Somerset, the county next door (or up North as we say down here in South Devon) is well known for producing excellent cider which is so good it has spawned its own genre of music, Scrumpy and Western, wherein bands sing odes to their favourite drink. Although there are not as many as there once were, apple orchards are a common sight and in a fair few of those you’ll spot pigs merrily roaming under the trees munching up the long grass. Those happy orchard pigs make for super-tasty pork as they fatten up on sweet apples. So it’s no wonder that Somerset is home to many a good recipe combining pork and apples.
Not quite as local to me is the hotpot, a hearty lamb stew from even further up North that is topped with sliced potatoes and baked in the oven for most of the day. If you combine the two you get what I like to call Somerset hotpot. This hotpot keeps the sliced potatoes – which are crispy and brown on top but underneath turn soft and buttery where they sits on the stew – and swaps the lamb for pork, smoky bacon and apples braised in cider. Proper, strongly smoked bacon combined with apples fills your kitchen with an amazing aroma that is reminiscent of a country pub – a wood fire cracking, pint of cider, leave your muddy boots by the door kind of place. Autumn in a pot. Just want you want to come home to after an afternoon jumping in piles of leaves.
This hotpot uses pork cheeks which I’m particularly fond of using in stews, they are the ideal cut for this kind of dish. Marbled with thin ribbons of fat they are intensely flavoured, surprisingly lean and require a long braise to become tender. They also happen to be an economical ingredient; the increase in their popularity has resulted in their being more readily available and marginally pricier. The free-range pork cheeks in this stew feeding four people cost just £2, and with prices like that, this is a great meal to serve a crowd.
- 50g butter
- 600g pork cheeks (about 6)
- 50g flour + 2 tbsp
- 100g smoked bacon cut into small pieces
- 1 large onion
- 300ml cider
- 2 tbsp grainy mustard
- 2 large sprigs of fresh thyme (1 tsp dried)
- 2 apples, cored and quartered
- 600g potatoes (2 large)
Preheat oven to 160°C.
Put half the butter in a heavy casserole dish and heat on a medium-hot hob. Dust the pork cheeks with 50g flour and fry in batches until golden. Set aside.
Fry the bacon and, once it starts to brown, add the onions. Reduce the heat and cover. Cook the onions gently until soft and brown. Stir in the 2 tbsp flour and cook for a further 2 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with the cider then add the mustard, pork, thyme and apples. Season with salt and pepper.
Thinly slice the potatoes (no need to peel) and layer over the pork stew, dot with the remaining butter, cover and bake in the oven for 2 hours.
Remove the lid and continue to bake for another half hour until the potatoes are golden brown.