The queue outside the butcher’s in Sansepolcro never seems longer than when he has a simple sign in the window: Porchetta oggi! Roast pork today! For Italians porchetta means party. In Tuscany at least, a village fête, market, or other festive gathering is incomplete without the porchetta van. These catering trucks have whole spit-roast pigs, completely deboned and stuffed with a mixture of herbs and spices to drive you wild. Fennel seeds, black pepper, rosemary, sage, and plenty of garlic are involved as well as peperoncino, dried chili flakes to add a little hot surprise.
The trucks will slice the porchetta and put it in a bread roll as traditional street-food; the butchers will sell it hot or cold in slices thick or thin to be eaten in a panino, or as part of an antipasto. But it’s also wonderful homemade and thickly sliced as an alternative Sunday roast.
To make porchetta yourself, you’ll need to buy a piece of boned pork belly from your butcher. Check it when you get home, because there are often a couple of small pieces of bone or gristle lurking within it which you will have to remove. It’s worth buying the largest piece you can find, not only as it will go further—and the leftovers are amazing in a weekday lunchtime sandwich—but also as it will be easier to roll up.
Porchetta is in many ways a traditional Italian dish to cook: very easy to prepare but best cooked very slowly and gently while you do other things. Full instructions are in the recipe below but a word of warning. When you tie up the pork be careful as you can easily cut your little fingers with the string (I write from PAINFUL experience) so it could be a good idea to get someone to help you unless you are an expert.
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
a small bunch of rosemary
a small bunch of sage
4-6 cloves of garlic crushed
1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
1 1/2 tablespoons fleur de sel
1 1/2 kg (3 1/2 pound) piece of boned pork belly
- Toast the fennel seeds in a frying pan until they start to pop. Allow them to cool and then mix them with the peppercorns and smash roughly in a pestle and mortar.
- Chop the rosemary and sage finely and then mix together with the garlic and chili flakes. Add the fennel and peppercorns.
- Place the pork belly on the worktop, skin side down, red side up, and score the surface diagonally with a sharp knife. Repeat in the other direction so that the scoring forms diamond shapes.
- Sprinkle the salt liberally all over the surface. Then do the same with the herb mixture rubbing with your hands to try and get it right into the scoring.
- Roll the pork toward the centre so that the two edges meet and then tie tightly with butchers string at 2cm (1 inch) intervals. This will help you to portion the roast as well as help you to carve it.
- If you have time, wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap and leave in the fridge overnight. This step is optional but will really make a difference to the taste as the herbs and salt insinuate their way into the meat.
- Heat the oven to 150 °C (300 °F). Place the meat on a rack in a baking tray in the middle of the oven for 4 hours. After about two hours take it out and using a brush, paint the skin with the juices collected in the pan. Do this again every half an hour until ready.
- Remove from the oven, wrap in foil, and rest for 10 minutes before serving. You can serve the roast with or without the skin which will have become very crispy.