The pig gets a bad press, doesn’t it?
It’s shorthand for personal slovenliness, for indiscriminate gluttony. Its flesh is denied to hundreds of millions by religious prohibition. They don’t even escape in literature. From Homer to Orwell, they are despotic political manipulators or brutish victims, the result of Circe’s enchantments and a vivid symbol of the descent from full humanity. Even the Gospels have it in for pigs. I mean, those Gadarene swine weren’t hurting anyone, right?
And yet. For the card-carrying carnivore? Such flesh. Take your pick from bacon to hams and tenderloin through to crackling scorched and bubbled yet melting. Chorizo. Lomo. Ribs and chops. Indonesian stews rich with kecap manis and spiked with red chilli. Sausages basking in thick onion gravy. And that’s just (pork) scratching the surface of its wonderful utility and versatility.
Speaking of which…
I’ve eaten (more than) my fair share of Hang Fire Smokehouse BBQ over the last year, whether at The Canadian, Porter’s or The Lansdowne.
I’ve taken friends and family there and have recommended it to anyone who will listen (and some who won’t). I’ve had half chickens and chicken wings, pork and beef ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and of course the legendary (in this house, anyway) El Cubano. I’ve had corn on the cob, seasoned fries, coleslaw. Barbecue beans and burnt ends. I have praised them on this blog (here, here and here for example). I yield to no-one in my admiration for what they do, and- let’s not beat around the whatnot- my sheer enthusiasm for what their project represents.
The genesis of Hang Fire Smokehouse is well known: two people who gave ‘it’ all up in London to travel and indulge their passion for food, a passion which resulted in Friday and Saturday nights at The Canadian, whose roaring success spun off into other collaborations and ultimately a move to The Lansdowne, where people queue for ‘cue. You could make a fair shout of arguing that Hang Fire is ‘the’ story in the local food scene over the last year. The word of mouth recommendations were legion (and Twitter, and local bloggers have been crucial to that) but once you found your way there, you were hooked.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Judging the outcome before describing the journey, if you like.
A terrible case of premature adjudication. This isn’t another review of the food, as such. I’ve blathered on about that enough previously.
This was me being nosy. I wanted to have some kind of insight, however brief, into the whole ‘pit to plate’ process. Their new ‘home’ in Llantwit Major is now Hang Fire central. They have taken over a tiny butcher’s shop in the village (dating back to the C19th, to a time when porcelain bricks preceded tiling), thereby keeping up a long tradition of ‘purveyors of local meats’ serving their community from that very spot. Withnail’s Uncle Monty may have famously wept in butchers’ shops: I reckon he would have approved of this one.
(This will also be the place where you can buy their smoked meats and other temptations from this summer, but more on that later).
Before the smoking, the rubbing.
And before the rubbing, the oiling. Vegetable oil to be exact, before the dry rub ingredients are shaken liberally over. This is a dry rub*, not a marinade: the aim is to keep the ingredients on the surface and let the smoker do its gradual work, rather than having them penetrate any folds or crevices in the meat. The cut of choice is shoulder, boneless and cut from the neck end (also known as ‘Boston Butt’).
I love the ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-tin’ candour of ‘Pig Rub #1’ and its companions…
I couldn’t resist having a go.
Gloves and oil, Hang Fire Smokehouse. Apron and forearms, model’s own.
…and into the fridge bag.
The cabinet (‘pit’) burns a hickory and applewood or cherrywood mixture, depending on need, and is the solitary cooking method used here. Every meat item on the menu, then, is the result of this ‘low and slow’ process. Nothing happens very quickly in the Hang Fire world, but it is clear it all happens for a reason.Typically, a pork shoulder would smoke for around 18 hours, at 225 degrees Farenheit.
An adroit slice of Blue Peteresque ‘here’s one we made earlier’ gave us the chance to jump straight into the next part: the part when I got to eat stuff.
As the pork exited the smoker, the change from the joint I had just worked with was sublime. The shrinkage was remarkable- Sam estimated a conservative 40%- but it was the blackened, ossified-looking appearance that most surprised me. Put another way: if your Sunday roast emerged looking like this, you’d be rummaging for takeout menus.
Sam’s reassuring verdict was, “It’s supposed to come out looking like a meteorite.”
That outer layer of smoked pork is called ‘bark’ and it’s aptly named. That application of rub creates texture and flavour and tenderness beneath as the smoke permeates. Time to pull…
Unsurprisingly, the joint fell apart with the slightest encouragement. I had seen footage of pork-pickers using metal claws businesslike enough to give Wolverine a bad case of talon envy (Google ‘Pulled pork claws’ and see what I mean…) but things happen differently here.
For starters, all pulling is done by hand. Every piece is separated from its neighbour and inspected for anything that shouldn’t be there. By which they mean any surplus trace of fat or connective tissue (the stuff I’d quite happily eat anyway) is summarily jettisoned. There is no discussion or negotiation on this. Yes, it takes time. Yes, there are undoubtedly faster methods. No, they’re not going to use them here. Watching this painstaking process is one thing, to do it quite another. It is no exaggeration to report that every piece that is pulled is then inspected and only makes it into the tray when it contains prime meat and prime meat only.
On reflection, it all makes stout good sense. If you are going to go to the trouble of ensuring your meat is free-range, and of sourcing everything you cook from within a maximum of a twenty-mile radius (and that’s a maximum- much of the meat comes from even closer to where it is so carefully treated); and if you are then going to spend longer than most of us are awake, to get it to the point you are happy with it,then it stands to reason you will do all you can to ensure your customers get only what they need and want.
I don’t know about you, but the fact that Sam and Shauna applied this much scrutiny and quality control to what made its name as a pop-up in a backstreet pub in one of Cardiff’s less salubrious areas, speaks eloquent volumes for their love of, and sheer commitment to, the Hang Fire way of feeding people.
(Rocking the Dr Tobias Funke look…)
Quick science-y bit: smoke rings. Pay attention at the back there.
That pink discolouration of meat just under the surface ‘bark’ can be just a thin line of pink or a rather thicker layer. Barbecue lore favours a smoke ring of around 5mm thickness. It’s caused by nitric acid building up in the surface of meat as it absorbed from the surface. This nitric acid is formed when nitrogen dioxide from wood combustion in smoke mixes with the water content in the meat.
In other words, it is basically visual evidence of the chemical reaction between the smoke and the meat.
When the shoulder has been scrupulously separated, a little of the collected smoking juices is added. (I am told the fat that accumulates during the ‘low and slow’ is a remarkable ingredient in its own right.)
Guiltily, I was now realising just how long this mound of meat takes to perfect and produce… and how much of it is done in the most time-consuming way possible. For example: that process they go through with the pork shoulder above? That takes an average of over 10 minutes to sift through to their satisfaction. That’s for a 5kg ‘butt’ or shoulder. Multiply that by 20 for their average weekly output. Then factor in the brisket, the chicken, the ribs to feed 400 people a week (a threefold increase since moving to The Lansdowne) and you start to understand why this process takes up a seven-day week, and why the ladies haven’t had a day off in four months.
And you don’t do that without the ‘L’ word. Of course, all of this hands-on effort had to be topped off by actually eating the fruits of our labours. It would be rude not to, especially when washed down by a rather excellent IPA (Thwaites’ 21 Guns).
So, what did I learn?
Well, I now know what ‘meat stall’** is. But more importantly, I came away impressed with the obvious focus on care and perfectionism. Chiefly, that this food has an awful lot of time and effort invested in it. That there’s a borderline-obsessive focus on detail, on providing something they can be proud of, on getting it right every time. I hadn’t counted on it being such a time-consuming undertaking, either.
And you don’t do that without the ‘L’ word.
What next then? Well, plans are not fully finalised, but plans are afoot to open on the weekend (Sat/Sun) hopefully from July onwards. You’ll be able to purchase Hang Fire smoked meats, pre-packed and sold by weight, to heat at home, from their new home at 10 Church St,CF61 1SB. They will also have their sauces, rubs and cookwear for sale too so you can recreate the ‘Hang Fire’ experience yourselves. (I’m a South Carolina Mustard man myself- sweet heat all the way.)
Tomorrow (May 4th) sees the next instalment of their ongoing collaboration; ‘Blues, Booze & BBQ’ with The Full Moon. Later in July, a ticketed microbeer festival with Pipes of Pontcanna with some top talent performing, coupled with fantastic beer and of course their BBQ. For all news, I’d suggest keeping an eye on Hang Fire’s own site for opening date and times. Busy times ahead.
And now for one of those coincidences which I wouldn’t blame you for rolling your eyes at, at the seeming contrivance of it all, were it not that this one’s true. Even as I turned the key and pulled away, John Darnielle’s words (not for the first time) hit the sweet spot.
King Saul fell on his sword when it all went wrong,
and Joseph’s brothers sold him down the river for a song,
and Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm into his glove.
some things you do for money
and some you do for love love love.
And that’s pretty much all there is to say.
*The ladies were kind enough to not only give me one of their ‘Pig Rub’ recipes, but to give me permission to post it on the blog. Watch this space.
**The ‘meat stall’ is the point in the smoking process at which the collagen in the meat tissues begins to break down. How long this takes, is dependent on the individual piece of meat. The solution is to keep the heat consistent, and to persevere. This can be the bane of the novice smoker’s life, with the temptation to increase the heat to get the meat past that ‘tipping point’, but this is an error leading to overcaramelisation of the sugars in the rub and an unpleasant acridity. Consistency in the smoking environment is all.
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.