Fat lot of good

Even when I follow the experts' advice, I struggle to make good crackling

The best bit of roast pork is the crackling. That is what we fans of crackling say, although it cannot be quite true - pork without crackling would be preferable, surely, to crackling without pork. But it is certainly the treat that lifts the whole meal. My problem is that my success rate when cooking it is about 30 per cent.

The frustrating thing about a culinary shortcoming is that the advice of experts rarely cures it. You can follow their instructions devotedly, only to find that what produces perfect results for them will not work under your own, amateurish hands. So it is with me and rice; and so it is, more often than not, with me and crackling.

For example, Richard Ehrlich, author of the invaluable The Perfect . . . (Grub Street), says that you can get the crackling process started by holding the joint, skin-side down, in hot oil. That has never worked for me. I have tried, too, putting the joint under the grill before roasting it, also without success.

Do you need oil at all? Most writers say yes. A few believe it to be unnecessary: the layer of fat under the skin, they think, should perform the necessary crisping. To encourage it, you score the skin first - or, preferably, get the butcher to do it - with a Stanley knife. Some enthusiasts encourage the skin to contract by pouring boiling water over it. The risk in this procedure, I should imagine, is that you melt and disperse some of the fat, which you want to keep.

A mass-produced joint of pork, sweating under polythene, is never going to crackle. You want a free-range cut with a thick skin, and you have to get the skin dry. Keeping it in the fridge uncovered is a good idea, so long as it is well away from other foods. You can wrap it in a dishcloth, but not in clingfilm.

Some time before cooking, wipe the skin with a paper towel. Rub salt into it. After a while, beads of moisture will appear. Dry the skin again. Now, either rub a little oil on to it, and salt it again; or apply the salt alone. I am not sure which option to recommend. Most recently, I left out the oil, and - on this occasion - it worked.

If you have a small joint, you need to kick-start the crackling process. I put mine (650g) into a gas mark 8/230°C oven for half an hour, and then reduced the heat to 2/150°C for a further 45 minutes. Some writers tell you to turn up the setting at the end; but, though you can get away with a high temperature at the start of cooking, you risk drying out the meat if you give it a blasting now. Instead, take it from the oven, put it on a warm plate and remove the crackling. Lay the crackling back in the roasting tin in the oven and set to high again. You need to keep an eye on it. Meanwhile, the pork will benefit from a rest, perhaps covered in foil.

I can do all that and still produce inedible rubber. But perhaps you, following these recommendations, will fare better with them.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back

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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.