in the world, man...”

Then they were all discussing good curries they'd had, and the nerves started to test again.

“Hey chef, what meat makes the best curry?” the boxer shouted over at me.

“That’s it! Fucking lamb,” he replied, smacking the back of his hand. “It’s alright, he does know his stuff...”

Josh said lamb was hideously expensive in Cambodia. He’d bought a 4kg leg for this weekend’s Sunday roast for $54 (£35). I told him I could get a massaged leg from Fortnum & Mason for that, and he pointed out that Fortnum & Mason wasn't round the corner. He said the cheapest meats were pork and chicken, so I decided on my trusty old, tried-and-tested chicken Madras-style curry recipe.

“Yeah, but what about spices? What about all your cardamoms and that?” said the boxer.

“There’s an Indian restaurant round the corner!” I said slightly irritably.

“Yeah, but your fenugreeks and curry'll want them...I don’t know, you’re not in the right country for it...”

I became more drunk as the night wore on, and at some point told them I was going to make “the best bloody curry they’d ever had”. It was a bold statement. Very bold. They looked the sort that got Christmas cards from their local Indian take-away.

I walked back to my guesthouse in the small hours, hoping I’d remember to turn my alarm on and be round at the restaurant at 8.30am to be down the market for nine.