It’s “Christian Parra Boudin Noir with Soft Polenta & Girolles,” which was great, although I’m amazed to find, having poked around the interwebs, that the boudin noir comes in a can. Maybe that’s naïve of me:
One of the other guests was the photographer Brian Griffin. I didn’t know him at all but I’ve known his work since the 1970s. He’s probably best known for photographs like this:
Or possibly this:
Although personally I first became aware of him via a series of great, off-kilter photographs of British businessmen when he was a staff photographer for the magazine Management Today, pictures like this one:
He and I swapped books, and I’m sure I got a better deal than he did because I gave him a run of the mill paperback, whereas he gave me a big, high-production-values art photobook. Thanks Brian.
It’s titled The Black Kingdom – which is a reference to the Black Country where Griffin grew up – he was born in Birmingham. It is an extraordinary volume – I’ve never seen a book quite like it, which is obviously a good thing. It’s essentially a visual autobiography that includes some snapshots, some portraits, some staged tableaux, some diary-type written pieces.
Brian Griffin is not in any meaningful sense a "food photographer," but because food is inevitably part of his and everybody else’s past, there are some terrific and fascinating photographs in the book that feature food, like this picture of pigs’ trotters:
And this is “Black Pudding Embracing a White Pudding”:
But the one that really got to me was this, it’s captioned “Leaf Scratching or ‘Leaf Scratchun’ as they are known in the Black Country”:
If Proust had been born in Birmingham (like Brian) or in Sheffield (like me) this might have been his madeleine. I grew up eating these things and I haven’t had them, or even seen them, in decades. I knew them as “pork scraps” and there was a pork shop in Hillsborough just up the road from my grandma’s house where they sold them loose.
Even, perhaps especially, here in southern California where I now live, we’re very familiar with nose-to-tail pig products, mostly because of the Latino population here, so there’s plenty of pork rinds and cracklings and chicharones, and I always assumed these “pork scraps” of my youth were also a kind of pork skin. How wrong can you be?
Having discovered the term “leaf scratchings” I’ve been able to do a bit of research. Turns out they’re not skin at all, but a by-product from the lard making process. Leaf lard, we know, is a superior product, made from the "leaf tissue” around the kidneys. After the rendering has taken place, the lard is poured off and strained, and the “impurities,” the tissues and bits of meat, stay behind. This stuff is then compressed and possibly (it’s not absolutely clear from my researches) cooked some more, and the end product looks kind of like the pages of a book that have been stuck together and shredded in places. Once they’ve cooled down you peel off the layers and eat them. Some bits are very crisp, others quite soft and chewy, and some of them stick together in a hard bolus which I never found all that appetizing.
There’s some suggestion online that European food regulations prevented the sale of this stuff, although it's easy enough to find a butcher called Coopers of Darlaston that’s been selling them all this time: that’s their product above. In any case, post Brexit, I suppose European food regulations won’t be much of a problem in the near future. Maybe it’s time for a revival. I’ve certainly lived through far more unlikely food fads.