A to Z Recipes

Moonraker County
by Marion Watson

I am a Moonraker. What is that? Someone who comes from Wiltshire. Why Moonraker? Well the story goes that one night by the light of a full moon a group of smugglers were transporting some casks of French brandy when they heard the excise man approaching on his horse. They quickly hid the barrels in a pond and grasping some hay rakes conveniently found nearby they pretended to be raking at the reflection of the moon in the still water of the pond. When the excise man asked them what they thought they were doing they replied "We be tryin’ to rake in that thur cheese." The man told them what silly fools they were and rode on his way. As soon as he had gone they hauled in the brandy casks and continued with their nefarious business. So you see Wiltshire people are not as daft as we occasionally make out and we’re certainly not stupid when it comes to appreciating good food.

The county is sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of the Pig and certainly many of its culinary specialities are centred around pork, bacon and their by-products. Pig keeping is a tradition going back into the mists of time. Swindon, Wiltshire’s largest town industrial centre, which grew up with Brunel’s Great Western railway in the last century was, before that, a hilltop village, its name meaning ‘Swine Down’. As early as 1800 BC the Beaker People came from mainland Europe and settled on the chalky downland well above the forested valleys below. They brought their pigs with them and pigs have remained in Wiltshire to this day.

At one time every agricultural worker kept a pig who was cared for lovingly throughout the year being fed on garden produce and household scraps. After the harvest he would be turned loose to forage for acorns, fallen apples, roots and grain left in the fields. In some places certain householders are still entitled to ‘commoners’ rights’ which allow them to let their pigs wander freely to root out what they can find. Then at the beginning of winter when food sources became scarce the pig would be slaughtered. It would be a time of celebration with most of the meat being salted down for the winter. Other, more perishable parts would be given away to friends and neighbours or prepared in a variety of ways for immediate use. These parts, often known as offal, consist of the internal organs, entrails and bits which are trimmed off such as the trotters, head, tail and ears. One rather revolting job was the preparation of chitterlings, these are the small intestine which is turned inside-out, cleaned thoroughly, plaited and boiled, they can be eaten hot or cold. The lower part of the head, or cheek, was salted and made into Bath Chap. The rest of the head was cooked, then trimmed of all the meat which was chopped into small pieces and set in jelly from the cooking water to make brawn. The trotters were boiled and eaten cold, the liquor sets to jelly as it cools and is ideal for pouring into raised pork pies after they have been baked. The lard was rendered down and stored for future use Even the crispy bits left over from this process were not wasted and were sometimes put into tarts. The blood was used to make black puddings and some of the fat with a little meat and oatmeal to make white puddings. These can be boiled and browned in bacon fat. Other meat trimmings would be made into sausages and pies. Nothing was wasted. It was said that the only part of the pig which could not be eaten was his squeal.

Faggots are also made out of various types of offal including liver and lights (lungs) mixed with onions herbs and breadcrumbs. Now for overseas readers I had better explain about faggots, because I know it does not have the same meaning in all countries. Once when we were staying in a hotel in Pennsylvania we served at dinner by a charming, but rather effeminate, waiter. The next morning at breakfast a waitress was on duty. The menu contained an item called Pork Scrapple of which I had never heard so I asked for a description which the waitress obligingly gave me. Now I’ll try anything once so I ordered it. When she cleared the plates the waitress asked what I thought of it. "Very good", I replied, "in England we have something similar but we call it a faggot."

"Oh" said the waitress, "so you’ve met our waiter!"

The word faggot means a bundle and just as a collection of sticks was tied up with string so the contents of a faggot is wrapped in a piece of caul which is a see-through lacy, fatty membrane which surrounds the pig’s stomach and entrails. This keeps the ingredients together and the fat prevents it from drying out. They are packed together in a dish and baked until golden brown. Also known as Savoury Ducks, faggots can be eaten hot or cold and when served hot are traditionally accompanied by peas.

The hams and sides of bacon were salted away for the winter to be cooked as joints or sliced and fried. Wiltshire cure has molasses added to give a traditional sweet taste to hams. Sometimes beer or herbs and spices were added and saltpetre was, and still is, mixed with the salt to retain the pink colour of the meat. Salt has to be rubbed in on a regular basis and the brine formed has to be drained off. When the process was finished the sides and hams could be hung from the ceiling until required. For prolonged storage and additional flavour they could be smoked over an oak fire or hung in the chimney which gave a dark sheen to the joints. Bradenham Ham is made by a secret recipe using, among other things, molasses coriander and juniper berries being used in the cure and then the joint is left to mature for at least six months by which time it is black on the outside Sadly nowadays many commercial bacon producers use brine instead of dry salt for curing bacon which gives less flavour and causes an unpleasant white scum to appear as it cooks. However dry-salted bacon can be found if you look hard enough.

Very few people keep their own pig today but these traditional dishes are still to be found in butchers’ shops throughout the county. Of course many of them are to be had in other parts of the country but for a good selection Wiltshire takes some beating. There are some bacon factories in the county although sadly Harris’s of Calne no longer exists. This originated as a shop in the town where during the eighteenth century the owner bought up some of the Irish pigs being driven from Bristol to London.

Another wonderful Wiltshire dish, courtesy of the pig, is the Lardy Cake. It is very fattening but delicious and is made from white bread dough rolled and folded with lard, sugar and dried fruit. When baked the base is covered with a lovely sticky toffee mixture and the top is crisp and brown. It is best eaten warm on the day it is made.

Wiltshire Fairings are made from syrup sugar and butter flavoured with spices and when baked become a lacy disc rather like a flat brandy snap. They were originally sold at Mop or Hiring Fairs which were held twice a year and were the times when agricultural workers were engaged. They were important social occasions but now only exist as fun fairs in towns such as Marlborough and Salisbury.

So you see we Moonrakers don’t believe in wasting anything and we know how to make the best out of available foods. We may join the rest of the country in cheering on the two ginger Tamworth pigs, Butch and Sundance, when they escaped from the slaughterhouse in Malmesbury recently and wish them well, but we also know a good thing when we see one and all the good things a pig can provide.