There's something a bit disarming about cooking a whole animal. No doubt this (and of course the mess the feathers make) is why we buy our chickens plucked, drawn, trussed and upside down, about as far away from a farmyard hen as it's possible to get without chopping it up or going to KFC. Ditto other birds and, to a lesser extent perhaps, rabbits: nearly all go through some sort of transformation that (for both practical and cosmetic reasons) in some way removes them from the orignial beast. (Fish don't count, by the way: they're simply conveniently sized portions that happen to swim around a bit before you cook them.) But opt to cook a suckling pig, and there's no escaping the fact that a whole living being, from cute ears to curly tail, has been given up for your table. I think we paid it suitable respect.
Talking of suckling, the reason this all came about was largely due to the fact that we couldn't do the traditional pre-Christmas turkey among friends (just like the real thing but without the family arguments) because early December was dominated by babies. No less than three couples from amongst the usual suspects produced offspring within about a fortnight of each other. The first, Neil and Jaq, decided they'd do New Year's Eve party instead this year but needed a hand. Needless to say I didn't need asking twice.
The pig came from Sayell Foods, a Spanish food wholesalers just round the corner from the office. Howard had told me about this place but wasn't sure they did over the counter consumer sales. Turns out not only do they welcome such business, they do a cheeky line in fresh tapas and sandwiches for the Hoxton office population too. This is a place where they have fresh tortilla tasters to tempt you, and where they bring you a little cup of chicken soup while they're making your Serrano and manchego sandwich. Possibly the nicest people in the world. They even opened up for a day between Christmas and New Year for the benefit of people like me who couldn't work out how to store their exotic purchases.
Two days after it was delivered, the pig fully defrosted and unwrapped so the skin could dry out, it was time to start worrying about how we were going to cook it. It was bigger than any they showed me in the shop (though no more expensive: £50 for a 10kg pig) and was clearly not going to fit sitting up on its haunches as they serve it in restaurants like St John. No matter, trying not to think about how much it felt like handling a family dog, a little trial and error confirmed it would fit nicely, if a little snugly, curled round on and lying on its side in a large roasting tin. This would work well with the recipe I'd dreamt up after my first fact finding trip to the Sayells, so we were well set.
New Year's Eve itself was a very long day. Arriving in Notting Hill around lunchtime, complete with small pig and cheesy record collection, we were straight off to the fishmongers to pick up three fresh lobsters and as many fish heads and bones as they could spare us. There then followed a complex but ultimately rewarding series of stages in which the lobsters were poached and stripped of their meat; the fish heads were cooked off and used to turn the lobster liquor into a powerful fish stock; the shells were messily broken up with a hammer before being fried off with veg and saffron, flambeed, deglazed with wine, flavoured and coloured with tomato before finally releasing their full flavour into the fish stock (about two litres) and about half as much again of fresh veal stock. After straining carefully and enriching with a good glug of double cream, the result was a mild but long and velvety bisque poured over the reserved lobster meat and sprinkled with a little cayenne pepper. People said very nice things. (They had also enjoyed the preceding thrifty amuse of leftover ham and fried quails eggs Neil had served up beforehand.)
Meanwhile the pig was quietly cooking away in the oven. We'd rested it on a bed of Roscoff onions (which are supposed to hold their shape and flavour over slow cooking) and fresh fennel, and a pint or two of water to keep things juicy. Inside the cavity was an improvised stuffing of softened onions, dried apricots and prunes, bread crumbs, plenty of parsley and thyme and an egg or two. We gave the pig a bit of a blast to get him going (I'm guessing the gender based on a couple of curious bulges towards the rear of the cavity) and then another three hours or so at a more moderate heat, basting every so often if we remembered. It was pure guesswork to be honest but it worked a treat. Turns out in our midst we had an expert carver who carefully removed the bronze skin from the top (we were serving crackling from a fatter adult pig as a separate side dish) and dissected the rest with a precision that spoke of far too many games of Operation. Or possibly Jenga. Also on the heaving table, black pudding with caramelised apple (in case we hadn't had enough pig products), buttered leeks, roasties, peas and some apple sauce. Gravy came more or less straight from the roasting tin, enlivened with some redcurrant jelly and a generous slug of some of the fine Chateauneuf du Pape we were about to enjoy so much. Everything came together really well and the suckling pig was sublime: juicy and delicate and simply falling off the bones. In short, we did ourselves proud.
All that remained was a fabulously light bread and butter pudding Jaq had somehow knocked up during the afternoon, and some slightly unnecessary cheese. By now it was midnight and were sipping champers and watching Ken's impressive fireworks. We probably sang happy birthday to Neil. The gramophone was cranked up for an 80s set that veered from the nostalgic to the downright tragic. More wine was drunk. The rest, as they say, is mystery.
Happy New Year!