It’s a freezing cold winter’s day in Paris, 1973. Gégé’s decided to do a special hot, warming dish tonight! He eyes me warily: is this gonna shock me because I’m an “Anglo-Saxonne?” He half hopes it will, that’s only too horribly evident. “Pieds de porc aux lentilles, Catherine!”
Aw, gee, I’m not shocked.
The result, after long, slow cooking which certainly helps warm up the flat, is totally delicious: melting trotters, soft, earthy, incredibly flavoursome lentils. Ooh, yum!
The recipe takes a long time to cook, but it’s very easy. It’s a hearty dish, very suitable for a cold winter’s day, as we had it in Paris all those years ago. We had it without vegetables, but followed by a green salad. Salade de frisée is ideal.
Warning: if you manage to source trotters in Australia or New Zealand, make sure you clean them very carefully, snipping off any discoloured pieces or bits that look as if they’ve got some sort of dye on them. There may well be rust marks from the hooks used, too. Wash and dry them before using.
Gérard’s Pieds de porc aux lentilles
4 pig’s trotters; 2 cups large brown lentils;
1 onion; 4 garlic cloves;
small bunch dried thyme or 1 teaspoon thyme leaves;
3 tablespoons oil; salt and pepper
1. The lentils should be the large brown sort, of good quality (not the small greenish sort often sold in Australia as brown and which are very, very hard). Either soak them overnight in cold water or put them in a well-sized pot with a lid, cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil, turn off the heat and leave to soak for an hour with the lid on. Then drain well.
2. Wash and clean the trotters thoroughly.
3. Heat the oil in a deep saucepan and sauter the trotters, the onion, roughly chopped, and the garlic, chopped, until lightly coloured all over. Add the thyme and the drained lentils, pepper to taste, but NOT salt.
4. Cover with fresh water to about 2 cm above the level of the mixture, bring to the boil and simmer gently till the meat is almost falling off the bones and the lentils are soft. This takes at least 2 hours but may well take longer. Check the pot periodically and top up the water if needed. Lastly add salt to taste.
Serve as a main course, one trotter per person.
It could also be done in the slow cooker (crock-pot), in which case set it to LOW and cook it for at least 8 hours. If you leave it on for 10, it won’t suffer.
Back in the Antipodes I hardly saw trotters for the next forty-plus years. They’d gone off the menu of the English-speaking world. Even Jane Grigson in her English Food (Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1977; first published London, Macmillan, 1974) ignores them.
This is part of the odd twentieth-century Anglo-Saxon aversion to offal of all kinds (see also Offal? Awful: Lily-Livered). But before that all parts of the pig were eaten: people didn’t have hygienic supermarkets, and unless they were very rich they couldn’t afford to be choosy. And in Britain, certainly since the Norman conquest, the pig was a popular meat animal:
“Before 1066, beef, lamb, mutton and goat were among the meats most likely to be served in England, but a study of human and animal bones—as well as fat residue found on fragments of cooking pots—found that pork and possibly chicken became much more popular following the arrival of William the Conqueror.
“Experts believe the Normans passed on their love of pork to local people, and pigs and chickens began to be farmed much more intensively.”
(Steven Morris. “The 1066 diet: Normans passed on their love of pork, study suggests.” The Guardian, Mon. 6 Jul 2020)
For hundreds of years, all parts of the animal were consumed, as they still are in many parts of Europe to this day. There are plenty of modern French recipes online for pigs’ tails and pigs’ ears, as well as trotters. And the blood—you can see that the two women in the foreground of the picture above are bleeding a pig—is still used for boudin, black pudding.
Why did things change so radically in the British culinary tradition? I don’t know: I only know that they did. Perhaps it was the growth of the middle classes after the War, as many families gradually became more affluent and, looking back, the primness, prudishness and mealy-mouthedness of our working-class parents who were now aspiring to gentility trickled over into what we ate. Odd bits of the animal, which were traditionally cheap, were what poor people ate. If you were desperately genteel, like Mum, whose father was a carpenter and sawmiller on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island but whose mother was a prim little schoolmarm, at most you might very occasionally buy half a well-cleaned pig’s head to make a brawn. I can clearly remember her making it once, when we lived in Bayswater, Auckland: so in the 1950s.
But we never had trotters. Feet were beyond the Antipodean pale.
And they still are. In fact, in Australia apparently they no longer exist! And here’s the poster that proves it:
There are lots of recipes in French online, but very few from the British tradition. The BBC Food website notes: “The pig’s gelatinous feet are considered a treat by many. Slow cooking (simmering or roasting) them will result in tender, gelatinous morsels of meat. They're also the magic ingredient that, when cooked slowly in a stock, will guarantee a beautiful jelly for setting pies and terrines. Cheap as chips, many butchers will be only too happy to sell you this often underrated cut. Although they have enjoyed a slow revival in Britain, they’re still not as much of a mainstream cut as they are in some other cultures.” How true. They don’t give any recipes for trotters as such, only as secondary ingredients.
In the 19th century British cooks weren’t afraid of offal of all kinds. Here’s Mrs Beeton’s recipe for trotters (No. 832), which I can’t resist reproducing here because of its charming name. You may well find it revolting, true. Just think of the ingredients as meat.
INGREDIENTS.—A thin slice of bacon, 1 onion, 1 blade of mace, 6 peppercorns, 3 or 4 sprigs of thyme, 1 pint [600 ml] of gravy, pepper and salt to taste, thickening of butter and flour. [PLUS pig’s liver, heart, and trotters]
Mode.—Put the liver, heart, and pettitoes into a stewpan with the bacon, mace, peppercorns, thyme, onion, and gravy, and simmer these gently for 1/4 hour; then take out the heart and liver, and mince them very fine. Keep stewing the feet until quite tender, which will be in from 20 minutes to 1/2 hour, reckoning from the time that they boiled up first; then put back the minced liver, thicken the gravy with a little butter and flour, season with pepper and salt, and simmer over a gentle fire for 5 minutes, occasionally stirring the contents. Dish the mince, split the feet, and arrange them round alternately with sippets of toasted bread, and pour the gravy in the middle.
Time.—Altogether 40 minutes. Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons. Seasonable from September to March.
(Isabella Beeton. The Book of Household Management. [London], S.O. Beeton, 1861.)
When we’re thinking about typical foods that have gone out of style since the 19th century we do need to remember that Mrs Beeton, though she was writing for the genteel classes, most certainly didn’t produce her book of household management for the upper strata of society. She includes a lot of practical recipes, that she must have got off her own cook, that would be served up for everyday family meals, for the children, or even for the relatively small staff that a publisher’s home would have had. Many ingredients later shunned by the “nice” English-speaking world appear in her book.
For a look at food considered suited to the working classes, we can take a glance at A Plain Cookery Book For The Working Classes (New ed., London, Routledge, Warne and Routledge, 1852) by Charles Elmé Francatelli (1805-1876). Francatelli was a posh chef himself, his title page telling us that he’d been “chief cook to Her Majesty the Queen”, but nevertheless his recipes for working people are pretty down to earth and cheap. Thus he has both “Stewed Sheep’s Trotters” and “Pig’s Feet”, the latter very short, just: “These are to be well salted for about four days, and then boiled in plenty of water for about three hours; they may be eaten either hot or cold.” The other recipe puts trotters firmly in their sociological context: “Sheep's trotters are sold ready cleaned and very cheap at all tripe shops.”
I thought I might find more recipes in Escoffier, as pigs’ trotters have always been a favourite in France, but I was wrong, he only had two, both for grilling. I should have remembered that when Gégé served us his marvellous dish it struck me forcibly that what ordinary people eat in France is not yer cordon blue or anything like it!
Should you wish to serve trotters in your posh restaurant, it’s quite acceptable to grill them. You may have them without truffles, or with. (Cof.)
Here is M. Escoffier’s recipe for plain grilled trotters in an English translation from the first decade of the 20th century:
PIEDS DE PORC PANÉS
Sprinkle the pig’s trotters copiously with melted butter, and put them on the grill, which should be very hot.
Grill them very gently, turning them with care; and serve them plain, or with a tomato purée separately.
(Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935). A Guide to Modern Cookery. London, W. Heinemann, 1907)
This is still a popular method in France and there are lots of modern French recipes for it online. Here’s what your grilled trotter should look like:
The photo, taken in 2019, is from Brasserie Georges in Lyon (by Sebleouf - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0).
I was a bit doubtful about the grilling idea, because I’d only had trotters boiled slowly, and I thought they might not cook through that way, but my brother, who’s seen them done both ways in Europe, and has a scientific bent, assures me that the presence of the bones helps the cooking process, because bones absorb heat. (Trotters are full of little bones, the same as our own “pettitoes” are.)
Okay, if you’re starting to feel queasy stop now! For those who can face them, here are a couple of modern recipes for serving trotters as a main dish.
Many of the modern recipes in English are Chinese-inspired. The Chinese, like the French, are much more sensible than the British about different parts of the animal, and all parts of the pig are normal in their cuisine.
If you’ve heard of the River Cottage take on trotters, which is typical of the English-language offerings with a Chinese flavour, it’s available on the NightChild site: “River Cottage’s Chinese Style trotters”.
This New Zealand recipe belongs in the same category. It’s the only recipe I found mid-2020 on the Eat Well website for doing trotters as a hot meat dish. There were only 2 others for trotters, both versions of brawn. And as you can see, this one kind of ameliorates the “feet” idea by using hocks as well: they’re very meaty, whereas trotters are distinguished by their gelatinous quality.
Star anise will dominate a dish, so be a bit wary of the quantity used here:
Slow Cooked Pork Hock, Star Anise, Ginger and Green Chilli Sauce
For the pork hock:
2 pork hocks, fresh, large; 2 pig trotters;
3 cinnamon sticks; 6 star anise;
3 red chillies, whole, fresh, chopped in half’
5 cm fresh ginger, roughly sliced;
2/3 cup soy sauce; 1/4 cup soft brown sugar;
1/2 cup white vinegar; 1 Ltr water
For the green chilli sauce:
5 cm fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped;
1/4 cup white vinegar; 4 garlic cloves, peeled;
5 green chillies, cut in half, seeds removed;
1-1/2 tsp caster sugar
1. Heat oven to 200C.
2. Place the hocks and trotters into a deep roasting tray with sides. Scatter spices, chilli, ginger and garlic over the pork.
3. Add the remaining ingredients and cover dish with baking paper and then foil carefully sealing the sides.
4. Place into oven and roast for 45 minutes before reducing the temperature to 160C and continue to cook for another 1 ½ -2 hours or until the pork easily falls away from the bone.
5. Remove from oven, discard foil and paper. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving with the cooking liquor, steamed Asian greens, jasmine rice and green chilli sauce on the side.
6. To make the green chilli sauce, place ginger, garlic and chillies in a food processor and pulse until nearly smooth. Add vinegar and sugar and pulse briefly to combine. Refrigerate until ready to use. Best eaten on the day.
(By Bevan Smith, Bite, in Eat Well)
This last one is my translation of a very easy French recipe that I thought was a bit different from most of them. It also relies on long, slow cooking: about 4-1/2 hours in the oven. The author’s aim was to make the trotters melt-in-the-mouth. She used a heavy cast-iron casserole.
Pied de porc
“Recette de pied de porc à l’ancienne”
2 pigs’ trotters; 3 onions; 3 carrots;
6 small potatoes; 150 ml white wine;
1 teaspoon curry powder; salt and pepper
1. Peel the onions and cut them into eighths.
2. Peel and slice the carrots.
3. Scrub and rinse the potatoes (preferably firm-textured red ones).
4. Clean the trotters, washing in clean water.
5. Put the onions and carrots in the bottom of a heavy cast-iron casserole.
6. Lay the trotters on top of the vegetables.
7. Sprinkle with curry powder, salt & pepper.
8. Place the potatoes around and between the trotters.
9. Add the white wine. And put the lid on.
10. Bake in the oven at 150°C for 4 and a half hours.
11. Check that the trotters are cooked, and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
Recommended wines: Cabernet franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
It’s a lovely recipe, so why not give it a go if you’re lucky enough to locate some trotters? Forget the “feet” thing. Try them!